Friends We Are Making

Justin trying on Steph’s readers

Tumaini and Justin hitch a ride

Helping to fill orphan food bags

Tumaini pre admission and starting ART

Giggles and flashes of coiled black hair announce their presence as I prepare my morning Bialetti, the Kilimanjaro coffee a daily must. The sun is hardly up but already fills the broad plain below and to the east, a yellow equatorial light which feels thick and textured: nature’s bandwidth beyond any we will ever conjure.

The boys are back: Justin and Tumaini now peering through the door, curious and broad smiles warming the day even before my first sip of coffee. As with all African children I have met , they are up long before my own, submitting perhaps to the dictatorial regimen imposed by the manic local roosters which crow relentlessly after 4 AM, ordering all to wake. And as the boys enter through the door, the unfolding of daily routine is confirmed, chatter from a bubbling group of children reaching me as they stream to school on the red dirt road below, fully animated, songs, shouts and laughter all round. It is only 7 AM.

Justin and Tumaini won’t be joining them for this particular parade , though their day will soon come. Both are admitted to Kilema Hospital and have adopted our wazungu (white folk) house as a respite from the grinding boredom of their hospitalizations and perhaps as well from the sights and sounds of a hospital that youth should rightly be spared.

Tumaini appropriately is Swahili for hope and this boy is blooming before us. Admitted against his wishes ( he ran away from the hospital for a day after my colleague Dr Nyaki said he should be in hospital), he has recovered from severe pneumonia, started HIV medications, gained 3 kilograms and become a daily presence at our house. An orphan and neglected by a despairing older brother who has succumbed to alcohol, Tumaini wouldn’t look me in the eye until our fourth encounter. That seems eons ago this morning as he grabs my hand with a dazzling smile, and covertly scans the room for books, pencils and other objects he can play with.

Tellingly, his art centres on beautiful houses with multicoloured windows and strong roofs. When asked why he is drawing houses, Tumaini’s face grows earnest, a new proud expression appears as he straightens, “I will live in a house like this one day.” He has a face typical of the Chagga and I catch a glimpse of the future and imagine a man of influence in his community as I engage his intense gaze.

I can see Ukimwi pushed to the sidelines and Tumaini racing ahead.

Tumaini’s new rafiki (brother) Justin has been in hospital for 2 months recuperating from severe thigh burns from a kerosene lamp used to light his small home. I had often spied him after we arrived, glum faced and sitting in the shade of a tree outside the hospital, on his own for long periods of time, bored and disengaged, not a book , toy or scrap of paper to occupy his time or imagination.

He lives a long distance from the hospital and I haven’t seen his home but can well imagine the scene as Justin tries to light or move the kerosene lamp in order to be able to study or read at night. Eleven years old, he clearly loves books of all sorts and drawing, but had been starved for stimulation until meeting me on rounds and craftily tracking me home, arriving on the porch without invitation but armed with a fearless temperament and bearing the gifts of an irresistible smile and giggle. The gift of the smallest stub of a pencil or loan of the most arcane magazine or playing of the most ridiculous game of cast off bottle caps with Lachlan will reignite that wonderful smile.

Justin shuffles around the hospital grounds with the stooped posture of an ancient one, shuffling gait faster when other children or a soccer ball is in sight. His extensive groin burns, still open and tender on the upper thigh, are starting to cause contractures in his skin and reduce his mobility. Clothed with an improvised sheet draped in toga fashion, he appears to be a wise elder bent in earnest missions. His wise elder persona is only enhanced when he appropriates Steph’s reading glasses and peers over the top of them.

Gratifyingly, Justin’s mobility has improved since Tumaini became his roommate and they jointly discovered our children , who have all been welcoming and friendly. We call out “pole, pole” (polay – slowly, slowly) as he joins in with Sasha, Eva and Lachlan for impromptu rambunctious soccer, concerned he will re open his wounds. This is a moment amongst many where we celebrate the connection of children across language and other innumerable divides.

Justin’s lack of visitors brought concern on my part and with help, I discovered a broken family history, mother long gone to Dar es Salaam and he alone of four children living with a father he described as sick and losing weight, the others with bibi (grandma). Fears of Ukimwi in our heads, the team arranged to have him tested him for HIV. The coin toss landed in Justin’s favour this afternoon, sparing him the burden of Tumaini. “Thank god,” we collectively exhale.

One less obstacle to navigate for a boy in whom one senses great promise and where, like with Tumaini, a few pencils, books and a safe home will give amazing results.

Further to our last post , for those wishing to donate to the Kilema Support Fund, you need the Scotiabank account number 20610 01101 24 when contacting the Oak Bay Branch (tel: 250.953.8100).

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