Wednesday, August 27, 2014

their names inscribed in my notebook

 "... I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands..."  -Is. 49:15-16

School was on break, but still nearly 40 children and a few parents came to hear our health training presentation. They crowded into the dim classroom whose windows weren't allowed much sun. The clouds and tightly packed buildings - if you can call them that - made sure of it. Outside, along the muddy paths that dilineated the villages of Kibera - one of the largest and poorest informal settlements (euphemism for slum) in the world - people busily rolled chapatis and fried samosas and stood solemnly at their little market booths. I wondered how many thought today could be different from the day before. Garbage lined every path and sewage stream, more abundant than the flowers in the average American town. A mix of feces, sour garbage and exhaust filled the air.

Inside the flimsy walls of the Urishika Children's Centre, it wasn't so easy to remember what I'd seen oustide. Here, the paved path had little trash on it, and the accosting smell wasn't so strong. A new structure was being constructed - a latrine, library, and kitchen, designed in such a way that the biogas from the latrine would power the kitchen - which hinted at the capacity for change, and for hope. I saw the same hints in the eyes of the children who showed up for our training, and in their raised hands and quickness to "repeat after me."

After a little while, we split the girls and the boys for a short sex education talk. We had about 10 girls and a few adults walk with us to another classroom, where we talked briefly about what happens to women's bodies during puberty, and how to say no to a boy who wants something you don't want to give. The girls were mostly quiet but attentive and polite. As I looked around at each one of them, I was struck my how much beauty and joy I saw in these young girls who had spent their lives in one of the poorest, least secure, and probably most dangerous places in the world. I wanted to remember these girls.

Evelyne sat right in front of me. I had remembered her from our large session, when she volunteered to do the timed wall sit. She was a small, ten year old girl with large beautiful eyes framed with thick curled lashes, in stark contrast to the camouflage sweatshirt that she wore with the hood up. On another girl, this might have been a sign of intended toughness, but on her it simply indicated need, resourcefulness. At the end of our session, when we handed out pens with the slogan of our organization, I asked her to read aloud what it said. 

"You will not be forgotten," she read in a quiet, clear voice. Then she looked up and smiled at me.

"Here, write your name in my notebook," I said to her. I flipped to the next page and handed it to her. She wrote in methodical script, her first name, then her last. A few of the other girls were sitting nearby and crowded to see her write, and so the notebook got passed to each girl, and each one wrote her name with their new pens.

My first instinct was to have Evelyne write her name because I couldn't be sure that she had ever used a pen like this before. And more than that, I suppose I wanted to show the girls that the marks they make - their words, their names - matter. I wanted them to know that they are not forgotten.

When we said goodbye, I gave Evelyne and a few of the other girls a hug. I had a strange feeling that my connection with these girls wasn't over. My urge was to stay, to see how they might grow in the next months or years. Back at our hotel later that afternoon, I opened my notebook and saw the girls' names in their own handwriting and felt that I'd unknowingly gathered a treasure from them. I have their names written down permanently, and in their own handwriting, a kind of souvenir of themselves. They will not be forgotten.

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