361: Your Eyes are Tearing

by claire a. williams, claire@trippingonwords.com

First World Guilt is an ugly phrase. However, it is sometimes an appropriate approximation of the feelings of laptop, external hard drive, digital camera, digital video camera, multiple ipod carrying us at an orphanage where children have so few belongings that when they come, they usually bring nothing. Today we learned that when they leave, they hardly take anything either.

This Monday at Tumaini was a day of coming and going. During library time with the littlest of the primary children, a brief announcement was made by an older student that jarred everyone into hysteria, and within ten seconds 12 children who are impossible to get anywhere all ran out screaming in a remarkably orderly looking line. The reason, we soon heard, was that Tumaini's three university goers were just returning for their two week vacation. Lara made the astute and highly accurate comment that never in the history of the world has anyone received such a joyous welcoming.

But because we are (all) in a land of contrasts, within an hour of that arrival came one of the saddest going moments I have had in a long while. It spoke to everything that we have said about the peaks and valleys of being here with the kids so far: 90% of the time living with AIDS orphans is the most fun thing you'll ever do in your life, and the other 10% of the time you have never felt more depressed.

The saga of how three small brothers got kicked out of Tumaini began before we came, when the eldest, 13, was caught sneaking into the donation room and filling a plastic bag of clothes to steal. Not only could he never have actually worn the donated hand-me-downs at Tumaini because everyone knows everyone else's few outfits, but all the clothes he chose were baby sized.

The act – a surely desperate one – speaks to the life of survival that any child at Tumaini with any potential of being successful in this world enters with. Without such an opportunistic sensibility, many of these children could never have lived through their lives to bring them to where they are today, and would never be able to flourish as it is so dreamed that they will. Thus, what Kenyans call "picking" is par for such a course.

But more stealing happened after we arrived and gave out 250 shiny new trainers, two of which were stolen from two elder boys. We had lengthy discussions with the matrons at the orphanage about this incident, and about how unnecessary their self-professed embarrassment over the incident was. Although it was sad, we rationalized it away – as the Winona Ryder GAP incident attests to, even the wealthiest of wealthy steal for no reason at all.

But then, last week, our cellular phone was snatched from under Claire's nose and the orphanage was up in arms. When it was found, an hour later, in the boys' bathroom, the interrogation began.

In the end, the "picker" – for the shoes and our cell phone – was the eldest of three particular brothers. The middle brother, it turns out, may have known about some of the older brother's actions, but did not tell the Matrons. In a community where every child is just on the brink of reverting to such behavior and corrupting the whole lot, Tumaini said it could not tolerate it, and chose to send a message to all the children.

Today, all three brothers went home. Watching the scene unfold – children devastated about having to leave an orphanage one would think many would be devastated to come to in the first place – was nothing short of horrific. We heard by the very upset Matron an hour before it happened, played with the youngest in the garden while he was still unaware, and then watched the sobbing removal of them from the property in the Tumaini van.

It was the first time in all the stories of the children's lives here that I truly have broken down, and I did so badly. Thinking about how we had been the ones to bring the shoes and the phone in the first place, thinking about what it must mean to steal hand-me-down baby's clothes, and thinking obsessively about what those three boys were returning to. I even cried in front of the same HIV positive eight year who is notable for saying recently that crying is only for babies and that she didn't cry when her mother died because she knows that nothing gets better from "tearing eyes".

It was, in short, First World Guilt at its worst. But I'm learning.


Miz S said...

Jesus. My eyes are tearing, too.

alphawoman said...

Me too. My eyes are tearing too. Your writing has totaly made a leap from before.

sarah mac said...

i concur, Claire. this piece is really beautiful despite its tragedy. a child's desperation is so devastating.

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