There have been many.
And even more than that in this last year here.
I’ve witnessed them, I’ve been a part of them. But often they leave me grasping. Grasping at meaning, comprehension, reason.
I reflect and I try to find a way to process the moment. Find a way to understand how that moment can be. But many times I can’t. If it does exist, it is well beyond me.
There are moments, things I see & hear, events, circumstances that have come to pass that are simply ridiculous in their obscenity towards how life should ever be.
But they are.
Mixed in with the horror there are the beautiful moments, the moments where I feel ‘yes, this is what it means to be here.’ Where beauty is found in the midst of despair & strife.
The lines are always blurred.
And one thing I can’t adequately explain to you is how, even though I often can’t genuinely comprehend & can’t dramatically change many of these moments, I’m ok. I don’t know a lot but I do trust that God brought me here & God gives me the peace in my mind & in my heart to live in these moments without being defeated by them.
I’d like to share a collection of moments with you from the last couple of months. Some are small examples of moments that repeat time & again, others are more unique. They each are a mixture of beauty & despair.
1000 Watt Smile
Any day at the day centre I am always greeted so warmly by all of the kids. But picture a young boy of 10, with a kind & beautiful nature, who greets me with a 1000 watt smile and a high five each time he sees me. Somewhere along the way however something has gone wrong. There is a good chance for him, like so many others that his family rejected him, likely accused him of witchcraft. It’s probable he has lost a parent too and now he lives on the market where he will have suffered further abuse.
We can’t take him in to one of our houses simply because we are full and his case is not unique, it would not even feature at the top of the waiting list. Instead there are more vulnerable boys out of the 30 odd that are here at the day centre this morning. So tonight he’ll go back to the cold, violent, dangerous market and search around for somewhere to lay his head whilst he wears the same filthy rags he wore the day before.
In that moment however, when he is tugging on my arm to play some more silly games, I don’t see any of that & he doesn’t display it. It’s not who he is.
Afterwards it hits me, I try and reason in my head how this boy could have been rejected and how this could possibly be his life. But I can’t.
I try and consider what the rest of the day & night will be like for him. But I can’t stomach it.
I was talking with someone recently & he said “Do you know what it’s really like on that market?”, the tone of his voice led me to a simple response; “Please don’t tell me.”
“Bebba!” Calls out another lad at the lunch table at the day centre, holding out some bukari (Congolese staple food) towards me. ‘Bebba’ means ‘take.’ He is genuinely concerned as to whether I have eaten! I get asked this so many times! They care that I get something to eat despite their own needs.
Now I’m told that the culture here is very much that children are not meant to eat if the adults haven’t eaten. If there is only a limited amount of food it is the children who are expected to go without.
But I’m not sure how much a street kid is thinking about ‘the correct thing to do’ when they look upon their first substantial meal in a day or more. No, that boy is offering me his food because he has a beautiful heart. He sees my needs & his needs as equal. He isn’t doing it under duress or as a token gesture, trust me.
Yet what I find hard to comprehend again in that moment is that he too has been rejected or at least suffered in a way that made him choose to run to the streets. He will suffered unbelievably already in life and tonight he will join the others back on that market.
The Isolated Boy
I’m standing outside the day centre at the end of another session as we lock up when I hear wailing & screaming. I look across to a group of boys. My colleague explains to me:
“They have stolen his glue off him & he’s trying to get it back.”
Why the wailing?
“Because he’s deaf.”
He looks no more than 10 years old.
Yep. Those thoughts you’re thinking? Me too.
It’s beyond sad or any words you want to use to describe that moment.
Firstly that near enough every kid on the market sniffs glue. Its glue mixed with petrol. It’s not that expensive & it makes life bearable for a street kid. An escape.
During the night it helps them to cope with the cold & get some sleep.
We never let it in the day centre nor anyone under the influence. So he had bought it afterwards I suspect. And now like in the playground, a bigger kid had nicked it off this little boy & was taunting him as others joined in.
But he could only respond in wails & cries.
He got it back in the end. But the realisation that this boy, even this boy, he too has been cast aside and now attempts to makes his way in that market? How can that even be?
Let me tell you two things briefly however. Firstly he has the most unbelievable smile. Oh my!
And secondly we are trying to get him into a boarding school for deaf children. We don’t know about his family situation yet as he has no way of communicating properly with us at this stage.
Recently an 11 year old girl who is very well known to us was sat at the lunch table, a pale shadow of her mischievous self. Not eating, not talking, not even a smile. She was shivering uncontrollably & we suspected Malaria.
Hers’ is a tragic on going story for us. Three times she has been accepted into our transit house. Three times she has run away & torched her bridges, the most recent time through stealing from the house as she ran. Why do children run? Well if by the age of 11 you had suffered the multiple & horrific traumas & rejections that this girl has, you too would find it hard to believe in yourself & trust those around you enough to make this new life work & not run away to avoid the fear & pain of further failure & rejection.
But none of that mattered as she sat, her frail body being attacked by this vicious disease. We could not let her walk out onto the street again we feared desperately for her out there right now.
The moment that the doctor put the drip in her arm & gave her a bed for the night at the hospital was another of those unspeakable moments. She really was very ill. The confirmation was both scary but yet reaffirming of what we are doing here. That’s a life saved. Right there. Process that!
She stayed two nights in the hospital, they wanted her to stay another night but she ran away. As a team we laughed because we all knew she would, and were reassured that well she must have been well enough if she was able to run!
When she reappeared at the day centre one week on from that day, smiling, disobeying, being cheeky, being herself again… it was a beautiful moment.
We said to her “always remember that we took care of you that day because you do matter, you are loved & you are good enough.”
Seeing the Positive
Way back in mid-October one of our girls ran away from the transit house & for a time away from Lubumbashi too. Talk was that ‘Naomi’ was heading to a village where she would be, at 14, married off. What made this event even more gut wrenching is that the week before she ran away she had tested positive for HIV.
The carers at house had had their concerns & so took her for the test, but as it could not be confirmed until a follow up test 3 months later they had not told her of her first test result. She ran away oblivious to the news.
A month later she reappeared and started coming to the day centre sporadically, but we couldn’t consider taking her back to the house after she had hurt the other girls by stealing from them. She was not in a mental or emotional place where she could settle back with us. And before long she was off the scene again.
Just last week however, she was back again & now the 3 months had passed since the first test. She was tired & sick and welcomed a visit to the hospital for a check-up, not knowing what she was likely to find out.
That’s a dark time, sitting in a taxi & then in a waiting room with a child who is oblivious to what you know – that in all likelihood she has a life changing infection that will never leave her, but will instead attack her, and that before the day is out she will know this too.
It was confirmed to us and it was explained to Naomi. Does she really comprehend? We don’t know yet.
But we made her a simple offer. Come & stay with us again. We will support you in every way we can. The clinic will provide counselling & medication, our team will provide emotional & material support. And we will continue to try and reunite you with your family. And in return, you have to try & make this life at our house work the best you can.
Yes, she caught it through sexual intercourse on the market. It could have been prostitution, rape or consensual. They all take place every day on the market. Yes she has slept with many others on the market since running away. And for that it is clear that there are many street kids who are likely to be carrying the infection too.
But in that moment when we brought a scruffy, bedraggled Naomi back to the house, I couldn’t decide whether this was a moment of despair; the diagnosis another tragedy in her young life, or was it a moment of beauty; a prodigal returning, rescued, given a chance & a hope in this darkest of hours.
But with all of these, mine is not to try & make sense of the moment but to try to make good of it.