In How Dare the Sun Rise, Sandra Uwiringiyimana shares the story of her life… so far. And it’s a story that NEEDS to be told. Sandra grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, survived an attack on a refugee camp that claimed the life of her sister, immigrated to America with her surviving family members, and struggled to find her place as a teenager in a brand new country. If that sounds like enough challenges for one person, think again because she didn’t stop there – through her art and activism she has become a social justice warrior – addressing the United Nations Security Council about the issue of Children in Armed Combat, and even starting her own organization to help revitalize distressed areas in the Congo.
Sandra’s story is full of important messages that need to be shared, messages of humanity, empathy, hope and courage. This is book is heartbreaking and empowering and so important that all we can say is YOU MUST READ IT. Luckily, you can start reading it right now, because we’ve got the first three chapters for you below.
The night began softly. My little sister, Deborah, and I were lying in bed, closing our eyes, trying to fall asleep in the midsummer heat. It was a couple hours past dark, a scorcher of an August evening in Africa. I could hear the soothing voices of my mother and aunt, chatting outdoors in the still, heavy air. Deborah was six years old at the time, and I had just turned ten. For some reason, Deborah had been highly sentimental that day, hugging my mother and me, telling us she loved us. She did it time and again.
I wondered what had come over her.
Perhaps, somehow, she sensed that she would soon be leaving us.
Sleep did not come that night. My mother stormed in from outside, a look of panic on her face like I had never seen. Mom was always such a calm, wise presence, strong and rarely rattled. At the time, we were living as refugees, driven from our home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because we belonged to a minority tribe, the Banyamulenge. For the past three months, I had been sleeping on a mattress on the ground in a big green tent at a crowded refugee camp in Burundi run by the refugee arm of the United Nations.
I shared my mattress with Mom and Deborah, the youngest of my six sisters and brothers. Mom and my sister Princesse lived in our tent too. My dad and my brothers Alex and Heritage stayed in a tent next to ours. My sister Adele and brother Chris were with my grandparents, up high in the Congolese mountains known as the Hauts Plateaux.
We were scattered, an unsettling feeling in such an uncertain time. For weeks I had been dreaming of home—our big yellow-brick house with a grass-green roof, filled with cousins and friends. I longed for the sparkling blue waters of Lake Tanganyika, the colossal lake where I loved to swim, despite my parents’ warnings about crocodiles. In the refugee camp, I had been imagining a time when I could return to school. I was an ace student, and I wanted desperately to put on my school uniform—navy-blue knee-length skirt, white button-down polo shirt, white socks—and get back to class. I thought surely we would be going home soon, and my family would all be together again.
That was wishful thinking.
Mom shook Deborah and me from the mattress where we slept. Princesse was away for the night, attending a choir concert in a nearby city.
“Mubyuke twatewe!” Mom said. “Wake up! We are under attack!”
We shared our tent with six families, mostly women and children. We knew one another intimately, like family. When people heard my mom’s warning, they said, “No, you must be wrong. You’re overreacting.” Perhaps some thieves were stealing livestock from the nearby farm, they said, explaining away the distant sound of gunshots.
“No,” my mother said. And then we saw my aunt, Nyarukundo. She had been hit by gunfire while standing outside the tent. Both of her arms had been struck, and one had nearly been ripped from the socket. That arm dangled oddly from her body, dark blood gushing like a river.
“We need to wrap her arm!” Mom said. “Help me find something to wrap it with.”
I was surprised that my mother knew what to do in such a situation. It would have made sense to use my bedsheet.
I had seen enough action films with my brothers to know that sheets were the go-to item in that situation, but I couldn’t think. I couldn’t see well either, as the tent was dark as night. I opened my suitcase and grabbed a favorite silky blue dress that made me feel like a princess. The dress was brand new, the most important and beautiful thing I owned. I had been thinking of wearing it to church that Sunday, but I was afraid to get it dirty—church was held outside, in the middle of the camp, and we all sat on the ground. I thrust the dress at Mom. Now I wasn’t worried about soiling it; I just wanted to help my aunt. But the material was too slippery to wrap her blood-soaked arm. My mother pulled off the inner layer of her traditional cotton dress and used that instead.
We heard noise approaching rapidly as men descended on the camp by foot, gunshots piercing the night. The shots sounded like popping corn at first, then grew louder as they came near. The tent erupted in chaos. People began shouting directions.
“Cut a hole in the side of the tent!” someone yelled. “We’ll escape through there!”
