Sunday, April 21, 2013

Jeannette Nyiransengimana (1998 - 2013)

Jeannette Nyiransengimana 
2 September, 1998 - 6 April, 2013

Jeannette died.  Little rabbit.  

I got a phone call with this shocking news while I was on Safari in the Serengeti.  I felt powerless and confused and hated that I was so far away.  I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.  I felt like this must be a mistake, a wrong number, a misidentification, a horrible prank.  (What are the steps of grief again: 1) denial, 2) rage, 3) more rage, 4) sadness, 5) avoidance?  I think I'm well on my way to step 3.)  

She was (seemed?) perfectly healthy when we left the end of the first term.  She made it home okay to her village, Rugalika, and was staying with her aunt and younger sister.  It's a very small, very rural village like most of the villages in Rwanda.  Then apparently about one week in to the break she got very suddenly sick with vomiting and shortly after that she was dead.

This is how the Director of Informal Education, Training and Philosophy put it in an email to the staff on the evening of Saturday April 6:

"Dear All,
It is with a profound sadness to announce to you the death of Jeanette Nyiransengimana from Ishema grade (Enrichment Year), Eleanor Roosevelt famIly of Mam Daffy, Grande soeur Erica, and cousin Courtney.
Jeanette hadn't notified any serious sickness; neither during this only one term that she passed in the village, nor in her family of origin. Since yesterday, she complained of strong stomach cramps with serious vomiting; this morning, she was taken to Kigese health center, Kamonyi district, Eastern Province (Editors note: Kamonyi is in the Northern Provence, about 45 minutes west of Kigali), where she passed away shortly after arriving there.
It is so sad for our community of ASYV and her family to loose a young dreamer, role model, calm, respectful, and lovely person like Jeanette. 
As Asyv family, we are joining our hand to the family of the de cujus in this difficult moment. The burial ceremony is planned tomorrow at 1:00 PM at Rugalika place-Kamonyi.
Educators and kids from Asyv will participate in this event. The departure is fixed at 10:00 am at Kigali house- Kiyovu.
We are in contact with her family, and we will share with you any updates.

May her soul rest in peace!
JMV Issa Sikubwabo,
The Director of Inform Education- Training and Philosophy."

They ended up putting off the burial for a day to perform an autopsy.  I have had it awkwardly translated to me that the autopsy results showed that somehow her intestines were blocked by being twisted and that this intestinal blockage was quite severe and quickly led to her death.  I have been told that there was no prior condition that caused this or anything that could have been identified ahead of time, that this is simply an unfortunate tragedy with no real root cause. (If I sound skeptical, I'm just wondering if this is really the type of thing an otherwise healthy kid dies from in White Plains, NY.)

They had to do an autopsy because apparently when someone dies from vomiting in Rwanda everyone suspects the person has been poisoned and everyone was jumping to that conclusion here because the onset was so sudden and she was so apparently healthy until hours before her death. Even with the autopsy, two of my girls had psychosomatic "poisoning" attacks anyway and had to be taken to hospitals for evaluation.  (The hysteria is not unfounded.  Poison is historically a method of choice for corrupt African leaders to attempt to remove the opposition and many of these events have been widely reported in the media.)

I have spent angry hours asking myself if anything more could have been done for Jeanette.  If she had gone to a proper hospital and not to that local clinic would she have been given more help? [Kigese health center, where they took her, is not even on a fold out map of Rwanda that has hundreds of small villages including the tiny town near ASYV, Rubona that I've blogged about here before.  This health center was likely very basic and very ill equipped for a serious condition.  They are usually able to provide malaria medication and some limited first aid. ] If this had happened while school was in session would the village staff have recognized the severity of the problem sooner and gotten her to Kigali's King Faisal hospital?  I can rattle these questions around in my peabrain all night and none of it matters in the end because nothing is going to change the outcome.

