My Torn Dress: Thank God we don’t look like what we have been through

Eunice Kilonzo
7 min readMar 7, 2021

Friends, I want to take you on a journey with me.

A wild trip that involves: A torn dress 15 minutes before a speaking engagement at an international conference.

In 2019.

Yes. No fiction here. All truths.

Two years ago, a time like today (March 7), I was planning to moderate a storytelling event at the Africa Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) in Kigali, Rwanda. (The 2021 AHAIC conference, a virtual one this time, starts tomorrow and you can check it out here.)

This was the poster for the mid-morning session.

Save the Date: A Storytelling Event by African and International Civil Society

I was elated: it involved storytelling and health.

From the briefing meetings with the Amref Netherlands team, we were both ready and looking forward to the hour and a half session. My task was to lead and guide the discussion around why health care — Universal Health Coverage and Sexual Reproductive Health Rights — was a joint responsibility for civil society, government, the youth, the private sector and the research community.

Important and timely discussion.

We compared notes, went through the key messages, dotted all the i’s and crossed the t’s.

I had everything in place. Including the nice vitenge dresses, I always wear on such international trips.

In particular, I couldn’t wait to wear this beautiful dress that I had recently bought from a thrift store. It had a beautiful design. It was two-faced: the front was plain dark blue material and the back was all kitenge.

It fit like a glove, not the very tight gloves, the one that allows enough room to wiggle. I had washed and ironed it, and was packed in my suitcase.

I thought of wearing it for the journalism award gala ceremony I was attending at the conference. This was the evening before the session I was moderating.

This was the other reason I was attending the health conference in Kigali.

I was a finalist in the Africa Media Network on Health
AMNH Excellence in Health Journalism Awards 2019

The story won in the print category! It highlighted two highly stigmatized issues: disability and HIV that you can read here.

I was hoping to wear this particular kitenge dress, the one from the thrift shop, for the awards gala dinner. I, however, changed my mind and opted to reserve it for the storytelling-fireside session instead.

This my friends, was a wise move as you’ll find out shortly.

So that morning, March 7, 2019, I woke up, prepared and went through my talking points as I waited for a bus to take us to the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center for the session. We were staying at the Park Inn by Radisson, about 10 minutes drive from the Convention Center.

I wore the dress plus matching lipstick.

I got to the room at the Convention Center at around 10 am, about 45 minutes before my session. Teddy Tuyisenge, a staff at the hotel, was doing the last touches to the room.

She asked if I was the organiser. I mentioned I wasn’t but, told her what I was going to do in a short while. She asked about my stay in Kigali. I mentioned our visit to health facilities in Nyakabanda District and about a story I was planning to do on Community Health Volunteers (published here). She asked about Nairobi.

I excused myself to say hi to someone I had met during the awards gala dinner the previous night.

Teddy and her colleagues were arranging chairs in a circle, around an artificial ‘camp fire’ made out of cardboard in the middle of the room. A nice-set up to create a look and feel of a fireside storytelling session.

I came back, and as I was settling on one of the chairs at the back row, I heard…


The inside hem on the back of my dress ripped apart about 10 inches or more — just above the back slit.


Here I was, less than 15 minutes to the speaking session and a torn dress.

I said a silent prayer.

I quickly scanned around for someone to ask for help. Interestingly, Teddy had somehow seen what happened. She saw the panic and my desperate SOS.

The room was filling up with people.

I was balancing tears.

“My dress is torn. I don’t know what to do. I’m supposed to speak in 10 minutes. Can you help me?” I asked her.

She nodded and helped me stand up. She stood behind me such that she covered my backside. You wouldn't have known what was going on.

Teddy told her colleagues to finish the setup. Her colleagues took my laptop and bag for safekeeping.

Teddy led me to the toilet to assess the tear on the dress.

She could sense I was still panicking.

“There is a tailor in the hotel. Come she will help you.”

A tailor? I had never known this was a thing in hotels until today.

I was led to the basement of the hotel into an inner section. She opened a door and Marie Solange Mukarutesi was inside working on a sewing machine.

Teddy spoke to her in a mix of French and Kinyarwanda. From their gestures, I would tell they felt sorry.

Marie pulled out the shirt she was stitching, handed me a robe and asked me to remove my dress. I handed it over. She got a tape measure, run it across my hips, noted the measurements and got hold of my dress.

In a matter of seconds, her hands were pulling out hanging threads, flattening the kitenge dress onto the machine and in seconds, I could hear the sound of the needle and thread going in and out of the dress.

All the French I knew disappeared.

Ahsante sana. Shukran.

This was around 10:36 am (I know this because I asked Teddy to take the photos above, this was so surreal. I’d imagine photos of the experience would be all the proof I need to share what happened)

My session was at 10.45am.

In less than five minutes, though, my dress was done. And it fit just right. Marie offered to iron it but I was time-barred.

Of course, I was very scared that it would rip again.

Marie laughed and assured me she had put a “tight stitch” so no need to worry.

Besides, my session was in 5 minutes. This would have to be an “A-stitch-in-time-saves-nine” moment.

Teddy walked me back to the room, now packed with people.

I was super cautious not to make any sudden movements lest something worse happens. I am an expressive speaker. This was really hard.

I was tempted to share the experience with the participants — as an anecdote — but my nerves couldn’t make a joke out of the situation yet.

The artificial fire in the middle of the storytelling circle

The session went on very well. I moved around the storytelling circle, took questions, laughed, probed and two hours later, gave the closing remarks to an engaged group of participants.

My dress was still intact.

I couldn’t wait to find Teddy. She saved my face and my behind.

We exchanged contacts and have kept in touch since.

This week as I was clearing my phone, I came across these two-year-old photos. It reminded me of the warm hospitality and service by Teddy and her team.

With Teddy shortly after the session

Close to 24-months later, I am still awed by how Teddy was able to anticipate my needs even before I uttered them. More importantly, Teddy and Marie’s help reminded me of the quote by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I felt loved and cared for.

If you are ever at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center, please ask for Teddy and Marie and tell them you read their story. Give them a big thank you. I did a review on TripAdvisor at the time by the way. Here it is.

I can’t begin to imagine how this would have played out had I worn the dress for the awards gala dinner.

I can’t begin to imagine.

— — — —

Now that you are here, I do a monthly video series called #KalundeLearns, video storytelling for creatives and creators. The monthly series affords you a front-row seat to see the deep craft that goes behind the scenes as creatives turn their passion into an income and a living. Simply: Authentic storytelling of the creative process. Watch here.



Eunice Kilonzo

#Writer | 11 #Awards | #Synesthetes | #Health | #Media #Comms @Gavi | Past @WHO @safaricomPLC @UNEP @nationafrica @aphrc @Falling_Walls