People started huddling together in a corner. Somebody stepped on my leg, sending a rush of pain through my body. “Ow!” I said. But nobody heard. Everyone was in a panic. Someone cut the hole in the tent, and a stream of people ran out, including one of my cousins, Jeanette.
Those people were gunned down, one by one, as they fled into the night. This isn’t real, I thought. There is no way this is happening. I must be having a terrible dream. Surely I will wake up and it will all go away.
Mom grabbed my sister, my aunt, and me, along with two of my little cousins, Musore and Rusengo, who were six and nine years old. Mom said to hide beneath a mattress, and so we covered ourselves with the bed, staying close together, tense and still, down low to the ground. My aunt was in agony. The mattress was thin, and I thought about how bullets can so easily penetrate mattresses. It didn’t make sense to hide beneath bedding from men with guns. But where else were we to go?
I wondered if my dad and brothers were safe. I heard our attackers singing and chanting. They were singing Christian songs. I had grown up singing some of those songs in church, and I wondered why murderers would be singing them.
“Imana yabatugabiye,” the men chanted. “God has given you to us.”
The men seemed to think they were on a mission from God to massacre us. They spoke in two languages from the region, Kirundi and Swahili. I spoke both languages, and their voices sounded familiar. Why were we being targeted by people who were praising God? Gunshots, screams, chanting. Nothing made sense. It didn’t register that people were dying, that my cousin had been shot dead as she ran from the tent.
We must have been under the mattress for half an hour, huddled in silence. I didn’t cry. I thought Mom would somehow find a way to protect us, because that’s what mothers do.
I heard splashes hitting the tent all around us. I thought it was beginning to rain. The sound of rain was always loud in the tent, as the raindrops pelted the tarp like little torpedoes.
Then I heard a distant roar—fire. It sounded like it was burning through other tents.
The chanting grew louder and closer.
“God has given you to us. God has given you to us.”
Suddenly there was a moment of stillness outside our tent. Maybe the men were leaving since it had started raining, I thought. There were just a few of us left in the tent, so perhaps they didn’t care. They had killed everyone else. Maybe they were done.
Then we noticed the sharp fumes of kerosene. It had not begun to rain, after all: The tent had been doused in kerosene. We continued to hide, paralyzed, until we heard some men come to the entrance of the tent.
“Is anyone still here?” they called. “We’ve come to rescue you.”
At first we stayed quiet. And then I heard my mother say, “Have you really come to help us?”
I had a panicked feeling. I didn’t trust these men, even if they did speak our language. I had seen a lot of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies with my brothers—I knew that if these men were bad guys, they were not going to tell us.
“Come outside,” the men said. “We will lead you to safety.”
My mother seemed to believe them. I guess she felt she had no alternative but to trust them—what else could she do? Our tent would soon be in flames.
“Follow me,” she said. She carried Deborah on her back and gripped the hands of my two young cousins on either side. My aunt crawled along beside her, somehow still conscious despite the loss of blood. I stayed a few steps behind, wary. I worried that Mom was being too trusting.
It was pitch black. I extended my arms to feel my way through the narrow “hallway” of the tent. I held on to the thick logs that propped up the tent, telling myself that each log could bring me a step closer to freedom. The shadows of the men loomed in the doorway. I heard a voice in my head saying: Don’t go. Stay back. But I needed to stick with my mother, even if I doubted the intentions of those men. I couldn’t leave Mom. We had to stay together. Still,
I remained a few feet back, as the hallway wasn’t wide enough for all six of us.
Mom came to a stop at the door of the tent. She stood there, waiting to be saved, as promised. I was finally close enough to see the faces of the men who said they would deliver us from this hell. Their eyes glowed in the fiery light, their backs to the flames. They looked young, perhaps in their twenties. I began to feel a sense of relief: Maybe they really would help us, after all. They wore camouflage pants and hats, military-style clothes. I could see their shoulders bulging from their tank tops, shining with sweat. One of the men carried a giant roll of bullets, like you’d see in action movies. The other carried a machine gun. They looked at us.
“Bashiriremo!” one of them barked. “Shoot them!”
Suddenly, I saw sparks—bright blasts of gunfire—hitting my mother. They looked like fireworks. The bullets went into her belly, and she crumpled. She was still carrying my sister on her back. I turned around and ran inside the tent.
I didn’t want to leave my mom—children are supposed to run toward their mothers for protection, not away from them. But I had seen the sparks. I knew that I had to hide. With my arms stretched wide to feel my way through the hallway, careful not to run into the logs, I stumbled back to my mattress refuge. I kept seeing sparks fly in front of me.
