This is Part two of three in the story of our adopting our daughter, Maliah, from Rwanda last year.
I travelled to Rwanda with my friends Dale and Adrienne, who were adopting a little boy. Our trip became an adventure as soon as we touched down in Africa. The final leg of our flight changed at the very last minute, so we were left scrambling in Nairobi to find someone who could pick us up in Kigali at 2 a.m. After a final, unexpected detour through Bujumbura, we landed in Rwanda in the early hours of Sunday morning.
We met our children that afternoon, and as I said in my Father’s Day post, it was an amazing experience. But that first meeting was brief. We still had some hurdles to clear before we could keep them for good.
To adopt a child from Rwanda, you essentially need two things: permission from the Rwandese government to take them out of the country, and a visa from the Canadian government to bring them back here. So first we had to obtain a ‘letter of no objection’ from the Minister of Family and Gender Promotion in Rwanda in order to get our kids a passport. In the second leg of our trip, we’d travel back to Nairobi to secure a visa from the Canadian High Commission.
So we had to leave our kids at the orphanage on Sunday, though we picked them up again Monday morning to run our errands. The court proceedings had been completed before we arrived, and we hoped we could show up at the Ministry of Family that morning and collect our letter.
But holy red tape, were we in for a shock.
We were a party of seven: Maliah and me; Dale and Adrienne and their son, Epimaque; our lawyer, Valery; and our cab driver, Innoncent. At the Ministry of Family, we all crowded into the office of a woman named Veronique. Then we Canadians sat there awkwardly while Valery and Veronique argued for the better part of an hour. I was lost as they spoke a mix of Kinyarwanda and French, but Veronique kept saying Non, non… and I knew that wasn’t good.
Finally we left, without our letters. Valery explained that some of our documents—we were carrying a huge folder of papers, which grew as the week went on—hadn’t been notarized. So we took our dossiers to the city council for an official stamp. Which, naturally, was way more complicated than we expected.
When most people picture African governments, they envision corrupt officials who’ll do whatever you want for the right price. Rwanda is very much the opposite. The country has worked extremely hard to clean up its image following the genocide in 1994, and part of that is a severe anti-corruption stance. In fact, they’re so anti-corruption that every single official we encountered refused to approve anything unless literally every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ was crossed.
So that’s why, after 45 minutes of waiting at the city council, we learned that they wouldn’t notarize one of our documents that had been translated to English, because they didn’t recognize the translator’s name. Valery took us to the Department of Justice to try again. After more sitting, they told us the same thing but informed us that if we could find the translator and bring him to their office so they could interview him, they would be happy to oblige.
We chose the less insane route of hiring another translator, one the department recommended. By the time we reached their offices and haggled over price, we were told it was too late in the day to do the translation and to come back tomorrow.
So on Day 1, we drove laps around Kigali, visited four different offices, and accomplished almost nothing.
This became our pattern for the rest of the week. Kigali is a gorgeous but confusing city—it’s built on a series of hills, so it’s hard to travel anywhere in a straight line. Yet I could go back tomorrow and probably find my way to most government offices, because I visited every single one of them, usually more than once. By Day 2, Adrienne and I were darkly joking that we felt like contestants on The Amazing Race: Bureaucracy Edition.
Another maddening thing about Rwanda is you can’t receive a service and pay for it in the same place. Half the time we had to go somewhere, find out how much what we needed would cost, go to another office to pay, and come back with the receipt.
After a while I started adding up our trips:
-We visited the Ministry of Family and Gender five times before we finally got our letter, because our dear friend Veronique kept finding problems with our paperwork—usually mine.
-I made two trips to a police station in Remera, because the original police statement from the night my daughter was found and brought to the hospital was handwritten on the back of a hospital form, and this was not kosher enough for Veronique. We had to get the police chief to attest that the officer who wrote the statement was indeed a police officer who had indeed been working that night, and events unfolded exactly as he described. It took three hours and two drafts to write this three-paragraph letter.
– We visited city council three times before we finally got everything notarized. I changed Maliah’s diaper for the first time under a tree on the lawn, under the extremely skeptical eyes of two Rwandese women who wondered what the heck I was doing.
– We visited the courthouse six times and had my official court judgement changed three times. Once because Shawna’s name was spelled wrong, and once because the people in the passport office didn’t like the wording, even though a judge and the Ministry of Family had already approved it.
I’m probably being conservative in estimating we drove seven or eight hundred kilometres around the city in 10 days, usually with five adults and two children squeezed into a Toyota Corolla. And driving in Kigali is an adventure in itself. Most of the main roads are paved, but many others are practically goat paths. Every time we travelled down the steep, cratered dirt road to the orphanage—which we visited eight or nine times in total before we could finally keep our kids—we weren’t sure if the car would make it back up with all of us in it. Innoncent just gunned it all the way and hoped for the best.
And we did most of this while carting around an increasingly mischievous three-year-old who spoke no English and an infant who liked to poop at really inopportune times.
It probably sounds stressful and exhausting, and a lot of the time it was. But we had some really great times along the way. Valery and Innoncent were both wonderful, and a huge help. Innoncent insisted on carrying my bag everywhere while I carried Maliah. “She will grow up to be so beautiful,” he kept telling me. Valery and I tried communicating only in French one morning, which was good for a laugh because my high-school French was pretty rusty. One afternoon we ran out of gas on a hill in the middle of rush hour, so Dale and I had to get out and push. The locals got a kick out of watching two Canadians manouvering a Toyota.
We connected with so many other amazing people too, particularly at the church our friends started in a little village just outside the city, the place where our adoption journey really began. Practically everyone in Rwanda has an incredible story, and we got to hear a lot of them. Innoncent even came with us to the Genocide Memorial, which was a moving, harrowing experience that I can’t even begin to do justice to here.
But finally, after 10 days—five longer than we planned (we also spent a lot of time in Kenyan Air’s offices, rearranging flights)—we had almost everything in place. On Tuesday afternoon we went to the passport office…for the fifth time… to pick up the children’s passports.
There was a problem. Of course.
As I alluded to above, the passport folks found a flaw in Maliah’s court document, even though it had been approved twice already. The passports were ready, but we couldn’t have them until they had a copy of the fixed court document.
This was at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The passport office closed at 5 p.m. We had flights to Nairobi at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning.
So we piled into the car and raced back to the courtroom, to change my judgement for the third time. We learned the judge was in court and wouldn’t be out for a while. Valery and Dale stayed to stake out the judge’s office, while Adrienne and I raced with Innoncent back to the passport office to stage a sit-in.
At 4:58, the man at the passport desk looked at us. “We are closing,” he said. “You can come back tomorrow.”
“No,” I said. “We have to be at the airport in six hours. We can’t come back tomorrow.”
So we argued, and refused to leave, until finally they ushered us to another room to wait. At 5:05, Dale, Valery and Innoncent raced into the office with our updated court papers. (Dale later described just how agonizing it was so sit there, watching the clock, while the judge hemmed and hawed and pecked away at the judgement while typing with two fingers.)
We had our passports. We could leave. After an unfortunately rushed celebration with our hosts and a few meagre hours of sleep, we headed to the airport at 1 a.m. We were in the clear, bound for Nairobi.
Or so we thought.