She was a beautiful young woman with a caramel, satin voice and easy laugh. Known by everyone on our campus in Iowa, I would see her at school dances, dressed in a short skirt and tight-fitting top, dancing with her friend, totally free and effortless. She seemed to have everything.Â Three years later, with the cornfields and faces behind me, I canâ€™t remember her name. Yet her story still haunts me.
It was a special day in my anthropology class. Rather than another lecture about Neanderthals or the significance of a certain pot discovered in New Mexico, we were having a guest speaker. I had been told only that our speaker had lived in Burundi during the genocide. I remember wondering, â€œWhat genocide?â€ After the Hollywood blockbuster, Hotel Rwanda, I knew about the genocide in Rwanda, but in Burundi? Where was Burundi? But my questions vanished when I saw the girl with the smile and easy laugh enter the room.
The girl stood on the side, playing with her hands as our professor introduced her. She took a deep breath and began to speak. It was as if a different person emerged. Her smile was forced.Â Little by little, her story emerged, as if it were slowly being pulled out of her. The girl had been born in Burundi. The genocide in her country, as in Rwanda, was a conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
She described how people lived in fear of being turned in by their neighbors and best friends. She told of how her mother was killed and her father and all her siblings. She alluded to great acts of violence, purposely avoiding details. She told of how she and her sister had survived by climbing a tree. They lived in the tree for days and when absolutely certain of safety, made their way to a refugee camp. From there, they were eventually adopted by a Burundi immigrant and his wife in the United States and the girl moved with her sister to Washington D.C.Â She rebuilt her life.
Many of the details of her talk eluded me. I remember her saying that she went through a time when she couldnâ€™t watch scary movies and how difficult it was to adjust to her new school. I remember her saying how lucky she felt for the life she now had.
What stays with me is how the struggles of this amazing young woman could not have been predicted. Just by looking at her, you could never guess the history of her life and what she endured. After, when I would see her around campus, her laugh and her smile had a deeper strength and meaning now that I knew of the traumas of her past and the strength and resilience she must have had to continue to find any joy in living.