Jean Pierre: Chief Gardener (Part 2)

(Continued from prior post…)

For nearly two years after the genocide, medical diagnosis was unclear or unavailable and Jean Pierre remained an invalid at his Aunt’s house. Finally, a doctor at one of the government hospitals decided to operate and removed an ulcer. This procedure went a long way to affording Jean Pierre a full recovery.

A naturally hard worker, now with a healthy body, Jean Pierre was able to take a job as a security guard with one of the large private security companies in Kigali. In 1996, Jean Pierre was married and over time became the proud father of 4 children. Although KK Security did not treat employees well (often paying a fraction of what was owed), Jean Pierre did not feel he could leave because he had a family to support and finding another job was unlikely. Jean Pierre was still with KK Security 13 years later when I met him, last summer. Because of the treatment of his previous employers, it was not difficult for me to pay him better and entice him to leave the company that would otherwise claim half the fees I paid for security services. When I asked Jean Pierre what he really wanted to do, he told me he would do anything, but loved gardening. Thus, I was able to give him the title of Chief Gardener and a uniform more to his liking as well. Jean Pierre tells me that this is the only job he’s had that has paid him regularly since he left the Akagera Hotel. You should have seen the look on his face when I got to tell him he would receive a raise after a year of great service to our family!

To share his story certainly takes some vulnerability and risk. As such, I felt I should reciprocate and tell him my own. You can probably imagine how odd that felt! So much of his life has largely been dictated for him…. by others, by circumstance and by poverty. As I began telling my story, I realized how many resources and choices I have had (and often took for granted). I told him that I too scored well in primary school, but I was able to progress to middle school and eventually go to university and choose to study business, and even had the luxury of choosing a field and company I wanted to work in when I graduated. I complained about the one hour commute I had to drive twice a day when living in Los Angeles, but felt silly complaining since I never faced the jaws of a lion as he had on his commute as a boy! I told him I loved working hard and he said he did as well (and it shows!). He was amazed that I would leave a job that had the potential for riches American companies like Microsoft had offered. Although not a believer, he somehow understood that my faith compelled me to chart a different path.

By the time I had finished my story and answered his questions, we both sat with a deep appreciation at the life the other had lived. Although roughly the same age, being born in such different contexts made it quite amazing that two such people could ever find themselves friends.

Onward and Upward,

Introducing Chief Gardener: Jean Pierre

Jean Pierre Barahira is the trusted Chief Gardener (and guard) we have relied upon at our home this past year. His capacity for English is developing faster than my Kinyarwanda, yet there are many conversations we’ve not yet had. I’ve been anxious to know about Jean Pierre’s life, yet I’ve not wanted to dive too soon into a story so personal. With the help of my language tutor, Silas, I finally found the words and time to get to know this man better. I will attempt to highlight some of Jean Pierre’s fascinating story here.

Jean Pierre estimates he was born around 1965-1966 (birth records are sometimes unreliable here). He is the 7th of 14 children born in the town of Rwamagana, in the Eastern lowlands of Rwanda. He did well in primary school, and earned the right to continue his education but was frustrated when it became known his parents were too poor to support the modest fees required. So, at about age 12, Jean Pierre began working in the local cassiterite mine. Many boys his age were injured or died in this dangerous underground work, but after three years in the job, he left to accept a job he now claims turned out to be even more dangerous. Jean Pierre began working for the only major hotel in his part of the country, the Akagera Hotel. His duties entailed cleaning the rooms, washing and ironing clothes. It was deemed a very good job, but the danger came in the commute. Jean Pierre and the other boys who worked at the hotel lived 30 Km (18.6 miles) away. Some had bicycles and all would speed as fast as possible, but many fell prey to the lions and Cape buffalo that lived near the road. After four years, Jean Pierre had the opportunity to live with his Aunt in the big capital city of Kigali.

The first year Jean Pierre lived in Kigali, he was unsuccessful in finding work. The second year, Jean Pierre found a job as a taxi-bus ‘conductor’, helping to fill and collect fees from passengers on the road to and from Gisenyi. He kept this job for nearly three years, but developed some stomach problems that eventually made it impossible to eat properly or go into work. It was also about then that the disturbances leading up to the genocide reached a fever pitch. Jean Pierre’s friends and relations would travel from place to place trying to get away from the killing and angry mobs. For three months, they never stayed for more than two nights in one place, and every day they faced the possibility it would be their last. By July, the roaming group decided to escape over the Western border to D.R. Congo, choosing instead to face the squalor of a refugee camp, where at least you could be assured nobody would try to kill you. After three months, Jean Pierre prepared to return to Rwanda, and offered to take others with him. Most of the friends and relatives he knew refused to return (although disease and hunger took many lives each day), fearing what they would find if they went back. Jean Pierre has since learned all those that remained have since passed away. Of the 14 brothers and sisters in his family, Jean Pierre is one of only four that survive today.

It was at this point I told Jean Pierre I now realize how fortunate I am to know him. (to be continued…)

Onward & Upward,