Under the cool cover of night, the shrill cry of a baby pierced the air. It went on and on, eventually attracting the attention of a group of clay brick makers who left the glowing embers of their furnace to locate the source of the commotion. The scene that awaited them was grim: a three-month old baby girl wrapped around her dead mother’s back, inconsolable. Others started to draw near. No one knew the circumstance of the mother’s death, but the baby was still very much alive. There were no relatives nearby.
“Who will take the baby?” asked one of the bystanders. All refused, for one reason or another.
A lone voice rang out into the still air. “I will”. A young woman, barely out of adolescence herself, stepped forward. It was illegal in 1982 to adopt a child if you were under fifty years of age, and so there followed an intense legal battle to become the guardian of this little girl. She succeeded, and gave the little girl her family name.
The young woman who plucked a newborn baby out of the darkness and brought her to safety back in 1982 is now sitting in front of me. Her name is Venantie, or ‘Mama Venantie’ as she is affectionately known. Her adopted daughter went on to study agronomy and is now a farmer with her own land.
I remark that her decision to adopt an extremely vulnerable baby on the spot in 1982, is possibly one of the starkest acts of kindness and bravery I have ever heard of. “I had to show love and compassion”, she emphasises. Hot pink bougainvillea petals on the bush behind her burst out from the ash grey sky hanging over us like a dank blanket. There is beauty even in the dark places, as Venantie so beautifully exemplifies. “It was Jesus in me”, she asserts delicately as she brushes off my compliment as she might a butterfly on her shoulder.
Today, Venantie is the President and ‘Impact Director’ of Ubuzima Bwiza Iwacu, the NGO of Azizi Life. She started out as Artisan Liason for Azizi Life and has grown over the years in her professional capacity. Within her role, responsibilities include overseeing the Adult Literacy Programme as well as the fuel-efficient stoves and solar lamp initiative. However, the role that she is most keen to talk about is being part of a team that leads the Wednesday morning Bible Studies at Azizi Life:
“We share the Bible, our stories and encourage one another. People work out their conflicts there and resolve them with the help of scripture and prayer…we do our craft work with Jesus, we resolve conflicts in our relationships with Jesus. We work as a team and love people like Jesus”.
Far from her faith in God being one of stale, organised religion confined to a pew on a Sunday morning, the impression that I get of Venantie’s faith, is that it cannot help but spill over into every area of her life, like a wildflower that refuses to be restrained by drab, lifeless concrete. When she was widowed, she was tempted to retreat into a super-holy life of prayer in church, like many people she knew who “passed the time praying a lot but not working”. A close friend said to her that Jesus won’t ask how many prayers you said or how many times you went to church, but ‘rather how much time did you spend with your children [sharing God’s love with them]?’
I ask her what she loves about her job and why she does it. She leans forward, laughing. “I love being with people, helping people. It makes me happy to see people’s joy. I like that I can give my time to listen to others”. Regarding the challenges, she says “I feel so sad when I cannot help”. She told me of a current example, of one of the Azizi Life artisans whose husband had recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. For months he had been sick, but neighbours kept saying that maybe he was being poisoned by someone. For this lady, it was a strange relief that he had had a proper medical diagnosis; it brought closure to an uncertain situation where if he was being poisoned, it would mean tense and dangerous relations with the community.
The wind whips up around us, jostling papers and leaves and animating dust like swirling, burnt orange phantoms. This is usually the prelude to an afternoon storm during rainy season. Picking up the pace, I ask Venantie what advice she would give to someone who said that they want to change the world.
“Through Jesus. You need to look at yourself: what can you correct in yourself to see the world differently, to see people differently. Before changing the world, how can you [change your family]?”
I think of the famous and oft-quoted line: ‘everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself’ (Leo Tolstoy). In this African context, now I was considering it another way; not of merely the individual changing him or herself, but of the family and community also. The individualistic fabric of Western life unravels in the shared experience of Rwandan life.
I wrap up our conversation and thank Venantie for sharing her story. When I think of Venantie, I hear laughter. She is a person filled with so much joy despite the suffering she has witnessed in life. Ultimately, she is as close to an angel while still holding the mantle of fallible, everyday human being, as anyone I’ve ever met.