It was past 2 a.m. by the time I climbed up to my bunk last night. Despite this, I lay awake for a while, thinking, trying to soak in The Last Night. It’s difficult to leave a place and group of people when you’re not sure when (and if) you’ll be reunited again. And Rwanda is a truly amazing place with truly amazing people.
N. called me yesterday and asked if I’d like to meet up with him at his home and see his neighbourhood before the graduation party. I agreed, curious and honoured to be given such an intimate glance into his life.
Instead of telling me where to direct the moto, N. asked me to hand my cell phone over to the driver and they exchanged rapid Kinyarwanda with each other. I hopped on the bike and the driver buzzed to the Gikondo neighbourhood of the city. Then he turned off the main road, onto a bumpy dirt one. The streets narrowed and the people increased.
Eventually we pulled up to a corner where N. was standing and waiting with a plastic bag with two cold lemon Fantas. He walked me up to his housing compound, through a gate with two chickens perched on top of it.
The compound is large enough to host about 12 people, N. told me, including a couple of families. When we walked in the door I was greeted by a boy who shook my hand, one of N’s roommates, a woman cooking in the communal cooking space, and a baby sitting in a saucer. They were all friendly, but a little shy, giggling as I shook their hands.
Noel led me to his section of the building and said, “They are surprised to see a white.”
“Not too many visitors here look like me?” I asked.
“You’re the first.”
He pulled aside a curtain and led me into an entrance way. Behind another curtained door was the bedroom. The walls were teal cement and lit by a bare bulb in each room. The space was small, the entire bedroom filled by a couple of mattresses, but everything was clean and impeccably organized. A large stereo system was hooked up to N.’s laptop, playing French and American songs. A toddler kept peeking his head inside, then giggling and disappearing again whenever I made eye contact.
I gave N. some photos I’d printed for him a few days ago and he went and grabbed an album of old photos from a suitcase in his room. We sat and sipped Fanta and I flipped through faded family photos and N. told me about his life, his childhood, and the three girls in his life who have told him they love him.
I’d thought that I already knew him well, but over the course of the afternoon, I learned so much more about the quiet boy with whom I’ve become such good friends.
At about 4 p.m. we hurried out and hailed a couple motos to take us back to the house. The lawn was arranged with 40 white chairs and Allan had purchased flowers to decorate the porch. A table was converted to a bar, its plastic frame practically bowing under the weight of all the bottles. A. had designated himself as the DJ for the night, and was sitting beside the speakers and scrolling on a laptop.
As the sun set we gathered on the lawn and Allan presented us with certificates and we all thanked everybody profusely. The rest of the evening had dancing and conversations and many hugs. There were some tears, but for the most part, I was composed.
It’s not that I wasn’t sad to be leaving and it’s not that I won’t miss these people. In a way, I felt bad, as if everybody else was feeling the evening more than I was. But I think the truth was that I was just feeling it differently, not less.
At one point I found myself sitting on the lawn with another Canadian student. He was crying. I put an arm around him and he said, “I just hate goodbyes. I hate losing experiences and people.”
“But we haven’t lost them,” I said. “We’ve been lucky enough to gain them.”
And that’s really how I felt last night and feel this morning. I have a flight out this afternoon, and while I’ll miss this place, I also feel this immense sense of gratitude for what I’ve gained. And I have a feeling that, for many of the friendships I’ve formed this trip, last night wasn’t “goodbye” in a permanent sense.
It’s been a beautiful experience.