Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Mzungu— the "White Girl"

"Mzungu! Mzugu Americana," squeals the little ones as they run down the hospital corridor towards me. Obviously, one of the children has spotted me approaching the ward from a distance and wanted to be the first to notify the others. If one had a camera and took a snapshot of these children running down the hallway towards me, and morphed their tiny and frail bodies into adults for effects sake, you would swear that you had stepped into a scene from Walk of The Living Dead—bodies bent, bloody and dragging, haphazardly wrapped in bandages from head to toe. Many of the children are able to run easily toward me, undisturbed by the unfurling and soaked bandages sliding down their burned and scarred bodies. Others are just as determined, but slowed by a dragging and useless limb.

I am a novelty to them, a distraction from the painful world of their daily existence: wound debridement, the application of medicine on raw skin, and the tedium and loneliness in the space in between. As they reach me, I am captured by their joy. When I squat down, hands begin caressing my hair and examining my white skin. They are enthralled and curious— universal traits of small children—by the color and the texture of my being, pinching my skin and then pinching theirs to see if we work in the same way. Although I could remain there all day, I tell them I have to get back to work. Hearing this declaration, the children frantically grab my hands, or hold on to my pant legs or shirt tail, hanging on while I make the rounds in the ward. After a while, the children get bored with my job and head back to their room.

Today, someone brought in a cake. This is a very rare treat for these children. The air is filled with anticipation and excitement! The nurses call all the children to a low, long table in the middle of the hospital room (as I described before, it is about half the size of a school gymnasium), to which they immediately and quietly obey. Even the children who spent the morning in bed due to then pain and severity of their injuries, struggled to get up from their beds and come the table. I don't know what embodied spirit of mine speaks louder, my self as a physical therapist or my protective self who is a mother. I urgently want to assist these little ones to the table–sweep them up in to a loving embrace, making their journey as easy as possible. But I am not allowed to. Culturally, the child would most likely refuse my help. These children are used to surviving on their own. In this culture, there is no space safe enough for them to act the way Western children are able to act. Their tribe mandates strength. These children are working before they know how to speak. Supporting a family is literally a family affair. .

Before the cake was cut, the children happily sang a song in Swahili about cutting a cake. It reminded me of the birthday song, a melody that celebrates  life. Following the song, each child bowed his or her head, and with unquestionable devotion, recited a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving. A lump formed in my throat as I looked at 16 little beings, eyes closed, giving thanks to God for the gift of life and the gift of the cake. Each child, no matter what age or how battered they were, said the prayer aloud with deep commitment and intention.The cake was cut in to very small, palm size pieces. I marveled as I watch them manage the piece to their mouths, as if they were eating something sacred. Even though there was more cake left, no child reached for more nor ask for more. They sat in silence, savoring the flavor left in the mouth, hands in their lap. That one morsel was their treasure.

As I thought about them later, my mind flashed to the horror I observe in their hospital room—dirty mats to lay their tiny and beaten bodies, a few box springs where some of the children lay directly on the springs without a mattress available, and a few lucky ones who get a mattress on top off the rickety box springs, but no linen unless a family member brought some. Yet what hit me as I thought about their big eyes and smiling faces, these children exude not poverty, but an authentic joy that springs from within. They do not have material things. Some do not have a family. Their minds, their bodies, their environments are not congested with material things and activities. They have nothing. So, something as small as a palm sized piece of cake is cherished, experienced as something special and interpreted through a lens of gratitude. As Father John says, "There are people who experience poverty because of human corruption, as many Kenyans do. Yet, they have everything, because they do not have poverty of the heart. You can have all the wealth in the world, but still be in poverty."
street vendors selling hard boiled eggs with salsa and fresh fruit.

The people I have encountered in this country I observe as materialistically very poor, but incredibly rich and joyful in the heart. It is humbling.

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