Her name was Albertine and she was the most remarkable person I'd ever met.
I met her on a mission trip to Rwanda. At the time, I was a teacher, fresh out of university, eager to learn and share my knowledge, and to see the world and what it had to offer. I was involved with UNICEF, I sponsored a child, and once a week, I would donate a portion of the little money I had earned to the cause. A local church group in my town recognised my efforts and offered me the opportunity to travel to a remote village in Rwanda, help build a school and educate young girls in the area - all expenses paid. I was delighted.
I’d been there for a few weeks and I no longer felt like such a fish out of water. Our team, me and about a dozen people of all ages from the church, had been working hard on our project and our efforts were finally paying off.
Early one blustery, rainy morning, about six weeks into our mission trip, a middle aged Rwandan woman by the name of Albertine was introduced to us. She ran an orphanage not far from the site of our school. There, she and her nineteen year old daughter Angelique nursed, fed, and provided for nearly thirty children, mostly girls, who had become orphans when their parents were killed or taken by the rebel forces which regularly tore through Rwanda, destroying everything in their paths. Albertine was beautiful; tall and graceful, with a warm, kind smile and bright eyes. She reminded me of my mother. She spoke English reasonably well, and I was keen to get to know more about her and the orphanage. She accepted my offer to show her around the school and I was glad for the opportunity to speak to Albertine alone. When she got closer, I noticed a large scar that ran from the corner of her mouth, down to her chest. I was intrigued, but I forced my volcano of questions to bubble away inside my head, rather than erupt out of my mouth because I didn’t want to be rude. I introduced myself to Albertine once again, took her hand and lead her away from the group and into the construction site.
“I have heard all about this mission. We are very thankful for all you are doing for us.” Albertine said as she gazed around the main building of the school. She looked in awe, much like a small child in a lolly shop.
“I’m so glad to be here! It’s been such a great experience so far! I can’t wait to begin teaching, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and this opportunity came at just the right time!” I replied.
“The girls will love it in here! They can’t wait to meet you. I have told them all about your group and they were all sad they couldn’t be here with me today. They are with Angelique now, but I promised them they could meet everybody soon.”
“We would love to meet them! I can’t wait for them to see the school, I hope they like it in here!”
I walked Albertine back to the group and she invited me to visit her at the orphanage the next day.
The next morning, I was the first up. I was so excited to meet my future students and most importantly, I wanted to know more about Albertine, Angelique, and their passion for the orphanage. I met Albertine down by the small, muddy creek which the community used for bathing, washing and disturbingly, the water was also used for drinking.
Although it was still early morning, the sun was baking the earth, making the air unbearably hot and sticky, gluing my hair to my face with sweat. Albertine didn’t seem to notice the heat.
Of course not, I thought to myself, she’s been doing this every day her entire life!
We walked for what felt like hours, carrying heavy clay pots filled with water above our heads. I was shaky at first, and when I dropped one on the ground, Albertine had to stop walking too because we were giggling so much. I was thankful for the spillage as it soaked my clothes and cooled me off, but the harsh African sun didn’t allow me the luxury for long.
I heard the orphanage before I saw it. At what I guessed was about 300 metres away from the site, my ears filled with giggles and cheerful, loud chatter.
When we reached our destination, I was dumbfounded. Everywhere I looked there were gorgeous children, with smiles as bright as the moon. There were boys playing ball games, and girls braiding one another’s hair. It didn’t sink in at the time, but this whir of colour, noise and excitement was about to become my entire life.
Later on, I was introduced to Angelique. Much like her mother, she was tall and stunning, with big brown eyes that sparkled when she smiled. When she saw me approach her, Angelique stood up immediately. She was wearing a colourful dress which swished around her feet when she walked. A little girl who had just finished braiding Angelique’s hair back into a perfect plait said it made her look like a princess, and I couldn’t agree more.
I’d spent a few hours with the children, telling stories and teaching the little girls new hairstyles, when Albertine took me aside.
“I’ve just received a warning. The rebels are on their way back.”
Albertine looked worried, her hands were shaking.
It was like a slap in the face to me. Life seemed so perfect here that I forgot where I was. An orphanage. These children were the lucky ones. They managed to get away from the guns and the kidnapping and they found refuge here with Albertine. Realistically, being here was just as dangerous.
Albertine sat me down.
“You see this scar? I got this last time they came. They cut me when I was trying to keep them away from my boy.” Albertine choked up.
“They took my only son.”
I felt tears spring to my eyes.
“I’ll help you. You don’t have to live in fear anymore. You’re a good person, Albertine. And you’ll get your boy back soon.” I clasped her hand tightly.
And I kept my word.
Over the next month, I sent out dozens of letters to various organisations back home who were willing to support my cause.
Thousands of dollars were raised through my pleas.
Tight security was brought to the orphanage, keeping rebels well away, and a supply of fresh water came too.
But the best part- after an extensive search and a long wait, Albertine was reunited with her son. And although the efforts of me and my team benefited hundreds of people, I would have done it all for Albertine, because she truly was the most remarkable person I’d ever met.