Sunday, July 09, 2006

Family Portrait

As silly as I am, Boniface wrapped my Kenyan kikoy around his head and declared himself a sheik.
I often say that I’m lucky to have family in Rwanda. Boniface M. is so much more to me than just the HCR driver—he is my bodyguard, my drinking buddy, my co-conspirator, and a loyal, unwavering friend. In Rwanda, it is tradition to call your close friends “brother,” or “sister,” or “cousin,”—but as I’m 24 and Boniface (I often call him “Boni,” which, given his thin, tall frame, is only too appropriate!) is 58, I couldn’t call him a sibling. He became my uncle, and I now address him as “Tonton Boni.”

Boniface was born in a cornfield in Congo. His mother went out to the fields to cultivate one day, had labor pains, collected some grasses to make a bed, sat down, and gave birth. When her husband returned home that night, he was overjoyed to find that his wife came home from the fields with their first son, the fifth child. They celebrated for two weeks.

He finished secondary school and tried a series of different jobs all over Congo. After stints working as a mechanic and at a mining company, he met his wife (whom I simply call “ma tante”—my aunt), who was still in high school when Boni was 35. It was during their courtship that he received word that he had received a job in Goma, Congo as a driver for UNHCR, which had major operations in the area. His wife left school, they married, and moved to Goma. It was 1994.

His job eventually transferred him over to the Rwandan side of the border. At the time, he was one of 20+ drivers. His salary was relatively high as far as Rwandan salaries went, and all the better—over time, his wife bore 9 children! He had a large family to support.

Wisely investing his newfound wealth by buying land and a house, Boniface asked other family members to live with him on his land. His younger brother and one of his cousins decided to live there with their families.

One day in 1997, tragedy struck. His brother and cousin, who both worked at the Bralirwa beer factory in Nyamyumba, fell victim to the continued insecurity in Gisenyi and Ruhengeri. The two were in a Bralirwa staff bus heading to work when they came upon a roadblock set up by Interahamwe rebels who had come across the border from Congo. They ordered the driver to separate the Hutus from the Tutsis, but the driver refused. “We are all Rwandans,” he said, which were his last words—he was shot in the head. He was a Hutu.

The rebels doused the bus in fuel and set it on fire. Boniface’s cousin perished, but his brother managed to break open a window and run. He was shot several times before he fell and was left for dead.

In truth, his brother hadn’t died. Villagers took him to the hospital, where Boniface came to see him. His brother told him the story of what had happened, and before he passed, he said, “Please take care of my family.”

A concrete statue by the side of the Gisenyi-Nyamyumba road marks the site of the massacre. Boniface won’t let me take the road at night because he’s still afraid that history might repeat itself.

As a result of the bus massacre, Boniface is now responsible for the care of 25 people, of which he is the sole breadwinner. He provides school fees, medical fees, and nourishment for all of them, and the most remarkable things is that he doesn’t resent it. I know so many people in the U.S. who, after supporting someone else over the course of 6 months (let alone 9 years) would insist that s/he try to support his or herself. But to Boni, the essential is that he keeps his promise, and it’s being faithful to the cultural practice of not distinguishing between one’s nuclear family and one’s extended family.

He often recounts to me stories of how Rwanda used to be right after the war. To get to Kigali, you had to fly, because the roads were insecure. The areas I monitor in Gisenyi and Ruhengeri were infested with Interahamwe and considered a UN “no-go” area even as late as 2001. Almost everyone, he says, in the rural villages was (or was aligned with) Interahamwe until they finally began to understand that the new government wasn’t just paying lip service when the said they wanted to give peace a chance. (They also started building wells and providing education in even the most remote areas. That helped, too.)

Over time, as the situation became more stable, less and less drivers were needed. In January this year, he became the only driver left at HCR Gisenyi.

He half-heartedly worries about the possibility of closing our office before his pension comes through, but I’m not. So long as there is instability in Congo (and I don’t think the upcoming elections will remedy that), the border office must remain open. I don’t think he would mind retirement, though. “When I finish with the UN,” he says, “I am going to raise cows.”