Ever since I heard the terrible news, I just wanted to get back to Kigali (from Tanzania).  Then I was miserable in Kigali and I just wanted to get back to Agahozo and now I am back at Agahozo and I still cannot fix it and it still doesn't make any sense and there is nothing I can do that is going to make this okay for Jeanette or any better for my girls.  You can't imagine how sad the scene is in the Eleanor Roosevelt house: 15 girls crying, Jeanette's empty bunk-bed, Jeanette's empty usual place in the dining hall. 

Needless to say things are insane here, or even more insane than usual.  I'm unable to console girls well in a second language and feel particularly useless.  I'm both really upset that she's gone and still somehow half expecting to see her when I round some corner in the village.

This is all compounded for me (it's all about me isn't it?) because Rwandan adults seem to grieve and deal with death very differently than I am used to.  If this were an American high school people would be flipping out and talking about yearbook spreads and dedicating her locker.  There would be 1 million tragic Facebook posts.  Here, it seems to me, people are sad, and then get on with it.  In the same meeting this topic was covered with the staff, there was also a lot of levity.  Tonight in the dining hall during the moment of silence some older kids were joking around. My suspicion is that death is simply common enough here to not be that big a deal, to not merit a full-scale freak out.  People die all the time and getting all worked up about it doesn't help anyone. Even Jeanette's Aunts seemed pretty casual or stoic about it at a ceremony I attended at their home, the gravesite. (Strangely, several Fantas were provided.)

On top of that, this is Genocide commemoration time in Rwanda and everyone is busy morning the death of 1 MILLION PEOPLE and pretty much everyone lost many relatives this time of year 19 years ago, so for them this is just one more death to lump in so much sadness and grief and it is like a rain shower when you're already treading in the ocean.  Maybe they notice, but what's a little more water?

In Jeanette's timeline, it's especially tragic because she was a coiled spring.  She had so many opportunities in front of her at Agahozo. She spent the first term at ASYV getting adjusted to so many new people and things and coming out of her shell from shy to joker and I really felt that Term 2 was going to be a great learning term for her and time for her to sink her teeth into a favorite activity.  

I was really worried when we were heading off on the break about a few girls.  Some of the girls in Eleanor Roosevelt have pretty tough situations to go 'home' to and I was very worried about getting them back to the village safe and sound.  In my spectrum of concern, Jeannette was at the low end. She was looking forward to seeing her Aunts and her younger sister, Julianne, and it seemed like she would be in a safe secure place.  You just never know.  Go hug your kids. 

My friend Ellen happened to come visit me from the states at the end of the term and she took a few photos including the one above and this one, which is now the only existing complete photo of the Eleanor Roosevelt Family:

Of course we will miss Jeannette dearly and I am hoping the rest of this year can be a tribute to her spirit.

She brought a lot of light and levity into the house and ironically we could really use her silly sense of humor right now to get through this.  I'm worried of course, that this will cast a shadow on the term or the year for 15 other girls primed to start taking advantage of their opportunities and I am determined to try and help them through this.

(In other news, I am back from a long three weeks away from the village that included touring Rwanda with Ellen, gorilla trekking in Volcanos National Park, an incredible safari in the Serengeti and then back in Rwanda visiting the homes of some of the ladies of Eleanor Roosevelt.  More on that when I can find the strength.)

Editors note: (May 31, 2013): My Dad always used to talk about the record keeping in Africa when we talked about the age of Dikembe Mutombo (my favorite ever 55). There are a lot of different 'takes' here in the village on the spelling of Jeannette's name (Jeanette, Janette, Jannette) as well as her birth year.  It might be 1997 or 1998.  It seems even her surviving aunts's disagree on this topic.  I might not know her actual age, but I think that tells a different story entirely about record keeping here and anyone's interest in this child while she was alive, that no one can even agree on her birthdate.  These are details '(facts?' 'truths?') that interest westerners much more than Rwandans in my experience.  Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Editors note: (June 17, 2013): erm.  Well.  This is still under dispute.  She was either born in 1997 or 1998. I'm going with 1998 for now.  I guess it just doesn't really matter.