A future as an orphan flashed before my eyes.
I prayed to God. “If you keep my parents alive, I will be good,” I promised. At the same time, I knew my mother had just been gunned down. She must be dead. Deborah must be dead too. My little six-year-old sister, gone. That beautiful girl who brushed the sand from my skin after my secret swims in the lake. Gone. I couldn’t accept the thought of it. She and my mother could not leave me. They simply couldn’t. I kept praying. I begged God to please let us all survive.
“I’ll never tell a lie,” I said. “I’ll always do what my mom tells me.”
Then I blacked out.
I awoke when something hot hit my leg. A fiery piece of tent had fallen from above and burned through the mattress, scorching my skin. The tent was in flames. Everything was melting around me. I saw men stealing things from our suitcases, grabbing whatever they could. They didn’t notice me.
I felt like I was in a movie scene—a ten-year-old girl sitting in the center of the frame, while war raged around her.
The men left, and I called for my mother. I called and called in the dark.
I knew my mom would never abandon me. But I knew what I had seen, the sparks that sent her to the ground.
The smoke began to choke me, and I needed to run. I managed to crash my way through the burning debris of the tent. I emerged in the decimated camp, standing for a moment, frozen. Limbs, bones, and bloody bodies lay everywhere.
I smelled burning flesh. I saw men with guns, machetes, torches. They were marching around the camp, looking for survivors to kill. They slashed my people with their machetes. They set my people on fire. They shot my people in the head. Tents were ablaze. A man was being burned alive across the camp, screaming in agony on his knees. I learned later that he was a beloved pastor who had led the prayers in the camp every morning before the sun rose. I had listened to him preach while sitting on the damp, dewy grass with my mom and little sister. On chilly mornings, I would curl up close to Mom, snuggling beneath her cotton wrap while the pastor led us in prayer, and Deborah would sleep in Mom’s lap. Now this man was on fire.
People fled for a nearby farm. But before I could run,
a man grabbed me by the shirt. He looked at me and I looked at him.
“Mbabarira,” I said. “Forgive me.”
I don’t know why I said it. I suppose at ten years old,
I thought I must have done something terribly wrong to bring on such wrath. My parents had always taught me to be polite and to apologize when I did something wrong. The man pointed a gun to my head.
I felt the metal barrel on my temple. I waited for the blast. In that moment, I thought it was all over.
“Good-bye, life,” I said.
Ten years before the flames, I was born in the mountains, a scenic land of jewel-green fields, bamboo trees, and forests inhabited by gorillas, elephants, and chimpanzees. My people lived in small round mud huts with pointy roofs made of dried grass. They raised cattle and farmed the land. My parents grew up in these towering mountains, the Hauts Plateaux, in a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo called South Kivu. When they were young, my mom and dad lived in neighboring villages that were about a day apart by foot. There were no roads,
no cars. Everyone walked everywhere, and they still do.
We left the mountains when I was around two years old, in 1996, so I don’t remember much of our life there. But today when I see pictures of the region, known as Minembwe, it looks like the most idyllic place on earth, with lush, leafy mountaintops scraping the clouds and miles and miles of green. People still live in mud houses with grass roofs there. Smoke from burning wood lingers in the air.
My parents met for the first time on the day of their wedding—an arranged marriage. Whenever I ask them about it, they describe it very matter-of-factly. It’s not as if they had a courtship or romance. At the time, my mom was just fourteen years old. She had completed five years of school, which was considered a lot of education for a girl in those days. Typically, after five or six years of school, girls simply dropped out, because there seemed to be no point in continuing their education: Their fate was to marry young and produce children. My dad was eighteen years old, just finishing high school. Schools were sparse in the mountains, and he walked for miles each day to get that education.
One day toward the end of his senior year, my dad came home from final exams and his father announced that he had found him a bride. My dad had never seen this mysterious young wife-to-be. He knew only that she was from another village and had a few years of schooling—a fact that worried his own father, who thought that was too much education for a woman. My father was not worried about this at all.
He was intrigued by the idea of an educated woman.
To arrange a wedding in my culture, the man’s family gives the woman’s family a dowry, usually a number of cows in exchange for the woman’s hand. My father’s family negotiated a deal to give my mother’s family ten cows. Then the families talked to a local pastor, who checked that both sides had consented to the union. For my young parents, it wasn’t really up to them. It’s just the way things were done. So, of course, they consented.