In truth, he already is, but not personally. He has land in Rutshuru, an area north of Goma in Congo, but as he jokes, “The only things grazing on that land are Interahamwe.” They already slaughtered and ate his herd of 80 cows. His two remaining cows are being cared for elsewhere by a hired hand. Boni has just received a gift of a third cow from an appreciative cousin—to thank him, Boniface will host a traditional “Gahuza Miryango” celebration, whereby the entire family unites and Boniface will provide beer for everyone.

He loves cows. He loves cows almost as much as I love goats. Maybe more. Every time we pass a cow, he slows down to examine it. If we pass a field of cows, he stops the car, leans out the window, and says, “Hello, cows!”

I also like to joke with him that he’s younger than me. His manner is entirely youthful—he wears tracksuits more often than not, and he runs everywhere, even if it’s not urgent. He also plays volleyball competitively once a week. He has so much energy that you can’t help but compare him to an 18 year old. When I tell him he’s young, he laughs, “But Morgan, I’ve worked so long to be old. And now you want to make me young again?” These conversations usually take place in a dark bodega with one small metal table, while drinking beer by candlelight. His vice is Primus, the most popular Rwandan beer. He can drink 4 or 5 in an evening (and at 80 cents a pop, it’s pretty affordable). Boniface jokes that, before 8 am, he only drinks water. After 8, he only drinks “fermented water.”

There was a point during my time here that I found out that my father had a serious health problem, and I felt so lost that I didn’t really know what to do with myself or whom to turn to. Out one night with acquaintances, Boni stopped by to find me smoking the first cigarette of my life. I will never forget the look he gave me—not that of a disapproving parent, not anger, but pure disappointment. He shook his head with the saddest eyes I have ever seen, and it was enough to make me put it out and never touch another cigarette since. Boniface was a chain smoker for 45 years and quit cold turkey 5 years ago.

Boniface’s eyes are rarely sad—they cloud over sometimes when he talks about the war. But when he smiles, it’s from ear to ear, it’s warm and genuine, and it makes you want to smile too.

We are kindred spirits. I’m a workaholic, and so is he—he hasn’t taken a vacation in two years, and HCR Kigali is trying to force him to take a break. “But I don’t need a vacation! I just want to work! I don’t trust any replacement drivers!” he says. I say that he seems much more American than Rwandan in this regard. He is also as impatient as an American—if meals take more than 20 minutes (which, I assure you, is ALWAYS the case…we once had to wait THREE HOURS for a meal that we had even pre-ordered!!), he gets up and walks into the kitchen to investigate why it’s taking so long. It often feels like he’s reading my mind.

And, as my uncle, he is my protector. He chases away people that come to the car window when we’re eating just to stare at me, he yells at people if they say anything impolite to me in Kinyarwanda, and he once offered to punch a Dutch guy we met in Goma who was impossibly rude (which I thought was really funny). And when various people try to court me, he smiles and politely tells them that the price is 8 cows and a bull. On the road the other day, we drove behind a 3-truck convoy of Rwandan Army soldiers, and when they made flirtatious advances, he made cow horns with his arms to show them that they would have to prepare a significant dowry. I laughed so hard that I had tears running down my cheeks.

My best friend here, perhaps Boniface will be what I will miss most about Rwanda. He has protected me, taught me Rwandan customs, shared secrets with me that he hasn’t told anyone else, and, most importantly, has accepted me into his family as his tenth child. He is everything to me. He is family.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


1.) I would bet that Boni learned the "Hello Cows!" from Morgan because she just cannot help herself to a boistorus "Hello Goats!" whenever she passes one in the car ;)

2.) Boni is one of the most genuine people I have ever met and it was my time with him that made me cherish the time I spent with Rwandans. A better man I'll never meet.

7/09/2006 5:00 PM  
Blogger satay said...

Morgan hon, is your dad feeling better? It must be hard when you are so far away. Thanks for the lovely story, your uncle Boni sounds like a total gem!

7/10/2006 4:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is an amazing post, he sounds like a wonderful man. You are so lucky have have such a good person with you daily!

7/10/2006 6:22 PM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

You know, I told Boni that I "sent an email" about him to my friends saying that he greeted cows. He laughed and said, "I hope you told them that you do the same with goats!" I told him I hadn't. Guess the cat's out of the bag... :)

My dad's much better now--his surgery went very well and it looks like he's going to be just fine. I will say this--Boni was amazingly supportive (and continues to be amazingly supportive) through that rough period.

7/12/2006 3:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home