Monday, April 12, 2010

The Boy Who Didn't Play

What does it take to change a life? Is it beyond our reach to really make a difference? Perhaps the commitment is too great. Does it require too much money? Too much time? Too much emotion? Sometimes God stands someone before you and tells you plainly - this one is yours. He's your responsibility. Help Me help him.

This is Savior Oteema. I met him in Pakwach, Uganda at the camp where we were staying. He caught my attention because all the other children were yelling and playing happily around me - "Look! A foreigner! A mzungu!" - but he stood quiet and motionless at the gate. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him as the chaos continued around me. I was handing out Smarties, those little tablets of sweet sugar, one by one to the kids. Then I would take their picture and show them their faces on my camera. This caused an eruption of laughter and more candies and more pictures. But all along, in the background, stood this tiny boy. His feet never moved. His arms hung down on each side. The expression of deep sadness on his face never changed. I walked over to him and bent down on his level. A tear slid down his cheek. My eyes welled up immediately. I put a Smarty in his hand. He held on to it but didn't eat it. I ate one to show him it was ok. He bit a tiny piece off. I gave him another and smiled at him. By that time the kids had all gathered around me so I stood up and walked back over to the van I'd gotten out of to get more Smarties. I continued to play with the neighborhood kids for quite some time and watch the little boy by the gate who never joined in and never smiled. That night in bed I prayed about him. "God, if I can help him remind me tomorrow and I'll do it. Is he too far gone? Tell me what to do." In the morning I immediately thought of him when I woke up. I hadn't said a word to Eric about him until then. I told Eric and asked him if Alex, the man who ran the camp, could help me take the boy to the doctor. Eric left and came back and said that yes, Alex would help if we could find him. I knew I could find him because I wouldn't give up until I did. I had his picture in my camera. All I had to do was ask the children where he lived and they would lead me straight to him.

Foreigners are a rare site at the camp we stayed in along the Nile. I could look out my window and see it's wide, smooth water just beyond the trees. It's a beautiful place but a hard place to live. There is no electricity in Pakwach and few have running water. If you do have water in your home, you still have to boil it to use it. This is where the little boy lived. In a round hut within site of the Nile River. The children had been waiting for me to appear that morning. When I asked them they took me to the boy's grandmother and she came out immediately to meet me. She had heard that there were foreigners at the camp. I told her what I wanted to do. Relief came across her face. I could tell that she was deeply worried about her grandson. "What is his name," I asked? "It's Savior. Savior Oteema. Thank you. Thank you. Please take him to the doctor. Thank you." Savior stood there and immediately began to cry and shake. The foreigner had come for him. And she was taking him away! In a van! I realized I was frightening him and didn't want him to become traumatized. I asked two of his cousins to go with me and the two older boys grabbed him up and put him crying into the van. The ride to the doctor took three minutes. Help was only three minutes away but without money, this child would die in sight of the clinic. His tummy was sticking out you see - far. It was bloated and huge and swollen. I really hadn't see many children in this condition in Uganda, surprisingly. When we arrived at the doctor's clinic the lady behind the desk spoke sharply to me. She didn't want to treat him. This made Alex mad. They would not treat a child brought in by a foreigner. Alex stood his ground and I did too! I decided I'd wait them out. I'd sit on that bench with Savior until they grew weary of looking at my smiling face. I would be nice, kind, and PATIENT. I'd wait them out. I think she could tell I wasn't one to give up. She asked me to bring Savior to the courtyard in the back behind the building. "Give him a bath. He's too dirty to see," she said and placed a bar of soap in my hand and a tub of water at our feet and walked off. Now Savior had just stopped crying but I knew it would begin again. I had to take his clothes off and bath him. As I did he began to quietly cry and so did I. Men don't give children baths. That's women's work. I talked to him quietly and told him that it would be ok, I wasn't going to hurt him, he'd feel better tomorrow when we got him some medicine. I cried and he cried. "God, please let this be something treatable!" After his bath, the woman took a sample from him and a lab technician looked at it under a microscope. He came immediately for me. "Which one is sick?" he asked. I pointed to Savior. He looked me straight in the eye, "He is very ill. Do you understand this?" "Yes," I said, "that's why I brought him here today." The lab technician gave him three kinds of medicine: one for a tape worm that was fully grown in his tummy and two for parasites that had also taken up residence there. "Don't miss a dose." And that was it.

We happily got into the van. Even Savior went willingly this time. He'd stopped crying and realized I was not going to hurt him. In the van I gave him fresh water to drink. The water in the Nile, the water that Savior drinks, is fine if you boil it. I don't think his grandmother had been boiling it long enough. I would need to talk to her about this. When we arrived back at his home, his grandmother came running out of her hut. I gave her the medicines and gave Savior his first dose. I handed it to him myself. I told her not to share the medicine with other children. This medicine will only work on Savior. She understood. She understood completely so she pushed three more of her grandchildren in front of me. I was on my knees in that red, now familiar dirt, and lifted up their shirts. There were the bulging tummies. Alex said to me, "You can't save them all, Staci." I thought for a moment and then replied, "No, I can't," I said, "but I can save the ones that God stands before me." With this he smiled. I stood up and gave him more money. "Will you take these three in this afternoon?" I asked him. "Of course," he said. "I'll do it today."

It cost $2.50 to save Savior's life.