The two married in a low-key affair in a church, more like a business arrangement than a romantic wedding, although my mother’s bridesmaids did pamper her in the days beforehand, slathering her with lotions, making sure she looked beautiful. People in the villages created everything by hand, including a skin lotion made from milk oil. To make the lotion, women would fill jugs with milk and shake the jugs until the fat separated from the milk. That fat would be turned into oil that made a rich cream for skin, and could also be used for cooking. The jugs were handmade too—created from hollowed-out gourds.
My parents made a striking pair of newlyweds, both tall and good-looking, my mom with a stately, confident air, and my dad, soft-spoken, gentle, and sincere, with an easy smile and a long, straight nose. For the wedding, Mom wore a traditional African dress—long and formfitting, in shades of blue and purple—and Dad wore a classic dress shirt and pants. After the ceremony, my mother’s relatives hiked back to their village and left her with her new husband and his family in their village. My mom knew no one there, not even her own husband. To a fourteen-year-old girl—a child bride—it must have felt like she was a world away.
Then it was my mom’s job to get pregnant. That was a woman’s duty: to marry and bear children. But her young body wasn’t ready to carry a child. She had two miscarriages, and people began to whisper, saying that if she couldn’t have children, it must be due to witchcraft. Her in-laws shunned her for not performing her job. My mother had a very difficult time in those early years of marriage; she was a teenage girl, ostracized by the adults around her. But she was also very strong willed, determined to rise above the people who made her feel small.
In time, she managed to give birth to my oldest brother, Heritage. After that, she began having a child every couple years or so. I was the sixth. In my culture, having a lot of kids was a symbol of health and wealth, unless the children were all girls. Girls were basically seen as useless. This has always struck me as odd. The women in our culture are known for working incredibly hard, juggling so many things—raising the children, working on the farm, harvesting, fetching and chopping firewood, and then cooking dinner for the men. Traditionally, the women prepare the meals and the husbands eat alone, or with their male friends, not with their wives. It makes me cringe, but that is the culture.
A couple years after I was born, my family left the mountains amid one of the many conflicts in the region and moved to a city in the valley below, Uvira. The city is known for its beauty—the glistening Lake Tanganyika, the winding Kalimabenge River—and also for its conflicts. War was part of our everyday life.
There was always a new rebellion, a new battle. There are hundreds of different tribes in Congo. My people, the Banyamulenge, have long been discriminated against and targeted in the region. Much of our early history is from word of mouth. I learned about it over the years from my parents, who told stories of our roots when I asked about various conflicts and wars. They had heard the tales from their own parents. They explained that in the late 1800s, many members of my tribe began moving from their native Rwanda to the mountains of South Kivu, a Congolese province. The tribe migrated for several reasons, including civil war and discrimination at home, as well as the fact that the mountains held an abundance of grasslands—a paradise for grazing cows. My people are famous for cattle farming. We are known for being a strong, strapping group, healthy from drinking lots of milk straight from the cow.
My tribe’s migration came amid the time of European colonialism, and life was violent and turbulent across the region, as Africans were seized as slaves and forced into hard labor. Eventually, in 1960, the Congolese won a bloody battle for independence from Belgium. But the region was left deeply unstable, and civil wars raged. My people in South Kivu ran into political problems because they lived in a Congolese province but spoke a language of their native Rwanda. My people looked different, sounded different. They tried to keep to themselves. And so they were seen as foreigners. The Congolese didn’t know where my tribe stood. Different groups vying for power would come after my people to get them to fight for one side or another, and chaos reigned. Over the decades, the Banyamulenge got caught up in various conflicts and civil wars, but no matter what, they were always seen as outsiders, not truly Congolese. We were—and still are—stateless. So many of my people today are languishing in refugee camps, belonging to no country, always in limbo.
My parents grew up amid these conflicts, and were sometimes forced from their homes and villages. During my own childhood, the battles continued, and I was always aware of them. It seemed like the norm.
For the most part, I loved my childhood in the city of Uvira. I often think back to its beauty—the warm summer sun shining down on the sparkling lake, the towering blue-gray mountains in the distance, and the ancient, shady mango tree in our neighborhood that people used as a guidepost when giving directions: “Turn left at the mango tree.”
Things seemed simple then. I knew my parents loved me, and I felt safe with them. People I meet now assume that my childhood years in Africa were dark and deprived. But they were the opposite.
