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

 

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 (swindonfestivalofliterature.co.uk).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935