Thursday, 1 August 2013
First Night in the Bush
It's nine o'clock at night and I'm in the middle of the African bush. I've never seen dark like this - I can hardly see my hand in front of my face. And there are so many stars. Stars I've never seen before. Happily, there is a high voltage fence separating me from the lions, but they're out there, and they're close. I saw a lion family lolling earlier today - nothing picture-worthy, alas, just some ears and a twitching tail - about a mile from here. It's an honour to join them in their home.
I'm nearing the end of my journey, and I'm both looking forward to going home and dreading it. Of course I'm missing my husband and our friends and family and our kitties, and I can't wait to see them. And see all of you.
But there is something here that I'm scared to leave. I feel fulfilled here. The work at Hands wasn't work at all - it was joy. It was heartache too, and I think if I stayed here longer, I'd feel it even more.
But there is courage here. And such commitment.
Case in point. Early last week we met three little girls, the oldest of whom was being abused by her father. I saw her standing alone on the sidelines, when all the other kids were playing games. I went over to her, and saw that she was crying. I tried to put an arm around her, but she shrank away. So I stood beside her for awhile. She eventually let me hold her hand.
At the time, I didn't know what was wrong. I was pretty sure it was major, because she was the first kid I saw cry. Even amidst all of the horror these kids face, for the most part, they put on a happy face.
Before long, one of the girls on my team came and took my friend by the hand and led her away. I'll be honest - she slipped my mind. There are just so many kids.
But it was Kayley, our lovely 18-year-old UK team member, who thought to ask her story. And that's when we found out about the abuse. The little girl is nine. And she has two younger sisters. The abuse is nightly - whenever the father is home. The mother knows, but she won't do anything about it for risk of losing the father's income.
And this is one of the hardest things to stomach - the wholesale abuse of children, the fact that their rape is so normalized that nobody blinks. And that poverty trumps child rape in the survival game. I feel rage when I think about it. And I feel helpless too. Because even if you manage to protect one kid, you can't protect them all.
But we did our best to protect this girl and her sisters. We took the story forward and told the leadership at Hands what was going on.
The next day, a crew of Hands folks went into the the community, spoke to the mother, and removed the girls from the home. Social services is now involved, and the father will likely be arrested.
On my last day at Hands, I asked what was likely to happen to the girls.
The answer was both grim and inspiring.
"Frankly, if Hands wasn't involved, the charges against the father would probably be dropped," says Dan, oh-he-of-movie-star-looks. "But that's not going to happen. It's in my DNA, and the Hands DNA, to fight for these girls," he says. "I don't care if I have to sleep in front of their house every night, and they have to sleep in my truck, they will be safe. Now that we're on this story, we're going to do everything in our power to make sure nothing further happens to them."
Powerful words, and from anyone else they might ring overly-dramatic and hollow. But Dan, himself a father of three, means it. I've never seen anyone so fierce. And that's the kind of people who work with Hands.
It's that kind of courage in the face of utter adversity I've seen here time and again. I'm inspired and humbled. I only wish I had that kind of courage myself.
And yet, the best compliment I've received while I've been here was from Daphne, our 73-year-old Aussie grandmother. "I'm pretty sure that not very much fazes you, does it."
I've taken Daphne's words to heart. It wasn't long ago that I felt afraid of everything.
But now I'm sitting in the middle of the African bush in the dark, with just a small fire and my iPad for company. Let's not forget about that electric fence. But I don't feel afraid.