One of my most vivid early memories is of my little sister, Deborah. I was around four years old when she was born, and I remember this tiny, squirmy baby girl with a big, beautiful Afro of soft curls appearing in our home. Studying her face, I thought: Who are you? Where did you come from? I knew my mother had been pregnant, her belly protruding more by the day, but I was so young, I couldn’t put it all together. I just remember Deborah suddenly arriving, and my mom making baby food, mashing together bananas and avocados by hand. I would sometimes steal a bite of the sweet, soft mixture, and my mom would shoo me away. It took me some time to understand that Deborah was truly ours and that we could keep her.
Until Deborah came, I had been the youngest. I had five older brothers and sisters—my brother Heritage, followed by my sister Princesse, my brother Chris, my sister Adele, my brother Alex, and then me.
In our tribe, parents give their kids both a first and last name—family members don’t share a last name. My father’s name is Prudence Munyakuri. My mother’s name is Rachel Namberwa. My siblings are Heritage Munyakuri, Princesse Nabintu, Christian Ntagawa, Adele Kibasumba, Alex Ngabo, and Deborah Mukobgajana. Parents typically choose names with a goal of helping to shape their children’s character.
I was named after a Rwandan prime minister, Agathe Uwiringiyimana, an influential woman in the history of Rwanda. I love that my parents named me after her. It makes me feel like I have big shoes to fill, and that someday I can do something worth being remembered for—although, let’s not kid anyone, my last name is way too long, and I don’t wish that on any other child. My last name means “one who believes in God,” another aspect of my name that helps define me.
Alex and I were the closest in age among my siblings, and we always played together, and got into trouble together—usually his fault. He was a small kid, funny and mischievous, a bit of a troublemaker. I called him my “little brother,” even though he was older than me. He taught me tomboyish things, like how to do a handstand: He would hold my legs up against the wall to keep me steady as I stood on my hands, then he would start to let go and freak me out. He taught me to play soccer with his friends, using makeshift balls made from wadded-up plastic bags and rubber bands. We played in a dusty alleyway, with brick walls on either side, where there wasn’t much parental traffic. We were always getting scrapes and scratches.
One time, my shorts ripped when I fell and my butt was showing, but I knew not to cry. Alex wouldn’t allow it, probably because he didn’t want to get in trouble if I went home in tears. Instead, I considered my ripped shorts a badge of honor; I was like one of the boys.
Alex also taught me how to ride a bike, or at least he tried. It was an adult bike that was too big for me, so I couldn’t keep it under control. We weren’t supposed to be riding it at all. It was my mom’s bike, and she used it to run errands and go to the market. One day, Alex decided it would be a good idea for both of us to get on the bike and ride down a steep, fast hill. I trusted my brother so much that I would have ridden that bike blindfolded. I wanted his approval—I wanted him to think I was cool—and so I hopped on.
“Hold on tight!” he said. We flew down the hill, but couldn’t keep the bike stable, and we crashed. I got scraped up pretty badly.
“Don’t tell Mom,” Alex begged me. “She’ll kill me.” And so I didn’t tell. I still have scars on my arms and knees.
It was a typical scenario with Alex. But he also had the purest heart. One night, he thought he heard people talking outside of our home in the dark. He feared they were burglars who would come and find us in our beds. He poked me to wake me up.
“We need to pray,” he said. “We need to pray to protect our family.”
“We’re fine,” I told him. “The wind is probably carrying people’s voices from somewhere else.” But he insisted that I pray to God with him, to help make the prayers stronger.
I got up and we prayed together.
I had a different kind of relationship with my older sisters. I idolized them. Princesse was seven years older than me, and Adele was five years older. I wanted to wear clothes like them. I wanted to hang out with them and their friends. If my mom made skirts or dresses for them, I wanted the same ones. I would look at their new outfits and say, “Mom! What about me?”
Princesse was elegant and ladylike, at least on the surface. Underneath, she was more like a rebel, a tomboy. She wore pants and T-shirts into her teens, which you weren’t supposed to do once you were a teenager. It was okay when you were a little girl, but as you grew up, you were supposed to wear dresses and make yourself into marriage material. She also had a quirky sense of humor and loved to clown around; I remember her cracking up at fart jokes during dinner. Mom would usually laugh. Dad would eye us, unamused. Yet Princesse was also very responsible: She often helped Mom take care of us younger kids, getting us bathed and into bed at night. If Princesse told me to do something, I would do it.
