Friday afternoon we parked the car and carefully picked our way over sewage through a slum towards the back apartment rows. There were chickens wandering, a goat was sniffing for anything green, and many school aged children wore tattered clothing and ran barefoot to announce they’ve seen a mzungu. (me…pale lady) The latrines had to be close because the smell filled my lungs. Some babies stared as we passed, fear mounting in their eyes as we came closer and grew larger. I counted dozens of children lingering, whispering to each other and spying, all of them should have been in school. As we reached the home of Ryan, the jjajja (grandmother…actually “old woman”) ran towards us to greet us warmly with a wide smile, a firm three part hand shake and then hugs were passed around. She wore a beautiful dress, probably the nicest one she owns. She led us to her daughter’s home where five children were spying on us through the curtain hanging in the doorway. Today her prayer would be answered.
The jjajja called to Ryan in Lugandan to be introduced. He was so small, his eyes flicked up for an instant to look at us, but then they lowered and he kept his gaze on his dirty black leather shoes laced up into tight bows. I won’t forget his shoes. Someone searched long to scramble for a pair he could wear because it would be disgraceful to introduce him to us barefoot. They may have even been the very shoes his father wore as a child. These little shoes reminded me of what children wore in pictures from the 1920s. I wanted to keep them as a memory of how much the families tried to help the children before they came into our home. I’ll have to ask Phiona to set them aside for me.
As his gaze fell and I lost sight of his face, I couldn’t help but notice the dozen raised sores all over his head. It was a fungus and I’ve seen it many times before. We have a tube to cure that at home. His little fingers found places on his arms and legs to scratch, I thought he was nervous but when I looked more closely I could see he’s recovering from a severe case of chicken pox. When I touched his hand I could feel it was dehydrated as I lifted up the skin and it remained in a little peak of pocked baby skin far longer than it should have. His whole frame was thin except for his protruding belly. He needed to be dewormed. He needed…he needed…he needed.
The jjajja introduced us to his Auntie, and her own four children. I thought she was fully pregnant, but it turned out she eats too much posho and not enough vegetables. Being fat in Uganda receives approval and compliments. Everyone was so kind and warm to welcome me, but there was an air of heightened nerves. We were invited to come into their home and sit. The old woman was seated in the main doorway working on weaving a colorful mat from palm branches. We passed through the room with two beds filling the space leaving enough inches to pass through at the end and enter into the sitting room. The space was stuffed and piled high with things crammed into every crevice. The only light came through the doorway. It was the smell that I couldn’t ignore. The pungent mixture of mold and urine was difficult for me to ignore. These people should be sick if they were living in these conditions. As if on cue Ryan began a fit of coughing. I learned later with horror our boy had to sleep on the dirt floor under the bed.
The interview began as soon as we sat down. We learned the jjajja is Ryan’s father’s mother. She pulled from her purse a small tattered notebook and inside were a handful of photos she has of her deceased son. She was so proud to show me how handsome and well dressed he was when he was healthy. When the mother became sick she went to Jinja to be with her family. When she passed the jjajja attended her burial. There are no photos of the mother. No one could remember the year the boy was born. He looks like he is four years old, but a quick look into his mouth shows he is probably six. They produced a health record stating he was HIV negative. That’s a relief! And he had taken a few terms in school so his work was shown to us. He made very good marks. He’s a smart boy, but I wasn’t sure he could talk because I hadn’t yet heard his voice. The police investigator with us required some calls to be made to verify some stories. I sat quietly to listen and observe. This was an inside cultural phenomena I haven’t witnessed before. I rather lost my role as leader, and sunk into the posture of grateful observer. These people knew what they were doing. The paper work was reviewed with them, and they signed Ryan into our custody with big happy smiles. Before we left I bought a mat from the old woman who was working with her hands as she spent her days seated in the doorway crippled with broken legs, but willing to work and contribute. She inspired me.
