I admit I’m surprised when Violet introduces 1-year-old Jordan as her son. As the manger of an orphanage with more than 50 kids, she has still chosen to have her own child…And though I know that traditional expectations here are strong (I repeatedly get asked if I have children, meaning only the biological kind), and I do not know the circumstances of her pregnancy, I struggle trying not to judge her. I remember how she struck me as aloof and stern when I first met her, though I imagined she was exhausted and overwhelmed caring for so many kids with only two or three other “mamas” to help her.
And I question, too, my own projections and assumptions. While it would be tempting to think someone who works at an orphanage loves being around kids and has a desire to make a difference in their lives, I also know in a region where jobs are hard to come by, an occupation doesn’t have to align with purpose or passion or even interest, as long as it provides some income.
Violet now seems happier and softer than I’ve ever seen her, her face radiant as she follows her JoJo’s antics around Save Africa. I think he is the most beloved baby … All the kids dote on him with such fierce tenderness and joy, every adult connected to the orphanage adores him. One afternoon I watch as one of the men who works with Francis, the founder, spends long minutes cuddling Jordan, bouncing him up and down, lifting him high above his head as he laughs, making his nickname a giddy sing-song serenade.
It is beautiful to see, and it also pierces my heart.
I watch Francis with the kids, see him give them a quick hug or run a hand across their head when they slide over to him. He chases them around the yard, makes them laugh with funny faces, though I have also witnessed his strictness and displeasure when he is in disciplinarian mode.
I watch the kids with each other, the way they fight and tease and get jealous like other kids, but are mostly kind and affectionate. The older children especially look out for the little ones. There are hugs, looped arms, attempts to comfort those who are crying or otherwise upset. One day, as we walk back to Save Africa from the supermarket, I can’t help smiling as I watch Mkutwarine and Jacobo alternately shove each other and hold hands as they amble in front of me.
But when it is mostly the youngest who get fussed over by the adults, when shadows flit across the faces of some and linger in their eyes, when those seeking attention or simply offering a greeting get a cursory acknowledgement amid the everyday chaos, when there are 58 children and so few nurturing arms to hold them, voices to soothe and celebrate them, glances to truly see them…do they really know what it is to be loved, to matter, to belong?
What do they carry beneath all that irrepressible joy and do they even realize it as something to be articulated?
One afternoon, I’m sitting in a chair in the classroom chatting with Jackie and some of the other older girls when little Naifat walks over and without even looking at me, leans against my thigh, one arm in my lap. She remains that way for several minutes, watching the rambunctious play of the other kids.
And for days after, that image, the warmth of her slightness against my leg, returns to me. The nonchalant ease of it. The simple trust. The habit of kids everywhere who may not necessarily need attention right then and there but the familiar comfort and reassurance in that casual physical connection.
Eventually I do lift her onto my lap, where she is content to lean quietly against my chest while I keep talking to the girls and interacting with the other kids who call out to me.
I am only one person here. There are some kids’ names I still forget or mix up and a few I still don’t know. Some jockey for my attention and get sad when it’s not undivided. Some gravitate toward me more than others.
But I try to connect with each of them in some way, even the older boys, who are less interested in my silliness, too grown for the lazy sprawls where I sit with several kids draped over me.
I want to bless them all, with a hand, a kiss, a hug, a smile. Because though I cannot offer everything I long to and be there always, it’s what they deserve, the gift of touch, a constant presence to lean into, a love that’s forever available, that plants in them the deepest knowing: you are the brightest of joys among joys, the heart of my holiest hearts.