With Adele, who was a little closer in age to me, it was different: If she told me to do something, I would snap back, “You’re not my mother.” Still, I wanted to be like her. She was outgoing, dynamic, and stylish, with a lot of friends. She and her friends often got into gossipy tangles, and she was always in a cool clique. She grew tall quickly, with long limbs that made her awkward as a child. She was not the most coordinated dancer, but she was strikingly pretty.
My brother Chris was handsome and shy, a sweet, skinny kid with the greatest smile in the world. Like my brother Alex, he looked out for me. Unlike Alex, he seemed proud of me. Alex was a little too close to me in age for that. Chris would often take me to a little kiosk down the street, where a man sold things like matches, candles, and candy. We would hang out there and buy little things. Sometimes Chris would mind the kiosk himself if the man needed a break. When Chris took over, he always gave me candy.
As a young girl, I never knew my oldest brother, Heritage. Congolese soldiers snatched him from our home in Uvira when he was in grade school and I was too young to remember. Armed soldiers approached on horses and grabbed him so they could force him to serve in the army. My dad begged the soldiers to take him instead of Heritage, arguing that his son was too young, but they didn’t listen.
It was typical at the time for soldiers to kidnap boys—they would seize kids and brainwash them, training them to do unthinkable things, then send them out to different regions of the country. I have vivid memories of seeing young kids in the streets of Uvira holding guns bigger than themselves. On the day the soldiers grabbed Heritage, they seized around two hundred kids. Imagine being a child and being whisked away from your home by violent strangers. My parents didn’t know if they would ever see Heritage again. But from that day, my father vowed to find his son and bring him home. I wondered if I would ever know my oldest brother.
As my sister Deborah grew, I began teaching her the same kinds of athletic things that Alex had taught me, like how to do handstands. We shared girly things too, like our collection of soft fabric dolls that we would dress with outfits we concocted from cloth remnants. Sometimes we would get bright scraps of fabric from dresses Mom had made. Other times, we would go to the tailor and ask for leftover fabrics. He always handed them over. Our dolls were lumpy and amorphous, fun to cuddle up with in bed.
All of us kids shared bedrooms, and Deborah and I began sharing a bed when she was a few years old. At night before bedtime, we all took turns brushing our teeth, but when money was tight and we couldn’t afford toothpaste, my mom told us to brush with coal. We rubbed it on our teeth, then rinsed. The nights were hot and steamy, as we had no air-conditioning. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing.
We went to sleep to a cacophony of crickets, their chirps floating through the windows. We lay on mattresses with mosquito nets draped overhead. The nets hung from the ceiling, and we tucked them in under the mattresses each night. Our windows had netting to keep the mosquitoes out as well, but the pests still managed to find their way in. Dad would sometimes give us shots to prevent malaria. We would have to lie down on the bed and get the shot in our butts—and that shot really hurt.
I’ll never forget those nights with Deborah. She was such a loyal little sister. She was so beautiful, it was almost unfair. She had wonderfully thick, black curly hair. My mother brushed it every day, but you couldn’t really tell that she had brushed it because the curls always kept their form. Deborah could walk through a tornado and still come out with her curls intact. I was envious of her hair because mine was coarse and harder to maintain.
Deborah had big, soulful brown eyes that could light the whole world. We used to make fun of her when she would cry: We said she could produce a bucket of tears, her eyes were so big. And she had long, thick eyelashes that were the key to my parents’ hearts. When we needed their permission to do something, we often sent Deborah to ask. If I wanted to play with my friends, I would tell Deborah that she could come and play with the little sisters of my friends—if Mom would let us. So then she would go and ask Mom. There was just something about Deborah that my parents couldn’t say no to. I think it’s because no one wanted to see her cry; her eyes were just too pretty.
Deborah was my constant companion, calm and thoughtful, like my dad. I was more stubborn and feisty, like my mom. Deborah knew all of my secrets. I was always instructing her not to tell on me if I did something bad, and she never did. I could trust her. She wanted me to like her, just like I had longed for Alex’s approval when I was her age. She never betrayed me.
We were all very respectful of our parents. If we talked back, we got a spanking. But my parents were more gentle than strict. If my dad was unhappy with me, he would sit me down and calmly explain why. He would start by saying in his wise, deep voice, “You see, Sandra . . .” And then he would logically outline what I had done wrong.
