I strongly believe that every child deserves the right to an education. Having been lucky enough to be University educated in the United Kingdom, it is something I value highly.
One thing I have learnt since being in Uganda, is that things don’t often work out as expected. After all, this is Africa. Yesterday, my plans to start health screening on the oldest nursery school children, were knocked on the head. We needed to print more screening sheets but as the power was down, we were unable to.
On my way back to the lodge to sort the papers, I passed a small boy. Bare foot and dressed in rags, talking to the staff outside the gate, they were trying to round up enough money for a bus fare. It turns out the boy had been found earlier in the morning, sleeping in a ditch outside the lodge. He had spent the night there. Visibly in pain, he limped towards us.
His name was Paulo and he was 11 years old. With nurse Rosen’s help, we established that his father had taken him to his sisters, where he was to work for an old lady as her cow boy. He walked there and back each day and after working two months, reasonably asked for some money. At this request, the old lady ‘chased him away’. He went back to his sisters, who instead of helping him, made him start walking back home.
It had taken him 4 days to reach here and he lives near Mburo, another 3 hours drive away. There was no way, with any conscience, that I could have just let him get on a bus when he could barely stand. Instead, I picked him up and piggy backed him to the lodge where he could shower and change.
This was very emotional.
This photo captures the moment perfectly. Sitting outside the staff showers, waiting. It is heart-breaking, in this moment, to see a broken child.
He stripped off his rags, torn and dirty and dropped them on the floor. Standing malnourished, naked and vulnerable, he just looked at me. He was placing all of his faith in a complete stranger. More than that, in a white stranger, whom he could only communicate with on a basic level.
I fetched a bar of soap from my room and my towel and ran the shower for him. I have no idea if he has running water at home, although it is still rare in our region, so I doubt it. Despite his fears and exhaustion, it was obvious the pleasure he took as soon as he stepped under the water.
Naked, swollen-bellied and eyes closed, a small smile danced across his lips. Despite his ordeals, he stayed in the shower and scrubbed every area of his body with the feverishness of someone who has not washed in days and the conscientiousness of someone much older than his years, who knew to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Dripping, he stepped out of the shower and I wrapped him in a towel. I’d set Rosen the task of trying to find some spare clothes from the donations that may fit him but after holding a recent market to make money for the school, we had no children’s or men’s clothes left. We managed to find an old shirt and school jumper but no bottoms would fit his tiny frame. Eventually, Tony found a smallish pair of shorts with a draw string waist, some of his own, that did the job perfectly.
Stepping out of the store room Paolo looked like a completely different child and I showed him a photo of how he looked in his new clothes. Lifting him up onto my back I grabbed a banana from the kitchen and a large bottle of water from the bar.
We got back to the others and little Paulo was unrecognisable. Sitting down under the shade of the registration tent, I took a look at his feet and his left ankle was acutely sprained. Very tender and swollen he was now struggling to even stand, so I grabbed our only bandage from the clinic and strapped it as best I could.
We grabbed him a soda and some bread and set up a mattress for him to lie on in the shade. He tried to stay awake to listen to our conversation but eventually drifted off into the most peaceful looking sleep.
When he woke, he finished his food and drink and, well rested, I carried him back to the road to wait for the bus. Along with bus money, we packed a bag with his rags, some biscuits, a few pencils and a letter folded in his top pocket explaining how we found him and that a bright young boy like him should be in school and not working. We explained that as a school, we are able to provide bursaries and hope that the family will contact us to let Paulo continue his education.
He is the sweetest boy. I’m so glad we were able to take him in and show him kindness, even if just for the day. However, it is heart-breaking to know that once he gets home, we have no way of knowing how he will be received or if his family will agree to let him continue school instead of working.
There are so many injustices in the world and it is so sad when it happens to young children. I pray that the letter we sent with him will be enough to change his future. If he were able to return, I would pay his school fees myself without hesitation to keep him here, safe and away from child labour. It is so sad to be in this situation as, despite all that appears best for him, the only option, the right option, is to send him on his way and return to his parents. I guess all I can do is hope that they get in contact with our director when he returns.
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