Boy on a Bike: How a Rwandan Teen Overcame a Legacy of Genocide

Far from home, in a war-torn land, a charity worker met a child who had every reason to hate—and yet taught volumes about love.

By Steve Madden from Reader's Digest | April 2012

Stephen Madden and Jean-PaulCourtesy Stephen MaddenThe author with 'Jean-Paul,' whose appearance belies his age.
He goes at the bikes with the same intensity he did all morning, the quality of his work getting a little better, a little faster, with each passing build. And when I decide to take a break around 3 p.m. and try to wave him over for chai and Skittles, he just smiles and keeps on working, even if the bicycle pump continues to confound him.

Asking a child (or even an adult) to assemble bikes all day without riding one is tantamount to torture. So around 5 p.m., I take him outside with a bike I know to be assembled properly and gesture for him to get on and have a spin. The gestures don’t work, so I ask a translator to tell him to go for a ride. His eyes grow solemn at the news, and although the bike is built for someone half again as tall as he is, he gamely throws a leg over and wobbles down an alley and around the corner.

As I stand there with a three-way wrench in my hand, a wave of fatigue sweeps over me. I think of the warm Sunday September afternoon a few years before when my son, Luke, insisted I take the training wheels off his bike. He then promptly mastered two wheels and spun away from me down our street. In one of the great paradoxes of parenthood, I had just taught him the means to leave my side. It was as if I had said, “I love you so much, I will teach you how to leave me. Because if I’ve done my job right, you’ll always ride back.”

Maybe it is the jet lag, or maybe the tea is wearing off, but my eyes fill with tears. I wipe them away and look down the alley, waiting for him. But there’s no sign. He isn’t there. I imagine him riding away from here to a place where his love will be returned and his warmth valued. Just riding away, for good.

Suddenly a bike slams into my right leg; I drop the wrench. He’s there, having circled the building, the compound. Laughing out loud, feet on the ground, he takes my hand and beams.

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  • Your Comments

    • Andrea

      This story touched a cord. I was moved by the story, by the mother and the boy, to be alive after so much pain, decide to give birth, and then to care for the boy but cannot love him. Talk about a paradox! I wept while reading the story. The soul of the boy and his life can teach the human spirit the need to excite in spite of the conditions. I am in awe.

    • Cherry Blossom

      I am so touched by Jean-Paul’s story. I wish I could send him a Christmas gift. How can I do that?