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).

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick