Her bottom lip started to quiver as moisture pooled in the endless depths of her ebony eyes. Gently, I wrapped my arm across her shoulder. The comforting touch drew forth the tears from her long eyelashes, where they were entangled. Silently they glided down her beautiful, chocolate-colored cheeks.
She didn’t know how to express in English what she was feeling. And I didn’t know how to express in Luganda the words I wanted to say to ease her pain.
So we remained there, looking out across the green Ugandan landscape, staring at the closed gate. The askari stood guard, a human wall between campus and the outside world. On the other side of the gate, across the red dirt road, an unseen herd of cows was engaged in a lively conversation. Birds flitted among the mango trees. And the crickets’ never-ending song played in the background.
The puttering engine of a boda reached a crescendo as it neared campus, and I felt Cleo shift her weight under my arm and stand a little taller, as though it would help her peek over the thick, 10-foot tall gate. But the engine continued to putter past us and, hope shattered, she sank back into a slump.
Behind us lay the 65 acres of campus, filled with the sound of laughter and chatter in a myriad of languages as our students reveled in the presence of their parents and guardians who had traveled to see them for Visitation Day.
The parents had sacrificed a day’s worth of precious work and wages, leaving gardens and jobs and villages to come visit their children. Waking up early, they used the limited and precious water from the village to scrub themselves clean before putting on their Sunday best. Then they started the long walk to campus. Many of them hired bodas, if the walk was too far. Others took matatus.
But some of the parents and guardians had not come, leaving a few students like Cleo alone and without visitors. After having the girls live in our home for two months, we have fallen into a comfortable, normal routine. I realized that, through our established normalcy, I so easily forget what it was like before they came to live with us.
I so easily forget they had a family who cared for them and a life before school started. I so easily forget that we had a life before school started. And I so easily forget who they are — young girls, missing family, missing home. For many, it is their first time away from home. And eight weeks away from mum or auntie can be hard.
Watching all of your friends with their mums and aunties only makes it even harder.
I stood with Cleo for some time as families attended parent teacher conferences and met with Amazima staff and were introduced to their children’s friends. She refused to leave her post, where she stood waiting and watching the gate, hoping it would open and reveal her mum on the other side.
In the early afternoon, families and guardians were invited to enjoy a meal with their children. Cleo, who had temporarily dammed up her tears while watching the gate, weakened at the sight of mums with their daughters, older sisters and aunties smiling warmly at their beloved students, all sharing in a meal together.
To ensure everyone received a plate of food, students were required to go through the line with their families and present their parent(s) to the kitchen staff. Feeling more alone than ever at the prospect of walking through the line by herself, Cleo’s tears returned and she reached out to hold my hand.
“Auntie Sarah, do I have to eat?”
“You need to try to eat something, but you do not have to eat alone. I will eat with you.”
“But what about my mom? What will she eat when she comes? I want to take food with her.”
I looked at her and, seeing her determination and unfaltering hope that her mother would come, I knew that I would not be able to convince her to eat until the mother arrived. Silently, I prayed that the mom would show, despite doubting she would.
“What if we stand in line together, and I get a plate of food for your mom? That way you can save it for when she arrives.”
In agreement, we waited together in the long line to receive our food. But as I stood waiting with Cleo, I looked around and saw more girls standing with forlorn looks on their faces and tears threatening to rain down on the dry Ugandan earth. Gathering them to me, I asked a question.
“Do you miss your families?” Five heads nodded up and down in unison.
“Is that why you have tears?” Five more nods.
“Me too. I haven’t seen my family in four months.”
Looks of confusion were replaced with looks of realization as this information processed.
“Do you think my family has forgotten about me because they have not come to visit today?” Five heads shook from left to right, indicating no.
“Do you think my family no longer loves me because they have not come?” Five heads shook again.
“Do you think I need my family here today?”
At this they stopped and contemplated their answers before Katya spoke.
“No, you don’t need.”
“And why not?”
“Because you have us.”
Tears came to my own eyes as they arrived at the conclusion I had hoped they would come to.
And over the course of the afternoon, we did have each other. I attended parent/teacher conferences with some of the students so they would not have to face the progress meetings alone. Walking into their teachers’ rooms, I made a poorly attempted joke, saying that I would need no translation from the mzungu teachers, as I spoke perfect English. It made the girls laugh, which was all I cared about.
Slowly, one by one, the absent parents and guardians arrived, causing the volume of laughter and lively conversation on campus to only heighten. And as Cleo, who remained at her post by the gate, finally caught a glimpse of her mom on the other side, she shouted and took off at a sprint, her shoes kicking up dust as she ran with reckless abandon and latched onto her mother in the sweetest of hugs.
I turned away, unable to keep the tears at bay any longer.
All too often, it is said that our job here is to “simply love these children.” But watching our girls on Visitation Day — observing their range of emotion from devastation to rejoicing when mum or auntie or jjaja arrived — I was reminded that these children are already loved.
And while yes, we are here to love them, Visitation Day was an all to real reminder that our girls do not need us to love them for them to understand love. They have families that love them, and they love their families. Just because they do not express their love in the same way that we, the mzungus, would choose to express our love, does not mean that love is not present and that it’s not understood.
As I watched Myra and Zoé and Jo-Elle stare at their guardians with love reflecting in their eyes, and I saw their guardians’ eyes full of pride at their children, I was filled with a deep, inexplicable feeling of contentment. After all, we came to partner with these families, not to replace parents or guardians or win the title of “mum.” That's why we call ourselves Family Mentors and not houseparents in front of the children, so there is no confusion as to what our role is.
Our girls’ parents don’t always make the best decisions. It’s frustrating to see how some of their decisions hurt their children. But out of 24, only one of our girls had no one come to see her by the end of the day. As long as the girls’ guardians want to be a part of their lives and are trying to provide for them, we want to work alongside them.
Working alongside the parents and guardians might mean we attend a parent teacher conference in their place, so their child does not feel alone. Or it might mean that, when we’re feeling alone and missing our family, they lend us part of theirs.
A note from Sarah:
To protect the privacy of Amazima's students and families, we will not be using their legal names in blog posts. Unless we have permission to publish their story, aliases will be used.