We did, however, often defy our parents by going swimming. The Kalimabenge River, which separated the mountains from the city, was not far from our house, and we spent a lot of time there. We washed our dishes and clothes in the river, and then jumped in the water in our underwear. After swimming, we sat on boulders and collected smooth pebbles to juggle in the air. We also liked to swim in nearby Lake Tanganyika, one of the biggest lakes in the world. Our parents were always warning us not to swim.
“You could get malaria,” Mom would say.
“You could drown.”
“You could get eaten by crocodiles.”
None of these possibilities ever stopped us.
Sometimes we would sneak away from home, quietly climbing the dark-green gate in our front yard and jumping over it so our parents wouldn’t hear it creak. We would spend hours in the sunbaked water, emerging with skin so tight it felt like if you smiled, your face would crack. Our skin would look ashy from the residue, a telltale sign that we had been swimming. To wipe away the ashy evidence, we would rub ourselves with lotion or Vaseline before we returned home. Deborah would always be waiting for me outside our gate with the Vaseline. She rubbed it all over my body, making sure she got every spot so I wouldn’t get in trouble.
I knew she longed for the day when she could swim with us.
I have magical memories of our home in Uvira, before we lost my sister to war. We had a big African palm tree inside our front gate, and in the backyard, a banana tree and my favorite tree, called a madammé tree. It produced a fruit I loved—like a mango, rough and green on the outside, with reddish-yellow flesh on the inside, tart and sweet. My brother Alex taught me how to climb the tree to get more fruit, and, of course, I fell out of the tree.
I remember Deborah sitting beneath the tree, looking up at us in the branches. She was not big enough to climb, but you could see the desire in her eyes. She wanted to be up there with me.
“Come, I’ll lift you up!” I would call to her.
“Oh no, you won’t!” Mom would yell from the kitchen window.
One of my favorite memories is of my pet monkey, Kiki, a playful little fellow who was about as tall as my knees and followed me everywhere. Deborah loved Kiki too, but she was so young, she didn’t understand that she shouldn’t tease him with bananas. She would show him a banana and playfully yank it back, and they would get into these banana fights, pushing and pulling the fruit back and forth. That never ended well.
Our big yellow house was kid heaven. It was so roomy that we could play hide-and-seek with our friends indoors without annoying the adults. The house was one story, with high ceilings, a living room lined with cushy gray sofas, and a big dining room with a long wooden table. Deborah and I would eat our meals sitting directly on the table because we were too short to sit in the chairs. We had all the modern conveniences—electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, a bathtub, and a coal-burning stove. We didn’t have hot running water. No one in our neighborhood did. It never even occurred to me that you could have hot water coming from the faucet. We didn’t need it: It was almost always warm outside, and if the nights got chilly, Mom would heat up the water for our baths.
My parents weren’t wealthy. They moved into the house when they came down from the mountains, as the house had simply been abandoned. Many homes in Uvira had been left empty by families fleeing the conflicts that plagued the area. The homes belonged to no one. My parents saw it as a temporary living situation, and began building a house of their own. But in the meantime, that yellow house became home.
We had a radio, and I remember an educational UNICEF program for kids about different topics, like HIV. We also had a television, which was rare at that time. Dad was always calling Alex to adjust the antenna to get the best reception. Alex was small, the perfect height to fiddle with the antenna.
“Move it to the left,” Dad would direct him from the sofa.
“Try to the right.”
“Hold it. Try it there.”
Alex would oblige, but not without rolling his eyes.
I watched soccer, cartoons, music shows featuring British boy bands, and world music from Ireland, America, Burundi. There was a Saturday program called Au-delà du Son—Beyond the Sound—which featured music from all over the world. This was the only way we knew which American songs were trending. Nelly, R. Kelly, Destiny’s Child, Westlife, and Céline Dion were among the Western artists we liked. I could sing Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” word for word, but I had no idea what the words meant. The same went for any R. Kelly or Céline Dion song.
As for Congolese music, I was the best dancer in the house, and I made sure everyone knew it. I danced the popular hip-swinging Ndombolo dance step by step, without missing a beat, starting at the age of five. I wasn’t afraid to perform for anyone willing to watch me.
I also watched the soccer World Cup with great interest;
I loved the game. My team was Brazil, and when my guys lost to France in 2002, I cried my eyes out. My parents and siblings all laughed at me because I was such a passionate fan.
