My Rwandan Brother
What I learned about true generosity and relationships
It’s been five years since I started supporting a young student in Rwanda.
Trust me, it didn’t happen intentionally because I wanted to be a saint or had too much money and didn’t know what to do with it.
I kind of just slipped into it and then felt very embarrassed to pull out, even though at the time I was a backpacker, traveling the world — and as all backpackers know, budget is always limited.
So why then, while scrambling to get the cheapest meal and the cheapest room every day, would I decide to pay 200 euros a semester for someone I didn’t know?
I have no idea. I think it was a mix between naivety, compassion, and probably some guilt-driven white person ego issues.
So this is how it happened: I left Australia (my home for ten years) to travel around the world, and one of the destinations was Rwanda. I was going to spend a month volunteering, teaching clay-therapy, laughter yoga, and massage to psychology students in Butare.
Christina, a woman participating in one of my workshops, approached me to sponsor her son’s high school. Her husband had died of HIV not long ago and left her and five children without an income. She also has HIV and is over 60, which means there is just no chance of employment, even if her health was good.
I said yes even though I didn’t know them and I didn’t know how I’d be able to do it. But thus started my struggle to pay someone else’s school fees even though I was struggling to support myself.
For the first year, every time Jonas contacted me for payment, I felt resentment. Resentment followed by self-righteousness and arrogance.
Somehow, I felt I had signed up for something that was beyond my means. I felt like a victim. My passive-aggressive ways of dealing with it were that I didn’t respond to him straight away, but let him hang there in his uncertainty and vulnerability, not knowing whether he would be able to continue his education this term — and with that, his tender hope of a better future.
Imagine! Let’s put ourselves in his shoes:
You pray with all your might to continue education, simply because you are young, intelligent and eager. A miracle happens, this white elusive person starts sending you money. You don’t know that person, so all you can do is have faith and trust, being totally dependent on their whim. You are shy to ask for your money, it takes effort to overcome your shame and your pride to send that email. And then you don’t hear back from them for two(!) weeks, while payment due date is coming closer and you have to use all your strength to keep your anxiety at bay and your faith alive.
Don’t get me wrong, I have compassion for myself now and see it for what it was: a process of growing out of my self-absorbed immaturity. But I have to fully name and own it. That ‘charity’ attitude was based on a white superiority arrogance and self-righteousness. It was based on fear and guilt.
And fear does strange things to us. I had no stability in my life, no income and therefore couldn’t really see beyond my own survival needs. I was also afraid to be tricked and taken advantage of (you hear so many stories, after all!).
However, after some time, something started shifting inside and all of the sudden it really dawned on me.
He’s no different than me.
This subconsciously deep-rooted belief — that somehow, someone who has grown up poor in a ‘third-world country’ (which, by the way, is a really outdated expression as explained in the book Factfulness) has less right to the luxuries of modern life than I do, simply by me being used to it and him not — came crashing down on me. OMG! I felt so ashamed of my self.
What a situation, hey? He is ashamed for asking, I’m ashamed for being white and ‘privileged.’ And through that shame, we both create separation.
So I started not only giving money but a relationship.
We would meet on Skype and write letters to each other. We started sharing our journeys, fears, and dreams together. If my payment was due or for some reason I hadn’t responded to him straight away, I would apologize.
In short, I started showing respect and care.
I began sending a bit extra just so the rest of them could actually eat. (It’s really hard to study on an empty stomach!). And that came from a feeling of true generosity, which is based on a feeling of relationship. I truly started seeing him as my little brother.
This year I went to visit the family and spent almost a month with them. Jonas picked me up from the airport with a tie, a jacket, and polished shoes. Made me feel embarrassed about my traveler’s clothing: dirty, dusty flip-flops and worn out pants and shirts.
We laughed as we realized that he was much smaller than me and I was much taller than he imagined! We were both vulnerable. Can we trust each other?
Christina had asked friends to help her cook all day and we were welcomed with a feast. They were living in a small 4 x 5m single room, the five of them. No kitchen, no bathroom (the way we know it), no running water. But goodness me, plenty of generosity and warmth.
I felt instantly at home.
I loved the routine of cooking and then doing the dishes together. We spent days laughing a lot, trying to understand each other and the different culture and belief systems we operate from. There were moments of frustration also, but we always managed to come back to the heart.
And I realised this could only happen because I was willing to drop my ‘role’ as a charity giver and willing to express authentically my fears and vulnerability. I was willing to show myself as equally human.
Not as a ‘white’ western person that knows it all better. And equally, I was also willing to share my knowledge and wisdom, whereas maybe before I felt that wasn’t appropriate. Maybe I felt my concerns weren’t the same as his or he wouldn’t be able to understand my ‘advanced’ spirituality. (Oh my god, I can’t believe I really thought that!). That was total bollocks, of course!
We had deep philosophical discussions about the nature of life, god, and the universe. About the power of generosity, about human relationships and dropping the stories that divide us. About the power of faith and prayer. About what makes us truly happy.
