08 May 2006


I don't know if she was Tutsi or Hutu. Tutsi, I would guess, with hindsight. I didn't even know much about the Rwandan war when she first appeared at St John's Church in Southall. St Johns was not my local church but my mother's and I was there in my time as a single parent - Church first, then back to mum's for a Sunday roast - something I wouldn't and couldn't have fixed for my children on income support.

Her English was very limited and she seemed lonely, somehow even in a crowd she seemed to be on the edge of the group, and I liked her. She was graceful. I think she was staying with one of the missionary families.

In broken English, using facial expressions and hand signals, we spoke of nothings; nice weather, England is so cold; he is funny. Nothings.

And then she told me she was married and didn't know where her husband was. She brushed over her concerns for parents, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, but hung on to the dual fear and hope that came from being married to a man who was a Government Official when the troubles broke out.

That's what I thought they were, nasty political 'troubles'. I knew there were outbreaks of violence and a lot of people leaving the country, but not much more. Regarding her husband, she said, on the one hand he would be in more danger than others for the position he had held; on the other he had good friends high up, nonpartisan work colleagues who were sure to see him safe; tucked away somewhere. Her hope and my limited knowledge made that seem the most likely thing. With me she could talk about when she would find him, and meet a gaze that had faith in that.

Perhaps, without too much understanding of the British system, she saw in me a sister also fallen on hard times, a woman bringing up children without their father; no matter that mine had walked away of his own free will. I think she saw in me someone who recognised the little trials, the education of holding a good grace when uprooted, or imagined me living as my mother's guest, just as she was guest in her rescuers' home. Something, somehow that made her feel we had a link.

And then someone took the time to educate me on the real terror of the war. The machetes, the genocide, the burnings, the immediate and relentless massacre of government officials and their whole families; the total lawlessness and hopelessness.

The next time I went to that Church she saw me across the crowd - gave me a huge smile and a wave, and I still to this day feel so, so ashamed. I'd lost all my certainty and didn't know how to look her in the eye, couldn't even imagine shrugging shoulders at the weather, poking faces at the biscuits, the little things that she needed from me.

So I didn't. Nor did I go there again if I could help it, always fearful of having to face her open, unsuspecting, hopeful smile. I deserted her.

I'm so sorry.


ME Strauss said...

Oh dear one, it's okay not to invite more pain into your life. One day when you know how you'll find the way to explain it, until then trust the link you made and her heart that she might understand already. She surely wouldn't want you to feel badly. She'd want you to remember her smile.

doris said...

So very hard.

If you had your time again, would you have acted differently? Could you have once you had been "educated".

Sometimes too much information is a bad thing.

Shame on me because by the latter 1990s I was wondering how on earth a genocide "could be allowed" to happen, again and again and I wasn't even aware of them on the news. That wasn't entirely the media's fault as I was too busy living my own life and fighting my own battles. Even though they are no comparison to the machetes....

fineartist said...

Bless you Cheryl, you and your loving heart!

zilla said...

Now that you've got that off your chest ... forgive yourself! Yes, bless your loving heart and remember her smile!

Cheryl said...

I'm not that nice; sorry ladies.
I was reminded of her by a movie last night about the guy they compared to a Rwandan Schindler.
To be honest the reaction thats anchored to remembering her smile is still 'Oh God why me?' and 'Quick where's a hole in the ground?'
Its just that more was wanted of me than I was ready/able to give, part of my issues was an inability at that time to take the concept of being relied on - it was just too much. I began to see her (rightfully, in her case) as very needy. I just couldn't cope.
If I was in that sort of a hole, I'd want someone to dig me out of it too - I just hope I don't pick someone like me to hang my hopes on, because she'll panic and run.

Kim said...

but do you ever wonder why it was you were given this experience in your life? Look what it has done for/to you! You have compassion and understanding Cheryl, whether it meets your standard of approval or not, and I can only trust that the poor unfortunate woman you speak of knows this to be true. We've all been in some variation of this scenario in our own lives, and the lessons it offer us are uncomfortable and hard, it forms our concience and makes us who we are. This will be a cross for you to bear, but it needn't be one that is so heavy my friend. You are good. The fact that you have remembered it and shared it as well speaks to the truth of this.

Writer Mom said...

I've done this to people with far fewer needs. I have felt ashamed.
On the other hand, some people seem to want to plant you right beside them, and take away your freedom to move forward in life.
They find a commonality that may have only been temporary.
What can you do when you need to move on? There's no easy way to say, 'Sorry, but I've reached my exit.'
My mother used to tell me that people who are gossiping to me are gossiping about me.
I apply that when I feel bad for moving on from a friendship. Everybody does it.
The trouble is, some of us allow others to get closer than they are used to getting. Closeness is normal for me, but special for others. We move on because we're exhausted and need to self preserve.
*Not entirely related to this woman you're writing about, but you hit a nerve. The suffering of the Rwandans also broke through and touched me.