Location: Nkozi, Uganda (Buwama Mpigi District)
"No baby, don't cry. I'm here. Don't cry."
I was going on my daily walk through the village, clutching my rosary, and talking to my God. "Lord, today You lead; I follow. Wherever You need me, I will go." Passing our university, the primary school next door, the supermarket with the cheapest bottled water around, and other shops/homes, I decided to turn right, down a tiny path I hadn't noticed in the previous weeks of living here.
As soon as I turned right, I heard her. Usually the moment I encounter the children in my village, my ears are filled with endless laughter, abundant joy, and the sound of, "Muzungu! Muzungu!" or something along those lines. But not this time. As soon as I turned right, the sound of a child crying - a horribly heart-wrenching cry - filled my ears.
"No baby, don't cry. I'm here. Don't cry," I said as I ran up to her and held her in my arms.
She was completely alone. No mom, no dad, no brothers, no sisters, no guardian whatsoever. She couldn't have been more than 2 years old. As I continued to wipe her tears and hug her trembling body, the sun began to set behind us.
It was a moment I won't soon forget. The sun set beautifully on her dark skin so different than mine, shining light on her heart not different from my own at all. It was one of the most "human" moments I've ever experienced. In that moment, we were real. I didn't know her name, her age, her story, or anything about her. She had no idea who I was, but in that moment, we were human together. She stood there, barefoot, with torn clothes and dirt in her hair; I sat in the dirt wearing a newly cleaned white dress, but I didn't care at all. All I wanted in that moment was to make her smile.
Slowly but surely, the tears stopped flowing. Her big brown eyes opened wider than ever before and gazed at my own in wonder. I could almost hear her thoughts. Who is this strange muzungu? Where did she come from? I've never seen one like her before.
About five or ten minutes later, a pack of village kids rounded the corner, shouting, "Muzungu! Muzungu!" as usual. They immediately sprinted up to us, holding my hands, and giving me hugs, yet I couldn't take my eyes off the beautiful baby still standing barefoot and tear-stained in front of me. "Denise!" they said to her. "Denise! Look at the muzungu, Denise!"
Ah, Denise. That's her name.
"Alina emyaka emeka?" I asked the children, pointing to Denise. ("How old is she?")
"Musekka-ki, mikwano?! Alina emyaka emeka?" ("Why are you laughing, friends?! How old is she?")
"Eh, emyaka biri." ("She's 2.")
"Ah, Denise, mukwano wange," I said to Denise, grabbing her tiny hand in mine once again.
Instantly, Denise smiled one of the most brilliant smiles I've ever seen. "Mukwano!" she screamed, squeezing my hand and laughing with glee.
I waved goodbye to the children, telling them it was time for me to eat dinner at the university, and told them I'd see them tomorrow. "Bye Bye, Muzungu!" "Bye Bye, mikwano!"
Clutching my rosary once more, I smiled to myself and started down the path that leads back to the university, with the laughter of the children trailing behind me. Yet as I turned the corner, back onto the main road, my smile instantly faded.
There, in the middle of the road, in a brand new brightly-colored stroller, was a muzungu baby, the baby of a lecturer from our university. A university faculty member was pushing her in the stroller. The baby was very plump with a big belly, not from malnutrition like Denise and every other child here, but plump from overfeeding. Her tiny pink shoes looked brand new. Her clothes didn't have a single rip or stain on them. Not a speck of dirt found its home in her perfectly combed blonde hair. She couldn't have been any older or younger than Denise. Yet there she was, completely protected and simply perfect in her brightly-colored stroller. Not a smile on her face; not even a hint of joy in her eyes.
I will never forget that moment as long as I live. No words can even begin to do it justice. There was Denise, completely alone, dirty, barefoot, suffering, balling her eyes out without any form of compassion around her except a strange-looking muzungu wiping her endless tears, yet soon enough...a huge, bright, brilliant smile, huge enough to make a seemingly permanently saddened soul light up for years to come. And then, on the other hand, there was this American baby, same age as Denise, simply perfect in her perfect little stroller, with her perfect hair and perfect clothes and perfect shoes, without even a hint of a smile on her face. And even on the occasions when I do stop to play with this baby like I do with Denise, there's never a smile, never even a hint of joy.
Interesting, isn't it? How the child with virtually nothing in life (who is told she may end up becoming nothing no matter how hard she tries) seems much more content than the child with everything she could ever need or want - every brightly-colored stroller and every pair of perfect pink shoes? Interesting, very interesting.
Remember Denise. Remember the tears and the joy. Remember the muzungu baby, the stroller, and the lifelessness in her eyes. Think about that image. Ponder it; reflect on it; make it what you will; interpret it as you wish.
Join me in holding onto these moments from Africa, these stories from the beautiful tale that is Uganda. Clutch these moments with me; hold them close to your heart every single day. Learn from them; change as a result of them.
Last but not least, I'll leave you with this: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21, New International Version).
Sending so much love from my heart to yours,
Denise (second from the right, holding my hand) & her village mikwano.