Five-minute Memoir: Naomi Benaron recalls how she became 'maman' to a young Rwandan man


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The Independent Culture

It's June 2010. I sit on a brick wall in Butare, Rwanda, posing for a photo. One arm is around the young man I call my son, Mark Bizimana, the other, around his fiancée, Pascaline Nyiranzayino. Behind us a lawn grows thick with lush grass framed by plantings of shrubs and fruit trees. The morning sun sparkles on our skin, its warmth spreading through us. Mark is not my flesh and blood, nor have we gone through official proceedings to adopt him, but I have travelled across two continents to rejoice as any mother would at his wedding. We smile into the camera; the shutter clicks.

I met Mark in 2005. He was the receptionist at Hotel Credo, where I was staying to research my novel about the Rwandan genocide. He was 22. He spoke impeccable French in a voice barely above a whisper. His shy, gentle manner drew me to him; I began to linger at the front desk to draw him into conversation. Each day, the light in his face sparkled a little more above the shadow of sadness whose source I could only guess. He was, after all, a Tutsi; he had lived through 1994.

My days consisted of interviewing survivors and visiting genocide sites. My conversations with Mark became the bright spots of those days, a source of life rising above the overwhelming narrative of death. He began to greet me like an old friend. He began to share his story. When he later confessed to me that I was the first person he had trusted with that story since 1994 irrevocably changed its course, an overwhelming mixture of sadness and joy spread through me.

The day I left, I asked Mark if I could take his picture. He put on his best clothes, led me to a room with large windows through which the velvety July sunlight streamed, and posed with arms crossed, face serious. There was something so boyish in his gesture. If customs were different, and if our own pasts had not left us with hardened shells, I would have gathered him into my arms and held him as a mother holds a son.

The last words Mark's father said were, "they can kill my body but not my spirit". It was April 1994. Mark's family had gathered with thousands of other Tutsi in a church. They thought they would be protected there, but they were not. When the killing was done, Mark crawled from a pile of bodies and hid in the forest until liberation in July 1994. Then, searching the photographs posted inside the refugee camps, he found three younger brothers and a sister alive. At 11 years of age, he became the sole support for his family. He collected cigarettes and sold them. He started a small business. Somehow, he managed to feed and care for his family and still attend secondary school. Because education had always been important in his family, he felt obligated to send his siblings to secondary school as well. When I met him, he had given up hope of attending university, just as I had given up thoughts of having a child.

Maternal feelings come with a price for me because I lost four pregnancies. One was far enough along that I knew it was a boy. He would have been 30 when I met Mark, and yes, I still make those calculations. But when I returned home, a mutual friend asked if I would help Mark attend university. I jumped at the chance. We emailed every week, our notes growing in length and candour. Growing in mutual trust. He began to call me Maman, Mom. I called him muhungu wanjye, my son. By the time I returned to Rwanda in 2008, those words had become truth in my heart.

The trip to Rwanda in 2010 is a happy one. Mark had asked me to come and celebrate his wedding. He sought my advice when he met Pascaline, and I told him yes, always follow your heart. As I peer at the pictures Mark's brother has taken, I am overcome by the hope I see in our faces. Mark and Pascaline have bought land and planted a garden. Soon there will be tomatoes, squash and beans, a profusion of flowers to fill the air with perfume. Soon, I will receive an email from Mark announcing that Pascaline is pregnant.

In July 2012, I will return to hold my granddaughter in my arms. She bears the Rwandan name I was given: Rusaro – Pearl. Mark has graduated from university. I have a picture of Rusaro with his mortarboard on her head. She is beautiful, and I know she is smart. It will be easy; I will love her as my own.

'Running the Rift' by Naomi Benaron is published by Oneworld. It is the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The author will be at the Swindon Festival of Literature on 7 & 8 May (