Gady hung up the phone and handed it back to me.
“So what did you tell him?” I asked.
Two days ago, I had purchased airtime (credits that I can convert into talk or text for my Rwandan phone) from a vendor just across the street from the University. The vendor was out of the scratch-off cards that I usually purchase, reveal the code, and load into my phone (kind of like you would load an iTunes gift card). I agreed to let him send me the airtime using “me-to-you” – which meant giving him my phone number and waiting for the confirmation message from the phone provider to arrive. While waiting, the vendor and I introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries. Finally the message arrived that I’d received the airtime, I paid the vendor, and we went our separate ways. I’ve done this before – many times actually – and its worked quite smoothly.
This time, however, the vendor must have saved my phone number, because my phone had been flooded with texts and calls from him ever since. I learned the vendor’s name was Evereste, and he was determined to meet up with me. The messages continued to pile up in my inbox, and every time I checked my phone there were multiple missed calls. When my attempts to explain to Evereste that the way he’d gotten my number was highly unprofessional didn’t put an end to the situation, I decided it was time to get help. I sent a message to Gady, one of the theology students at PIASS and my first friend in Huye, asking him to come over and give Evereste a call on my phone. Within an hour, he was at our door (think of this as Rwandan super speed). Gady used my phone to call Evereste and ask him to give me some space.
“I told him that he was disrupting your purpose for being here, and therefore he was disrupting the work of God,” Gady took a sip from the mug of coffee I’d prepared for him. “I think he was confused at first.”
Gady recounted the conversation. Evereste said he didn’t remember Gady or me. Gady told him that he had bought airtime from him earlier in the day and that his sister went later in the day and bought airtime on the phone he was calling from.
I laughed, “You could have asked him if he remembered the muzungu who bought airtime from him two days ago. I’m guessing I was one of the only ones.”
Gady picked up a paper napkin and selected a chocolate cookie.
“You know, I am your big brother. And that is the most important for him to understand,” he explained.
I couldn’t respond. I took a sip of my own coffee so he wouldn’t be able to see that I was choked up.
You see, Gady has eight siblings. The the last thing he needs is another sister. But, he chooses to include me in his family regardless. Kay, my host mom, often refers to Gady and me as “the siblings,” and he has become a part of my Rwandan family.
Over the past 8 months, the word “sister” has come to hold new and significant means for me.
Teta, my 9 year old best friend, often refers to me as her older sister and I’ve found myself transitioning from calling her ishuti yange (my friend) to muramuna wange (my little sister).
Walking through the market, vendors shout to me, “Sister! Sister!” as they hold up pineapple or papaya. The elderly man who sells animals carved out of wood greets me in the cross walk: “Sister! My sister!” and he pulls a carving of twin giraffes, necks intertwining, out of his satchel. The man at the kiosk where I buy chapatti sees me walk in the door and begins putting two into a paper bag while greeting me “hello my sister! It has been a long time!” (he will say this even if I was there just the day before).
I receive an email from the ELCA, addressing the YAGMS as “Dear Sisters and Brothers.” I open an FB message from an old friend. The message is long and closes with the 6 letter acronym we’ve been using since middle school: LYLAS – love you like a sister. I open a letter from a camp friend, and am more than a little surprised to find that it contains “the sisterhood of the traveling baby sock.” I meet up with my four other YAGMs at Mese Fresh, the Chipotle knock-off in Kigali, after months of separation and am reminded that Kate introduced us to the Lutheran Church of Rwanda as “sisters and daughters.”
I look at my bedroom wall, where I’ve hung pictures of people I love from home, and I am reassured that no matter where I am in the world or how frequently we communicate, Tara (my biological sister) will still be my sister. I’m reminded of the bond we have – one that surpasses all friendships – that can only be explained by the fact that she is my sister.
I think about my college roommates and I know that we acted as sisters for each other. I think about my co-workers at Luther Crest Bible Camp and all my sisters in my camp family. I think of my Bible study ladies finishing up their senior year of college and the sisterhood we have in that group.
I am optimistic that the relationships I have built during my YAGM year will last long beyond my visa expiration date. And regardless of where I end up living or how frequently we communicate, I will still be tied to my community here even as I integrate myself back into my communities at home. Being a sister carries with it great responsibility, great joy, great challenge, and great vulnerability – but I am incredibly blessed to know that I have family in the US supporting me, and family here taking care of me.