Friday, February 14, 2014

An Unconventional Childhood

"It takes a village to raise a child." --African Proverb

"It takes Team Rwanda to raise a Jonathan" -- Fact of Life

Five years ago one of our rider's had a son.  He named him Jonathan.  It is an honor to have a child named after you in the Rwandan culture.

Jonathan's first three years were not good.  

They came to live with us, Jonathan and his papa, two years ago.

Over the next two years, Jonathan, who had arrived malnourished, withdrawn and at times almost catatonic, became the youngest Team Rwanda member.  

In the "perfect" world, you would be a child born to loving parents, committed to raising a good human being, a family with means to provide shelter, clothing, and education.  

Jonathan's world is anything but.  He has a loving father who is learning to be a good father.  His father was separated from his family from the time he was 10 until he was a teenager due to the Genocide.  He was alone, scared and running for his life.  His father had moved him somewhere to be safe, away from him.  How could Jonathan's father know how to father?  Jonathan's father loved his son so much he gave up a year of his career to make sure Jonathan was safe, loved and protected.  Every day Jonathan's father becomes a better father.

Jonathan is an only child but he is not alone.  His protector is a 140# South African Boerboel.  

Every week he is surrounded by 12 - 18 riders who come to camp.  One day Jonathan looked up at me and said, "I have many many Tontos.  It is good."

"Yes, Jonathan, it is very good."

The riders impress me with their gentle, inclusive and encompassing spirit with Jonathan.  The affection and love they bestow on this little boy is the stuff of Hallmark moments.  The riders also are disciplined and everyone keeps Jonathan in check.  It is something I do not generally witness along the roads and in the villages where I live.  Most children, born to people of little means in Rwanda are hauling water and dodging cars on the road from the time they can walk.  They are caring for younger siblings and school is something they go to until their parents need them for something more important, like feeding the family.  Maybe that is why our riders are the way they are with Jonathan.  They were those kids, they do not want Jonathan to be that kid.

I am his Mukecuru.  His "old lady".  I have made it clear from the beginning I am not his mother and never will be.  But I will always be his Mukecuru.  Jonathan has a mother, although she is not a part of his life.  I will go home to the US some day.  He does not need another mother to leave.  Everyone needs a Mukecuru they can visit in America!

I never had a burning desire to have children and Jonathan will be the closest I ever come to being responsible for shaping a small one.  When I hear the horror stories from friends about things happening with their kids and teenagers I would wonder quietly, if I could have done anything different if I had been their parent.  I would always keep my mouth shut as I didn't ever want to hear, "well, you don't know, you don't have kids."  Now I kind of do.  I am responsible, along with his 15 Tontos, his main Tonto, the man he was named after, and his father.  This Team is raising this child.

Jonathan is fortunate to attend a private school.  His Tonto and Mukecuru have some means.  When he started almost two years ago, he "failed" baby class.  I met with his teacher and she hesitantly said to me, "We need to keep him in baby class."

"Of course, he's four!  He's a boy.  Hold him back."  He was 48 out of 50.  His numbers and letters were backwards, inversed and upside down.  I emailed all my educator friends and asked their opinion, "Was he dyslexic?"

For almost a year, Jonathan spoke little and did not engage.  I became worried.  They say the first year is critical.  Had the damage been done?  Was it too late.  A friend said to me, "Just keep talking to him.  Give him words, English, French, doesn't matter."

And so we did.  He hung out in the garage with Vincent, our French mechanic.  He followed the riders and their Kinyarwandan bantering.  He had an Italian /Rwandan girlfriend, Mila, and he heard English non stop from the others in the family.

And one day, less than a year ago, he woke up.  He started talking and hasn't stopped.  Out of his mouth came Kinyarwanda, Swahili, English, French and even a little Italian.  When I visited his school at the end of 2013, he had gone from 48/50 to 23/50 to 12/50.  His trajectory was meteoric.  He was promoted to P1.  