I feel my heart received the gift of true healing because I was able to show my own confusion and my heart’s need for connection and acceptance, beyond roles and projections. We were able to meet as two tender hearts. And that was such a relief.
I understood what generosity really is: it’s not what we give, out of an idea. It’s simply making yourself available and open to respond to the need of the other, whatever that need may be. True generosity comes from a deep sense of relatedness.
Something that happens not by an act of doing: Look, I’m being so generous. But as an outpouring of love, because we are on eye-level with each other. We share the same heart and the same longing. Do you know that feeling? When you just want to give, not because you ‘should,’ but you totally and simply just feel moved to?
I spent my birthday with them. Again they made a feast, invited all the neighbors (who I didn’t know), and managed to cram in 15 people in that tiny room. They gave me gifts and showered me with blessings. The generosity of their heart deeply touched me and I still feel tears coming to my eyes.
There was this whole layer of ‘westernness’ gone: who are you, what do you do for a living, how much money do you make, how intelligent are you….all those questions disappeared and I felt fully accepted just as who I am. It was so simple.
I also did a breath session in Rwanda and Jonas was able to participate. He had quite a release, in which he couldn’t look me in the eye, however. Later I understood why.
After the session I received probably the most touching letter in my life from him:
“Kasia, I cannot thank you deeply enough. You’ve been supporting me financially all those years but the most important gift you gave me is your acceptance of me as your brother. I felt so ashamed of myself, that I cannot support myself and keep having to be dependent on you, that’s why I couldn’t look at you during the breathing session. Yet, you were there with me treating me just the same as all the people in the room, standing next to me, telling them I’m your brother. Never once were you ashamed of me and where I’m coming from. I promise you, I will become a great man so you can be proud of me and your investment will be not for nothing.”
Needless to say, these words made me cry. I hadn’t realized that the tragedy of being ‘poor’ does not only lie in the obvious disadvantage of ‘not having enough’ but in the SHAME that one carries about it.
Somehow when you are ashamed of being poor, you don’t feel you are part of the whole and that you are allowed to participate in the game as everyone else. You lack the confidence to stand up for yourself and demand the other to look you in the eye and see you as your fellow human.
You don’t feel worthy to receive. So you hold back your energy because shame really is fear of rejection.
It’s really so upside down and twisted. For why would the people who are being exploited feel shame and not the ones who are exploiting? When you stop to think about it, and I never had until that moment when it hit me, it’s totally crazy. And it’s not really about who should be feeling what, but more the fact that we never stop to think what it might be like.
Or maybe we do and maybe we do feel guilty towards the unprivileged …and maybe that’s exactly what holds us back from reaching out and spilling our hearts, because how can we digest these emotions without making it about us again?
I am writing this article because I want to share with you how this relationship touched my heart. How blessed I feel that I was given the opportunity to experience true generosity, shown to me by the persistence and humbleness of my Rwandan brother and life’s grace.
I feel humbled to know that I am given the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life just by acknowledging them as a worthy fellow human and restoring some dignity in their being as well as my own. It’s a feeling like no other to feel my heart open again, without all that ‘rich/poor, black/white’ shit that we put in between and that makes human connections so complicated.
And then seeing the fruits of that, seeing how that beautiful young brother of mine is evolving into a truly wonderful young adult: confident, trustworthy and full of integrity and faith in the power of relationship.
And feeling those fruits of maturity and love also within myself. Even though I still have a long way to go as he continues to remind me whenever I get stressed out…“Have faith Kasia, all is in God’s will”. “Thank you, Jona, my wise little brother.” Humble pie all over again.
Somehow it also feels like some form of redemption. I can’t fully put it into words, but I get this sense of righting some of the wrongdoing that our ancestors and generation has done. It’s not a big thing, it’s just one person and his community, but I feel the ripple effect of this energy uplifting my own being and everyone who comes in touch with the project.
It’s the energy of relationship, of two hearts meeting in goodwill towards each other and creating beauty.
If you are someone who would love to support some causes but feels like right now you don’t have the financial means, I want to remind you of this:
Generosity is really not about money but the generosity of your spirit. You don’t have to go to Africa, you can start with your neighbor. It’s about collectively redeeming our dignity as humans. And that we can only do through relationship. Through the willingness to stop and acknowledge each other, letting each other know we are not alone.
The relationship between Jonas and me is growing in trust and mutual respect and we are now working on a project together: ‘Amahoro bags’
‘Amahoro’ means peace in Kinyarwanda. Christina (Jonas’ mother) started making bags out of beads. Each bag is done with an intention and a blessing for the carrier of the bag. The vision is to sell the bags and eventually support the whole community of women, so they can support their children going to school.
Thank you for taking the time to read this story. It just feels good to share. And if you feel like supporting the project in any way, check out Amahorobags on Instagram. A website is in process also.
Ndagakunde Cyane Cyane — Much love.