Sunday 29 March 2009

Open Hand Orphanage - the sequel

When we arrived at the orphanage to stay for the weekend (which was our second weekend during our internship at Pamoja), the staff were embarrassed because the water had been cut off. “We haven’t done any washing since yesterday!” they said apologetically, and it meant we had nothing else to do than play!

I don’t know what came over me, but I did a very unusual thing: I let someone else use my camera. In fact, I let 20 kids use my camera, bending forward and holding it for them while they took it in turns to stand in front of me and press all the buttons. At first, all they were interested in was making the noise of the shutter firing. Gradually, I managed to get them to look through the viewfinder and, eventually, they started pointing it at things before pressing the button (well, some of them, the others were only interested in was making the noise. It is a good noise.). Within an hour, they had taken over 500 shots, changed the display settings and exhausted the battery.

Suddenly, George shouted, “Cows!” and everyone rushed into the TV room and stood by the window where we could see a herd of cows grazing on the rubbish tip just outside. As we aimed the camera in the general direction of the cows, George looked up at me and said with a small voice and pleading look that will stay with me forever, “Can’t we go outside?” No, we couldn’t go outside. But they did sneak out, and it took about half an hour to herd them all back in again.

When Jane first told us about the orphanage and its 36 abandoned children, I’d asked an embarrassing question. “Do you remember all their names?” I’d said. She looked at me as if I was stupid. “Of course! They’re our babies!” she scolded. And, in fact, this was the easiest I’ve ever found it to remember lots of names. Faith I’ve already mentioned. She had a fascination with Alex’s arm hair and seemed determined to keep some of it for herself, and a little flesh too. She had the same trouble using my camera that I do – the damn shutter button is on the wrong side. George took to using the camera the quickest and held it very naturally, the only one to use it independently. He also used his good eye and clever hands to fix my hair, which he’d noticed was a mess, and took great care to arrange it in a nice ponytail. Yvonne is quietly considerate. While George was fixing my hair, she kept my hair slides safe from the marauding hands and mouths of the younger kids and returned them to me as soon as George had finished. Deft and intelligent, she was the only one to figure out how to change the time on my watch (they all tried) and was mindful to return it to the correct time afterwards. Paul is the dramatist and does a convincing death scene. Naturally, he preferred to be in front of the camera than behind it, but it couldn’t work fast enough to catch all his poses. Hope is strong beyond her build and springs eternally. Tracy is softly spoken and gentle but won’t take any crap from anyone. Merianne is shy and only puts her arm round you when you’re not looking. Boas puts everything in his constantly grinning mouth and doesn’t care which foot goes in which shoe. Noah is like a puppy, by turns mischievous and heartbreakingly adorable. But if you want anything done, ask Evans, if he isn’t already doing it. One of the older kids, he takes it upon himself to take care of the youngest, feeding and changing them and giving them all goes in the one pram, taking it round and round the edge of the courtyard. Even we felt safe with Evans as he chaperoned us to the supermarket to fetch supplies. I would mention them all if my memory allowed it. Those that I haven’t are no less deserving, perhaps even more deserving by letting others divert our attention rather than demand it themselves.

Esther and the rest of the staff took as good care of us as they do the rest of the kids, giving us hearty meals and (to our embarrassment) the best beds in the house. If we’d thought we could get away without washing for the weekend, we were wrong. The water came back some 36 hours after it had gone off, and they made sure we were all clean for our trip to church. I always worry that a bolt of lightening will strike me when I go near a church, but the worst to happen was to be given a mic to introduce ourselves to a parish of 200ish members. I tried to make myself as inaudible as it is possible to be with a microphone, Alex made sure that most of Kenya could hear him say “God praise the children”.

The intention had been to help with the kids. I’m not sure we did that exactly, unless helping means playing. A theme of the trip is developing: are our experiences as valuable to those around us as they are to us? The sense so far is probably not. We did what we could by way of donating supplies and sweets and fizzy drinks (which, when they started bouncing off the walls, didn’t strike us as such a good idea), but those kids and the staff need more than we can give them. The sobering thought is that, difficult as these kids’ lives are, they’re the lucky ones.

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