I’m writing this from the very back of the bus as we begin making our way back to our flats. We’ve just spent a good portion of our in Garbage City, a sentence that I can’t even begin to explain. In fact, I’m tempted to just close my laptop screen and give up on even trying to explain this day to you because I already know that none of my words or pictures will be good enough.
But I’m going to give it a try.
I almost didn’t come today. About a day and a half ago I was bitten by something (a spider, we think) and I haven’t felt that great ever since (we have a doctor who has put me on oral antibiotics as well as some topical medicine, so I‘m hoping it will get better soon). I considered staying back but, at the last minute, decided to go with the students because I knew that what they’d be seeing today would be things we’d be discussing in our classes (in case you’re coming in late, I’m teaching an Ethics course while on this trip).
Our bus couldn’t get up the road to the orphanage so we got off about half a mile away and began walking. This area is called Garbage City because it’s exactly that — an area completely full of garbage. One of our guides at the orphanage told me that some of the children we would be seeing were literally plucked from the piles of garbage. I thought that was an exaggeration. I mean, really, how could a child be left in a pile of garbage?
I was wrong.
Within about 45 seconds of being off the bus, Cate and I were both about to vomit simply from the smell. There were dead rats everywhere, children covered in waste. It was the true definition of a living nightmare.
When we finally got to the orphanage, they took us immediately to the babies. We walked into a room that is smaller than my bedroom back home where we found 27 babies laying on blankets on the floor. We had been told that touching the children was a decision that would be left up to each of us and I’m ashamed to tell you that, when I saw their conditions, I backed up against the wall almost as if I was trying to escape from what I was seeing. The last thing I wanted to do was pick up one of those babies.
After a few minutes of explaining how the babies are cared for, the tour continued and everyone headed to see another area of the facility that cares for the elderly.
Except for me.
I stayed because, as I was about to walk out of the room with the babies, one began reaching for me. She knew I saw her; I knew she knew I saw her. It’s one thing not to hold babies when they’re on the other side of the room from you.
It’s another thing when they’re reaching for your arms as you walk past them.
And so I picked up that baby and then another one and then one after that. I realized that I had something to give that the orphanage workers didn’t — time to hold babies. They were too busy doing everything else that comes along with babies — washing bottles, folding clean laundry, etc. I tried to help them with those tasks, but they motioned for me to go back to the babies, to spend what little time I had there holding them to my chest like a mother would. I was surrounded by women who don’t speak a word of English, so I tried to explain in broken Arab*c that I wasn’t sure what to do with a roomful of babies only to be met with blank stares.
And so I held and held and held, rocked and rocked and rocked. I held one baby at a time, then two in my arms with another trying to crawl up my leg. I used my shoulder and neck to hold bottles in their mouths and used my hips to bounce them until they giggled. I even changed diapers with only one hand, something I had previously thought was impossible.
You see, it turns out that we women are built with something inside of us that just seems to know what to do when crying babies lay at our feet. We instinctively know to reach down and pick them up. We just do not leave a baby laying on the ground, especially one without a mother.
Before long it was time to lay them down for a nap. I carried baby after baby to waiting cribs, finally ending with one whose deformities caused her legs to lay at angles that our bodies weren’t made to support. After settling her in for the nap, I went and found a translator and brought her and an orphanage worker back to the nursery with me.
“What’s wrong with her legs?” I asked as the translator quickly explained my question to the worker.
The orphanage worker explained through the translator that her legs had been like that since birth, a deformity that she was born with though no one knows a medical name for it. The worker went on to explain that they hoped to one day have her legs operated on so that she’d eventually be able to walk.
Being the Type A personality that I am, I questioned how soon they operation could happen, what they needed to make it happen. That’s what I do, you know. That’s what you do, too. We like to make things happen now.
They explained that they’re waiting because the child is expected to spend her entire life in the orphanage. I didn’t understand the reply at first and, to be honest, was a little upset. I mean, let’s get started on it now; let’s give her the best opportunity at a normal life as possible. The workers could see that I didn’t understand what they were trying to tell me, so they explained a little further. It only took a few more sentences from them for me to understand what they were trying to tell me.
They’re waiting because her “entire life” that she’ll spend at this orphanage isn’t expected to last very long.
They left me standing there by myself, maybe because they knew I wanted to be alone, maybe just because there were more bottles to be prepared. The baby woke up and began crying and I did too. Before long I was on my knees beside her crib, sobbing alone in a room full of babies in cribs. Some students from our group saw me through a window and came to where I was, trying to get me to leave but I pushed them away. I needed to be left on my knees, sobbing beside that crib.
I needed to think about how, when I had walked through the piles of garbage on my way to the orphanage, I had wanted to get back on my air conditioned tour bus.
I needed to regret the fact that I hadn’t wanted to pick up those babies because I didn’t want their dirt on my clean clothes, their sticky fingers in my hair.
And I needed to mourn the fact that the baby laying in the crib in front of me wouldn’t have the same outcome as a very similar baby who laid in a different crib 24 years ago with her own leg defects. You see, I had a vested interest in this particular baby because 24 years ago I was born with something wrong with both of my legs that required long operations and even longer time spent in casts in order to give me the ability to walk like a normal child. To this day I still have visible scars that run along the back of my ankles, something I was embarrassed about as a child because of how the other children would tease me about them. I hated those scars, the permanence of them.
And yet I would have done anything today to be able to give those scars to the baby laying in the crib in front of me.