The year was 1994. I flew to Kigali, Rwanda at the end of an unprecedented genocide that left over a million people dead. The crocodiles were unable to move from the riverbanks because they had feasted on too many cadavers that blocked the tributaries. I went to practice medicine and restore hope to those who were courageous enough to survive. One day, my nurse told me a child was dumped on the ground in front of our makeshift hospital. I told her to return him to his mother. I learned that his mother was killed and his stepmother didn’t want him; so, she left him on the ground and walked away. I found this woman and demanded she take her stepson. “He’s not my son. And I don’t want him,” she said. Then she walked away. I then found his father and demanded that he take his son. “He’s my son, but I don’t want him,” he said. Then he walked away. We didn’t have enough people and resources to treat the losing battle we fought with cholera, malaria and simple diarrhea. How in the world were we to care for an unwanted child?
His name was Joseph and he looked like a little raisin that had been left to bake too long in the sun. Shrivelled and stricken with sickness, we had to care for him. So, we did. Each day I fed and cleaned him, held him and then fell in love with him. My nursing staff called me Papa, a name Joseph had come to know and trust. Holding him tight, he rested his head on my chest, a sad substitute for his mother, but it was all he had and for him anything constant and loving was good. Whenever he saw me, he would lift his arms to the sky, his secret code asking to be held and loved. I didn’t speak his language, but I understood his heart. And over time, we became an inseparable team giving each other what we needed most, love.
The days passed this way and we grew closer. Then one day, he was gone. Where did they take Joseph? I felt as if the umbilical cord between the two of us had been prematurely ruptured. I found that he was transferred to an orphanage. I went there and was toppled by dozens of children wanting my attention and affection. Each finger was tugged by the tight grip of a little one. Ten children battled for one of my fingers which they held onto for dear life as if milking a cow’s udder for any drop of milk.
I waded through the crowd intent on only one thing…to find Joseph. I went from room to room and finally saw him sitting alone twiddling his fingers. When he saw me, like so many times before, he lifted his arms up to the sky and I took him and held him close. The other little ones scurried away realizing they didn’t stand a chance.
I was with Joseph like every other time, the two of us, attentive and connected as father and son would be. And it was good, real good. It wasn’t until I went to put him back in his bed that things went bad, real bad. He understood that I did not come to take him home with me. I had come to say goodbye. He had been here before. Having watched his mother murdered, his stepmother and father dispose of him like a bowel movement on the bare ground, he could not handle yet another assault from someone he grew to trust and love.
They say every doctor has a cemetery. Well, I admittedly have one now. Not even a stone stands there with a name worth remembering. Like a speck of dust gone and forgotten, there is nothing more than me to hold his light. There is no one left to tell his story.
Joseph, my little raisin in the sun, died two days later. He died of a broken heart.
It is in Joseph’s honour that I now commit to loving Africa. It is through Hearts and Hands that he will be brought to life. The fields of Africa will give food, the schools will give future, its places of worship will give faith and the family of man will once again be cradled in its kind embrace never to be abandoned again.