When I think of living a meaningful life, I think of a man named Tom who built a house in Sunzu Village, Rwanda. This house was perched perilously on the side of a mountain overlooking a lake and a volcano. He could have built this house quickly, however, he chose the slow pace. His neighbors were subsistence farmers who were making a living in the best way they knew how. Poverty was prevalent.
He employed many for ten years to build this home which could have been built in two. He created a micro-economy in the little village nestled between volcanoes. This home and Tom now host visitors from near and far. Heads of state and industry, sit at the same table where those from the village have broken bread.
Though Tom had enjoyed a successful, busy life as an attorney in Southern California, he felt that something was missing. He wanted more intentionality in his life. He needed to live for a greater purpose. He decided to move to Rwanda and live among the people he had grown to love through regular visits. This was not a retirement that would consist of lazy days and an evening cocktail hour. Tom went to Rwanda with the goal of creating jobs, building schools, and building community centers.
He wanted to live a meaningful life, a life of service to others. One of his daily visits was to a blind widow known as Kaka (Grandmother in English). We had visited the children at the school that morning and then set out upon the trek to where she lived.
I remember Kaka was sitting on a small bench outside her home. Her home was composed of mud bricks with a corrugated metal roof. (I thought how loud it must be when it rains. The rainy season brings downpours, not gentle showers.) Kaka’s shoulders were draped in a red sweater, perhaps a gift from a previous visitor. Her hands, gnarled with age, held an equally gnarled cane. She broke into a smile as she heard us approaching on the steep single-person dirt path etched into the mountainside by countless bare feet. Tom’s friendly greeting elicited raucous laughter.
The two hugged as the old friends they were, and she hugged the rest of us warmly as Tom poured her a glass of fermented milk and placed it in her hands. She drank it in one gulp, and then laughed as she spoke rapidly in Kinyarwanda (the official language of Rwanda). She thanked Tom for this and the other provisions he had brought up the mountain. A little soap, cooking oil, and rice.
Kaka shared her bench with me, and as I put my arm around her bony shoulders. She laughed in delight at having visitors. I could feel her insides rattle. At the time, Kaka was believed to be somewhere north of 90 years old. She was living a good life. My guess is that she will have a good death.
That morning with Tom is one of my favorite experiences in Rwanda. His sheer joy in the moment, his genuine love for those around him – and their obvious love for him – was inspiring, uplifting, and powerful. Tom joined the small handful of people I have met in my life that I call NPHBs (Near Perfect Human Beings).
Tom has grown children in the United States who love their dad fiercely and greatly admire his purpose. Meanwhile, Tom also has a whole village in Rwanda that he considers his family by choice.
It is worth noting that Tom did not accidentally end up on the side of a mountain in the heart of Africa two hours away from the closest city. Because he is purposefully living a good life, living for something more than himself, I am convinced that Tom’s dying and future death will be good. Tom found his meaningful life by living intentionally on purpose.We do not have to circle the earth to find our meaningful life, we just need to seek it by living intentionally on purpose.