Saturday, October 12, 2013

International Day of the Girl

 It is autumn in the prairies and it is gorgeous. The mornings though, get darker and the house gets chillier, so I was thankful to be wrist deep in hot, soapy water and standing in front on the furnace vent that was blowing hot air across my feet and the cold wood floor around me.  I was watching the sunlight as it broadened from a small sliver to a wide beam, making it's way through the space in the houses surrounding ours. Suddenly, my mind was back in the shade of a mud brick shelter, beside a small girl of 5, with our hands in dirty water, "washing" dishes together. She stands on the 20 gallon jug that the water was carried in by her older sisters, and she wipes the dishes with the remnants of what might have been a t-shirt or towel, it's hard to tell now. She uses her hands to scrape the sticky pap from the worn metal plates and then runs her cloth over them and gives them a shake. She hands them to me to "rinse" in cold water, and then set aside on a wooden plank that serves as the food prep area, dish cupboard and drying board. She is called "Xyanda" and she is feisty and fun. At five, she is the second youngest in the family of 7 children that we spent a weekend with in their home. My boys watch from the shade of an overhang, in the 40+ degree heat, as the girls in the home fetch wood, start fires, boil water, cook and then feed the family. The eldest brother is shy and somewhat detached, he studies hard and makes good grades in an effort to find work and income. The only other boy in the family is about 10 and he spends his time with my boys, playing with the ball we brought, and managing the 30 - 40 kids that show up in the yard to see who it is that is at the centre of village talk. We are surrounded by kids. In fact, in our time in this community, although others have joined families elsewhere in the area, we are on the outskirts of the village and near the river, along a route that has boys following cattle and donkeys down to the water to graze and drink. These same shepherds must have passed along what they've seen, a family of white people, living with that family of children that live along the road. We've become an attraction to children and the elderly alike.

I watch as Xyanda finishes her chores, throws out the dirty water onto the struggling corn plants along the side of the yard, and then proceeds to join in the games being played in the yard. Her older sisters, having cooked the meal and cleaned up the fire pit, sit in the shade where I join them. I ask them if they will join in the games. Cleverness will but she is just resting, she says. Dom would rather take the time to talk with me and tell me more and more of her life story. I sit and listen to a petite girl of seventeen tell me how she and her older brother now have to provide for their younger siblings. She worries about sickness and how to get medicine if one of them gets sick. She sleeps in front of the door to the room she shares with 5 of the others so that there is some measure of protection should someone try to get in. She talks of how she gets up at 5 in an effort to cook for the day's meal or meals, if there is to be such a thing, and then get herself and her siblings washed and ready for the day at school.
On our last morning with the family, it is a school day. We wait for our ride and watch the morning preparations as the kids get ready for school.  Each child leaves at a different time and it is Xyanda who appears first in her navy school skirt and white dress shirt. From across the yard, she looks crisp and clean, face shining and hair combed and wetted down. As she hugs us goodbye, I note the red string that has been sewn across her shoulders, mimicking the x in her name, holding the shirt together long enough for one more girl to wear it through the year. Clifford appears next, shoes shined but missing laces and he says goodbye to us and the boys particularly. They chat for a minute and give handshakes and then he is off as well.  The eldest boy, speaks quietly with us and then leaves for school with an armful of books.  He catches up with Clifford and they walk together for a few minutes until their paths diverge. He takes his schooling very seriously and he walks with purpose. It was hard to get to know him other than this aspect, he obviously feels a great responsibility. Dom appears, wearing the sunglasses I gave her, and she models for us as if on the catwalk of Milan. We have laughed a lot this weekend, mostly her at me with my attempts to keep up fetching water, sweeping the yard, and feeding the fire in an effort to warm water for the laundry, which we did by hand. 7 kids worth. She sits with us for just a minute, yells for Cleverness to hurry, and complains that she is always having to chase Cleverness who is far too slow for Dom's high energy personality. She yells for Bo, and hands him some fruit and waves him off. He doesn't understand that we are leaving today so we let him go without more than a wave.  We watch him, the youngest, just a toddler really, walk himself over to his nearest relatives' yard for the day. No one meets him there. He just toddles in, guava in hand, and sits under the tree in the yard to wait.  Cleverness appears and she and Dom say goodbye and invite us to come and stay again. They ask when we will see them again and we promise to make our way back to Share before we leave Africa. We watch them  make their way up the road and I stand until I can see them no longer. They look back and wave several times and I blow them kisses and make funny faces. I want them to know the feeling of a mother that watches for them and loves them. I am not their mother but I am a mother. Once they are out of sight, I don't fight the tears any longer and just give in for a few minutes. We wait in their empty yard, the boys play x's and o's in the dirt, Jason gets our bags ready for when our transportation arrives. I walk around the yard, taking in the fire pit, cleaned and swept, the evening meal already cooked and sitting on a wood bench in their home, waiting for them. I fiddle with the dishes stacked outside and shake off the last of the water. I flick some stray pap onto the ground where a chicken immediately comes rushing for it. I wring out the dish cloth and lay it over the dishes and push the water jug that is Xyanda's step stool under the boards, out of the sun. I hear our transportation rattling down the road towards us and I take a stick and draw a big heart in the dirt, just where Xyanda stands, and turn to go.

This morning, I think of that heart in the sand. I hope that when Xyanda sees it, she will feel surrounded by my love, even as I stand in the comfort of my own home, hands in hot, sudsy water, and warm air flowing over my feet.
This girl. Xyanda. So loved. 

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