The jjajja said it is her best day because now she can die knowing the boy is well cared for, he will be loved, and have a great future. His suffering had come to an end. But before he could come home with us we had to visit the Local Council person to get the official stamp and approval. All of us walked over to the neighboring slum. This home was next door neighbor with the outhouse. I could barely take the smell. I know they are all used to it but I felt myself getting sick. This home was smaller than Ryans, and again I felt like I was seated in a cubby of a hoarder’s garage. She had a television playing in the top corner of the room and local dancing was replayed from Uganda’s jubilee celebration of fifty years of independence from the British. An old woman was seated by the door and she stared me down until I squirmed. We waited for a long time before the LC came from the back room to join us. She greeted me politely but her eyes were asking questions about me I wouldn’t have to answer. The stories were retold to her. She had a few questions about our organization and then she stamped the papers. Ryan had just become our fifteenth family member at Kirabo Seeds. I don’t think anyone spoke to him about it, and I doubted he understood anything that was happening to him. I remained quiet and observant because this was their cultural practice. I didn’t want to be a loud bossy American. As we finished the old woman barked at me, “Hey, I am an orphan too, what are you going to do for me?”
I cleared my throat and looked at Phiona, not sure how to respond. The lady was waiting for an answer. I smiled and shrugged. I am not sure when I will ever not feel a deep wound when people apply for help and I know there isn’t much I can do. That feeling is always followed by a bit of anger as I want to glare and ask what are you doing to help yourself? It is wrong to become a money tree, so I sat silent and still. This woman wasn’t doing anything with her hands except putting them out for a handout. I support those who work hard, but I’ll never answer the rude request of a beggar again. We have learned that the hard way in this culture. We said goodbye and walked back to our van. Ryan brought nothing with him but the clothes he wore.
The auntie and jjajja hugged Ryan and told him to be a good boy in our home. Ryan climbed up into the seat with Phiona. He showed no emotion. The jjajja was rapturously happy and sad all at once. Robert gave the boy his pizza from lunch and Phiona gave him her mango juice. He received both hungrily and ate as he watched the action outside the window. He sat up erect and his eyes were intensely taking in all he saw. I wondered if he had ever been inside a motorcar before. He had the intensity of one who was doing something for the first time. Everything inside me wanted to cuddle the boy and explain with ten thousand words all that had changed in his life the moment he climbed into our van. But I knew he must first bond with Phiona. I couldn’t be selfish. I would be leaving him in a week and it would be cruel for me to break his heart. Phiona will be the constant in his life and she has a lot of love to share with all our children. Her heart oozes compassion and love and it is my honor to have her on our team.
It was a long ride back to the Kirabo Seeds home. When I jerked awake I turned and saw that Ryan had made himself a nest in Phiona’s lap. She is now his Auntie Phiona and I am his Mama Tonya. It is such a heavy responsibility, but an honor and privilege all the same. But I can see in the mirror this work is aging me.
It was nine o’clock when we arrived. The children and Auntie Julie were waiting to have dinner with us. I had not greeted the children since arriving in Uganda the night before so they ran to hug me and do their best to knock me down with love. Ryan followed us into the home, the children looked at him and asked, “what is wrong here?” pointing at his head. Phiona reminded them they all arrived with problems that medicine could fix. We all piled plates high with rice and beans and we ate. Ryan somehow defied logic and fit a plate the of food into his belly where there shouldn’t be room. Angela was told to give the boy a bath and find him some pajamas. Lawrence, the youngest in the home was visibly unhappy about sharing the last spot with another little boy. He refused to let him sleep at the end of his bed. One of the other boys shared with Ryan. We warned Lawrence he would get some trouble if he didn’t show kindness and love towards Ryan. He scowled.
The next morning when I arrived eager to know how Ryan’s first night at home was I found him busy playing with matchbox cars, legos and plastic animals. He crawled along the floor pushing the car, noticing me he looked up and I saw him smile for the first time. As we organized our day Ryan fit himself into the order and had no problems asserting himself and enjoying his new life. He played soccer with the boys, lined up for his photo, helped set the table, helped with the dishes, and obeyed Auntie Phiona’s requests without attitude or delay. He especially loved watching the Lion King movie I brought for the children. Monday Phiona took him to the doctor for immunizations, a check up and deworming. He’s perfectly healthy only in need of good nourishment. Soon he will learn there is always enough food to eat in our home. She enrolled him in school and he was in line to go to his new school the very next morning. He won’t get credit for this year because he is starting so late but we didn’t want him to feel left out. On Tuesday when the little ones came home after their half day of school he ran through the doorway with them all beaming a bright smile, ready to eat, and eager to play. By the end of the week his sores had vanished, his skin had plumped and he acted like he had always been in our home. I even heard him speak a quiet English to me, “thank you mama Tonya”.
Child of God, you are most welcome to the family.