If I was a parent, I would raise my child in the same environment as Jonathan. He has no TV, no video games.  He does love our iPhones for the pictures.  He LOVES looking at pictures.  At dinner we sit around the table and pick objects and say them in every language we can think of.  The fork is la forchette, el tenedor, uma, la forchetta and whatever it is in Kinyarwanda which I can never remember or pronounce.  

When Jonathan entered P1, his father said he was the only child to do the entire intake interview in English.  He was a proud papa.

There is no other child I have heard, who could keep up with the Why questions better than Jonathan.  I will never tell him no, or to go away.  I created this desire to ask why, now I must pay the price.

Today I asked him why he wasn't in school.  He showed up at my house at 8:00am with his bike helmet on and rolling in on his new bike.  He looked at me and said, "My teacher told me to go home because my English is too good."

"WHAT?"  Jonathan also has a bit of an imagination.  It is Valentine's Day and I guess Rwandan's take it seriously because school was closed today.

Jonathan is 5.  He prefers the company of adults over the neighbor children, or as I affectionately refer to them as Lord of the Flies.  He spends so much time with adults one day I said to him, "Do you want to play with the other children?"

He looked at me and said, "No…no they beat each other, me no like beating."

"I agree, the beating thing is not good."

About a month ago, Jonathan learned to ride a bike.  We had to get three different bikes because he is very small for his age and we kept overshooting the size.  When the bike came it had training wheels.  Jonathan's father immediately removed the training wheels and Jonathan had a meltdown.  He is still 5.  His father knew exactly what he was doing and within a week Jonathan was pedaling down our dirt street.  There is nothing better in life than the joy of seeing a 5 year old ride a bike.

We can't get him off the bike…ever!

Today, Jonathan rode the bike as I walked Zulu around our neighborhood loop. It's a little over a mile and a half.  We talked about stopping and looking both ways at street crossings.  (You have NO idea how rare a concept that is in Africa!)  Here comes a tall, white, blonde chick, walking a 140# dog who looks like a lion, with a Rwandan 5 year old jabbering away in English and riding like he was training for the Tour de France.  Everyone we passed, stopped, stared and smiled.  He has that way about him.

After our walk he said he was tired from his big training and asked for some "race food".  Muesli is his go to meal.  Muesli, with no sugar, bananas, with extra raisins and cashews…and milk.  The kid eats anything just about.  He doesn't like spicy food but that's an acquired taste.  I can live with that.  He eats salad, fish, chicken, loves pasta with onions, green peppers and tomatoes and refuses to touch Coke or Fanta.  He then proceeded to watch two hours of Tour de France DVDs from 2003.  He already knows race tactics and has been perfecting his winning, raised hands and kisses, for his first stage win.

Yes, he is completely indoctrinated in all things cycling.  

There could be worse things.

His timeout today for taking my iPhone without asking was 5 minutes of pause of the Tour de France DVD.  He put his head down on the desk in front of the computer screen and took a quick nap.

His father has a look of complete exhaustion 24/7.  His father is no longer a cyclist with the team, but now is the team mechanic.  You can see in his weary face, how proud he is of his son.  His father is learning to be a great father, firm, disciplined and loving.  Jonathan adores his "Daddy".  

Jonathan is the next generation of Team Rwanda.  He is in the company of Joseph's new son, Contador Alberto Biziyaremye (I kid you not, that is what he named him) and Nathan's soon to be born son.  Nathan just found out it will be a boy and you can tell he is very happy for his son to join the Team Rwanda 2.0 edition.

The best outcome of raising Jonathan within this team is the riders clearly understand the value of education.  They were all deprived of an education due to the Genocide and the aftermath of chaos.  Their children will have the opportunity they never had.  

Jonathan's father once said to Tonto and I, "I think he is not smart."  Jonathan's father thought that simply being born white meant you were smarter.  Now he knows it has nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with opportunities in education.  All the riders now know this.  Jonathan has shown all of us the power of education….the power of education and the power of the bike…and heroes!

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