As soon as the sisters moved in, I thought sweet, I will be able to tell stories for the rest of my life about ‘that time I lived with the Rwandan nuns’.
I had been living in an old convent which was at that point an after school enrichment center staffed by young, live-in volunteers. I was living on the third-floor, the rare part-time volunteer while I was in grad school, responsible for office work: maintaining databases, printing checks to pay the bills, assisting with fundraisers, etc.
Somehow our executive director got hooked up with the Benebikira Sisters in Rwanda. Two of them came to live in the center, and things snowballed from there, to use an idiom that would be incomprehensible to my Rwandan friends.
Our little center became the unofficial Rwandan embassy in Boston. We hosted guests, had countless local expatriates over for dinner and socializing, someone started a Rwandan coffee company out of the back, and I even got to meet the First Lady.
This was fewer than ten years after the genocide that ripped through Rwandan nineteen years ago this month. After Sister Anna Beata (the opinionated one who introduced me to banana liqueur) and Sister Augusta (the quieter, younger nun who was bashful about trying to speak in English) moved in, I went on what could be unappetizingly described as a “genocide kick”, reading as many books as I could about the topic.
Around this time, the movie Hotel Rwanda was released. I was able to attend an advanced screening at the movie theater on Boston Common. Most of the other people in attendance were from Rwanda. Their biggest complaint? Too much of the movie was filmed not in Rwanda but in Kenya.
We watched the movie again a few months later at the center. On the second floor there was a room with deep red walls, dark wooden cabinets and plush green chairs that my friends and I had taken to calling the sherry room, because it looked to our young eyes like a place where people would drink sherry. We rolled the projector over the oriental rug and taped a bedsheet across the glass doors that swung into the chapel in order to view the DVD.
Sister Augusta sat at my feet while I curled up in one of the chairs. She had lost her entire family in the genocide. As far as I knew, the only picture she had of her family was of their corpses, cleaned and prepared for burial after they had been slaughtered. As we watched the film for a second time my heart nearly tore out of my chest. All I wanted to do was make the pain of her loss go away. All I wanted to do was love her out of sadness. But she had been through hell, and for the first time in my life I was struck by my own impotence in undoing such tragedy.
Both sisters have long since returned to their homeland, and I too feel a million miles away from the sherry room, from community living, and from my early twenties. For a wedding a few years ago Anna Beata and another of the sisters came back to Boston, singing at traditional Rwandan blessing to celebrate the marriage of two of my closest friends. They still visit from time to time, and I cling to the hope of one day travelling to Africa to visit them.
In the intervening years I have learned more about loss and grief and the helplessness of love. I have learned about having your foundations shaken and having everything you thought you knew fall apart around you. Still, I don’t understand what they lived through, not only because of its magnitude but because of its distance in time and place. Though I hold them in my heart I can’t quite hold their sorrow, not through fault of my own but because I’m not part of their world.
For a primer on the Rwandan genocide, I highly recommend We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch, Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, and the section on Rwanda in A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power.