It is so soon after my last entry, but I feel as if I have a lot to unload from my mind following a morning spent at an orphanage near to where I am living. The building is largely visited by young people who were infected with HIV contracted from their parents at birth. Others had either been abandoned, or been the victims of tragedy. I had brought a few small gifts to give out, soon realising that the clothes a friend had donated, for me to hand out, were too small for all the children and young adults who were present. (However they will find a good home on the bodies of children at the Maternity Health Clinic). I was watching the majority of the boys enjoying one of my offerings – a red football – when my attention was directed towards a young boy, looking forlorn and completely unnoticed, sat alone on the grass, absent-mindedly fiddling with his knee. The boy was in a deplorable condition compared to the other children: his clothes were filthy and his trousers so tattered that he constantly had to keep one hand on the waist in order to keep them up. I would spend the remainder of my time at the orphanage solely with him.
After exchanging greetings with the very shy and quiet five year old, I was apprised of his story so far by an older boy. His name was Lukara and he visited the orphanage a few times a week, mainly for food. This revelation seemed incongruous given that it seemed no-one displayed much solicitude for the boy, and he was not included in the singing and dancing activities inside the building itself. But I don’t want to unfairly speculate as to the reasons why this is so. Perhaps Lukara prefers being left to his own devices, and as will be revealed in a moment, he has had plenty of practice at this. The older boy showed sympathy for the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Lukara’s past as he conveyed it to me. His mother, presumably unable to afford to care for him (in Rwanda abortion is not permitted under any circumstance) had been abandoned inside a box on the side of the road – a common occurrence I am told. He was found and taken in but his situation is still precarious. He gets his only decent meals from the orphanage on certain days, Saturday being one of them. Otherwise he has to rely on the generosity of others. Where he sleeps was not clear to me even after it was explained. Possible a village resident or whoever found him in that box gives him shelter.
I had only one cuddly toy in my bag, to give to the child I thought needed its comfort and companionship most. Naturally I conferred it on poor Lukara. He was reluctant to accept Boofie (as the manufacturers had anointed him) at first. I suppose maybe he is not accustomed to random acts – however small – of kindness. Eventually, with an adorable smile, he took the soft, little stuffed dog in his hand. I took a photo of him with his second new friend of the day and watched him play with it before I was told that the other children had prepared a performance and that I had to come inside. I asked about Lukara and was told that he is OK where he is. The performance was full of high spirit and mirth but I couldn’t concentrate, and kept glancing, searchingly, out the window to see what Lukara was doing, and if he was still outside, on his own again. I couldn’t see him but kept intermittently staring outside, hoping to see the top of his head and his hand curiously waving Boofie. I welled up during a sit down period of the children’s performance as I recollected what I had been told about Lukara, and his abandonment was suddenly made so clear and vivid to me when I recalled how I had first spotted him, sitting alone as if he were unwelcome guest. A little tear fell but I maintained myself for the sake of propriety during such a kind and welcoming effort delivered by the children. As soon as they had finished I went straight outside to search for Lukara and he was located around the back near the kitchen, tenderly picking off grass and slapping dust off of Boofie’s woven coat.
Not long after the dancing and singing, it was lunch time. Myself and the girls delivered the plates of rice, beans and vegetables to the children inside, but Lukara was not among them. Again, I asked after him and why he was not eating. They told me he does eat, but outside by himself. One of the adults gave me a plate to take to him, which I did and, crouched beside him on a chair that was far too high, I handed it to him and watched him silently spoon the rice into his mouth. I was then advised to go and collect my own plate of food, assured that Lukara was fine as he was. I spooned rice onto my plate and sat down with the rest of the volunteers and a new German girl we met called Miriam. I was pensively scooping the rice into my mouth, not looking up from my plate and decided to ask why Lukara ate alone and not inside. I was told it is because he is shy. I sat pensive for a minute or two more but was not satisfied with that answer. I excused myself and took my plate outside to go and eat with Lukara. I laughed to myself that it was a bit of a wasted journey. Lukara barely noticed his dining companion, he was immersed in his mound of food. But even if my presence was only vaguely perceptible it would erase the worry of appearing rude for leaving the building, if it meant having a clear conscience. I couldn’t stand the idea of him eating on his own; it seemed he was forever on his own from the moment I laid eyes on him. After quickly dispensing with my own meal, I watched Lukara. Part mournfully, realising this might be the only sufficient meal he has a week, part gleefully, as at one point he held a spoon carrying about six grains of rice to Boofie’s lips. “Yes Lukara, well done, take care of him.” I was beckoned back into the building a second time, wary of leaving Lukara again, but the ‘mum’ of the orphanage was plenty of company for him now, especially as he was transfixed on his plate anyway.
Once food had been eaten Lukara was back at the front of the house with a few new inquisitive children close by. I spoke to them in the only Kinyarwanda I really know, and they were smiley and polite and curious like all Rwandan children when they come into contact with an umuzungu (white person). One snatched the cuddly toy from Lukara’s hand and tried to hand it to the younger sibling she was holding, before it was taken again and appraised by another curious individual. I politely said “oya!” this is for Lukara, and handed it back to him. We sat down together on the portico, when one of my Rwandan counterparts, and friends, suggested I put the – up to now useless – clothes to good use, and give a top and trousers to Lukara. The fact they were made for female toddlers was not an issue apparently, so I chose the most gender neutral looking pair and he was taken in private to see if they fit and to change. They outfit was certainly snug, but it was perfectly adequate. The transformation looked radical; he no longer resembled the child in the sad story I had heard. Though I soon realised that it wasn’t the clothes that engendered any kind of alteration. As I looked back at him, and watched him walk along the road, Boofie in one hand his ragged old threads in the other, after giving him a farewell hug, it occurred to me that he behaved as if he was oblivious to his misfortunes. He trundled off, surrounded by other youngsters curious about his new possessions, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. His wonderful spirit and brave fortitude was spelled out right there at that moment in neon letters, simply through the way he took his carefree, gentle steps, and the way he solemnly interacted with the world. If I had been seeing him for the first time I would think of him to be a well-loved child, in a happy household with a full tummy every night. It would be nice to continue thinking that way, but of course I know better. And I succumb to the realisation that there are millions more like him: delicate little lives, , some of which are in the balance almost on a daily basis, without a mother’s love, protection and the basic necessities a privileged Westerner like me takes for granted. I become melancholy and bemoan my impotency to improve their lot. But I am also galvanised by examples such as Lukara who seem to possess an indelible and admirable human spirit and a stoicism that goes well beyond their years. Moment’s like these make me want to be a better person: less grumpy, for what do I have to grumble about? Less petty and cynical, for what does it do but breed resentment and perpetuate cynicism? and less dismissive, for some of the greatest treasures bestowed on this planet, can be contained within the most simple of packages. If an innocuous child in the heart of Africa can elicit such strong emotion and some profound ruminations, then something precious and valuable can be found in almost anything. The power of that child and his life to leave me in such a state of thought gathering is both emotional draining but infinitely rewarding for my mind and soul. I will not forget Lakara, and may even make enquiries into sponsoring him. I look forward to the next time a fellow human penetrates my thoughts and my heart as deeply.