My parents sheltered me from many of the civil war images that surfaced on TV. I didn’t really understand war, because my parents did such a good job protecting me from it. I did understand the need to be safe. I did not understand why people would want to target us. Some days, I would eavesdrop on conversations among my parents and other adults. I would hear them talking about war that was either going on at the time or that was about to start. That’s how I knew if we were likely to flee soon. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of my father opening a closet that he kept locked at all times, and for a good reason—there were several guns in there. I didn’t understand why Dad owned guns; he was not a soldier, and I had never seen him shoot anything. I know now that he wanted to protect us from war, but at the time, I figured he was keeping them for an uncle in the military.
I had two uncles in the military, and they would often stop by the house with their friends to visit. I loved all of them dearly. They used to play with me and let me touch the stars adorning their uniforms. My favorite uncle was my mom’s younger brother Rumenge. My mother loved him deeply too. He was a tall, handsome man, like a movie star. He was kind and gentle; it was hard to picture him as a soldier. He was always playing and laughing with me. He brought me gifts whenever he visited—candy, money, clothes—and I cried when he had to leave. I never knew what his job was in the military. Just like my father, he never explained why he had a gun.
For all I knew, our life was normal. I was a happy kid.
To be sure, there were daily challenges. The electricity went off all the time, at random hours throughout the day and night. When it happened, you could hear the neighborhood erupt in one big, heavy groan. Then kids would go out in the streets and sell petrol to light oil lamps.
“Petroleeeee!” they would call in a singsongy voice from the streets. “Petrol here!”
“Kuya apa!” we would reply. “Come here!”
The back-and-forth chant would continue until the kids found the customer. If people weren’t interested in buying the petrol, the kids would sometimes snap at them, telling them to drink it: “Kunywa ayo!”
When the electricity came back on, you could hear the neighborhood cheer and clap.
My father was often away in those early years, working at different jobs to support the family, including a job in customs and immigration at the port. During this time, my uncle Rumenge became like a second father to me, visiting often. The doors of our home were always open to uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, visitors. There were at least three cousins staying with us at any given time. Privacy was not something that I knew. People came and went, all day long. No one bothered to knock on the door; they just wandered in.
The same went for traveling members of our tribe: Whenever they hiked down from the mountains and crossed the river to get to the city, our house was the first one they saw. They would often come and stay, to rest on their journey. It took about three days by foot to get from the mountains to the city. Our house was like a landmark: People knew to look for the big yellow house with the green roof. Mom would invite them in and lay out blankets for them to sleep on the living-room floor. They could stay as long as they liked.
Mom was like a saint, friendly to everyone in the neighborhood, including the homeless, the troubled, random drifters. Everyone knew her by name, even the most obscure outcasts—a lady with swollen feet and a cloud of flies around her, a strange drooling man with a lisp. They would show up at our front gate and my mom would give them food.
At Christmas and New Year’s, she kept the gate open so that anyone could come in and have a meal of rice, meat, and beans. My mom grew vegetables in a garden—cassava, corn, beans. On the holidays, scruffy children would meander into our home, along with homeless people.
A typical kid who did not yet understand the world, I would say things about our odd guests like, “Mom, that man smells.”
She would shush me. “It doesn’t matter if he smells. He’s still a person. A person is a person, no matter what,” she said. “You must do what you can to help people. What you do comes back around to you.”
It reminded me of the lyrics to a song I had heard in church while growing up: “Goodness returns to you. Wrongdoing also returns to you. Choose which one you want, because it will come back to you.” It always scared me. I thought: What if I’m not nice and nothing good happens to me?
I was just beginning to learn about the generosity of our tribe. Eventually I came to understand that there was a spirit of unity among my people, a deeply ingrained sense of helping those less fortunate than you because you could lose your own good fortune at any moment. My people knew that wealth could come and go. My family didn’t always have enough food for ourselves for dinner, but we would help anyone who asked. And sometimes, I would be sent to a neighbor’s house to ask for help.
“What did you make for dinner?” I would ask the neighbors. And they would send me home with food. We all looked out for one another.
On those nights when we didn’t have enough food for dinner, I don’t remember feeling upset about it. That’s simply the way life was, and I figured it was the same way for everybody. Mom would make a joke and we would laugh it off. She would say something silly or sarcastic, such as, “Tonight we can eat the word of God.” Then we would all entertain ourselves by playing cards in the living room. I never felt deprived.
My mother was such a strong, wise, multitasking force. She literally chopped down a tree once while watching Princesse, who was a baby at the time. She situated Princesse over to one side and made sure she chopped the tree so it would fall in the opposite direction. Mom never complained. To this day, I can never complain about anything in front of her. She will say, “Sandra, do you have to chop wood with a child on your back?”
And that pretty much says it all.
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