July 21, 2008 (KIGALI, Rwanda) — In Rwanda, if you mix equal parts red dirt, blue paint and sweat, you end up with pure joy, deep gratitude, and a sense of brotherly love unparalleled in my experience.
It was the joy beaming across the faces of six dozen orphans, a dozen Virgin Islanders and our new friends Emmanuel, Emmanuel and Leonce as we held hands listening to the children sing the Rwandan national anthem hands pressed to their hearts as the sun disappeared behind one of Rwandas 1,000 hills at the end of our first day of work in this country of smiling, gracious people.
Throughout the day, as we covered the bakery, the office and the small dark hallway at the Robero Orphans Center with a fresh coat of paint, the two Emmanuels and Leonce passed by frequently to hug one or the other of us and say, "thank you, thank you, thank you."
But it wasnt just about the paint. "The neighbors are so happy for us," said Emmanuel Two as we surveyed the days accomplishments. "They are happy when people come here to help us."
Indeed, throughout the day random people peeked through the Euphorbia and guinea grass fence surrounding the property that lies adjacent to a gated mansion owned by a Kigali "businessman." to get a closer look at the activities.
Rwandans have a unique way of making border fences. They use the vegetation lashing together large branches and attaching them to the flora which turns out to be a completely effective way of keeping animals and people in or out as well as marking some boundary of indeterminate meaning.
And it wasnt just the neighbors we would make happy, Leonce told us. "This will help us with the inspectors," he said, gesturing to the freshly painted bakery that produces 3,000 loaves of bread a day to support the centers work.
More than anything, however, it is about the children, Emmanuel One said. "It makes then so happy when people come.
"After the genocide, they didnt think they would be loved anymore," he said, "But everyone is coming to check on them."
And happily, our brave and loving young people were the ones checking on them Monday.
Relieved by the adults who took over painting in the afternoon, our young travelers spent a couple of hours entertaining the orphans with a variety of ball games, and the ever popular sport of digital camera interchange where you take a picture of the children who precociously pose for any and all photographs, and then they get the instant gratification of viewing themselves.
Then they take a picture, and we get to see our heads cropped off half way down our faces — but with a big fat smile on whats left.
The last picture of the day was taken by Sharee Miller as we left Robero to the refrain of "murabeho, murabeho," all of us frantically saying "bye" in Kinyarwandan.
A girl of maybe seven, face pressed to the rear window of the van, wistfully said her goodbyes to her new friends with her eyes.
"Murabeho" for now.
Editor's note: For more about the trip, read first lady Cecile deJongh's Travel Journal.
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