We arrived in the dark. The headlights gave us a glimpse of the fields and mud huts as we turned the corners down the red dirt road. Pedestrians and cattle appeared and disappeared in and out of the light. Now you see them, now you don’t. If you were to ask us on that moonless night where we were headed, we would have told you we were going to meet the orphans. The one’s whose parents were burned in the fire or killed by a bullet that first passed through their own hand. But we didn’t know that yet. We had our mission statement, and not much else. “Going to help the orphans” had an idyllic tone to it and we were on our way. We squished together in the seats as the tires crawled in-and-out of large holes and rivets, swaying the van off center.
We were late; the drive from Entebbe airport took longer than expected. But this was Africa and in Africa, you’re always on time no matter when you show up. As we rounded the property line, a row of 58 children and a handful of adults showed up in the light and were gone again as the lights of the van made the final turn down the straight path to our destination. Shouts and screams and whoops came out of their mouths in great excitement as they chased the van waving palm fronds in the air and brushing the dirt in front of the van as we inched further. We were surrounded with high pitched “loo-loo-loo”s coming through the windows on all sides. The 15 of us were wide-eyed, trying to see in the dark with more than our eyes. The van stopped, the side door swung open, and one by one they pulled us into their arms with celebration, some being picked up and carried with celebration, like a mosh pit.
We danced in battery powered light in the courtyard of the dorms. The kids tried to teach us African steps, the traditional dance, and I tried to keep up. I was there, but I wasn’t there. I studied their dark faces: beautiful, glowing, and smiling bright, as they bounced up and down and tried not to make fun of the way we—I—fumbled awkwardly through the steps but were outwardly happy we had arrived and were dancing with them. The music was loud. We were sticky. I held tight to my water bottle. My shoe was uneven on the grass and dirt, pitching me in directions opposite of where I wanted. I smiled…on the outside.
We were in search of orphans. The destitute kind. The in-need-of-saving kind. The I can be a hero by helping them kind. But we were in the dark. That moonless night on the other side of the world was the beginning of the search for a kind of orphan we didn’t yet understand or want to face. The kind we might only find by traveling to Africa. The kind that is recognized and catches in your throat during a parting embrace with Helen or Eunice or Olivia…and I swallow and push it back down into the dark pit of my gut. I don’t want to see.
–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com