He works with the energy and intensity, if not the skill, of a mechanic twice his age. He keeps his head down, focusing on his task, talking to himself—threading greased pedals onto one of 120 sturdy black bikes we’re here to build and donate to a Rwandan charity so people can ride to work, to school, to a well with clean water. He looks to be the same age as my third-grade twins. We’ve been working together for an hour in a small auditorium in a walled compound outside Kigali. A choir practices somewhere outside, the ethereal music blending with the clouds that descend down the green ravines of the hills that define Rwanda. Although he speaks no English and I no Kinyarwanda, we use the universal signs of thumbs-ups, head nods, and “no problem.” We work as a team.
And we smile. A lot. The kid has a smile like no other I’ve seen in more than six years of working with African relief agencies to build and donate bikes to charitable groups. I’ve seen lots of hard workers. Lots of incredible people. But there’s something about this one that has a hold, quite unexpectedly, of my heart, more so than the other kids working with volunteers around the compound.
Maybe because he’s about the same age as my own three children, a world away in an American suburb. Maybe it’s his warmth, laid bare by a complete absence of any artifice. His eyes glow and his teeth sparkle, and my jet lag melts away as this kid, whose name I don’t know and can’t seem to find out, beams with pride and happiness at finally getting the pedals onto the bike. I give him a thumbs-up, and he beams anew. Over the course of this humid morning, we’ll assemble 15 or so bikes, half of what I could do working alone. But I have a new friend.
And he likes me. Anytime we stop work so I can explain something to him, he holds my hand. When we stop for tea, he holds my hand again, and I slip him some Skittles. A woman in traditional dress comes over, ignoring me, and speaks to him sharply, then raps his hand. I’m shocked, but parenting methods are different in central Africa than in New Jersey, so I say nothing as he struggles to hold back tears. Then he takes my hand and pulls me back to the bikes. Within two minutes, he’s beaming, and this time, I’m the one trying to hold back tears.
At lunch, I tell Jules Shell, the director of Foundation Rwanda, the charity group we’re working with, what a great hustler we have on our hands. I ask again what his name is. She says, “Well, we call him Jean-Paul. But he doesn’t have a real name.”
I must look confused. She smiles a little. “I don’t think his mom could bring herself to call him anything at the time.”
I don’t get it, but she continues. “How old do you think he is?” she asks.
“Nine, maybe ten,” I say.
She looks at me with the tired eyes of a relief worker exhausted by explaining the unexplainable. “He’s 16,” she says. I say it can’t be; he’s tiny. “Sixteen. All these kids are. The genocide was in 1994. Do the math.”