We had a good day today: relaxed morning, productive afternoon at work and lots of fun reading and playing with the kids… But we also got our first bittersweet taste of what it means to become (unexpectedly) attached to one of the kids and have him leave (again, unexpectedly) to be reunified with family.
Because Amani isn’t an orphanage it aims to reunify children when possible, either with immediate family members or extended family like uncles, aunts and grandparents. Although there are some kids at Amani who really have no one they could be reunified with and will likely stay at Amani until they grow up, most will be reunified at some point, either successfully, in which case Amani continues to support them and their families by paying for school fees, providing food aid etc., or unsuccessfully, with an all-too-real risk of the kid ending up back on the streets and possibly back at Amani. The reality is that reunification is hard because it usually means that the underlying reasons for why the child ran to the streets in the first place have to be addressed (extreme poverty, destructive family dynamics etc.), and the lure of street life has to be broken. The hope, however, is that family ties that have been restored with the help of Amani’s social workers will keep the kid anchored and will allow him or her to grow up in a familiar environment and supportive community.
And so the day came for one of our friends, Sele, to return to his home village and to his grandfather, his only surviving family member. I don’t know that much about his case but I think Sele is about 11-12 years old and has been at Amani for some months, even years. Judging by the commotion that broke out as the other kids found out that he was leaving he was also very popular. One kid said to Daniel, one of the social workers that was standing with us, “Ah, Sele is leaving? He’s smart like an adult.”
I think both Boogie and I struck up a friendship of sorts with him right away. He’s just one of those kids who it’s easy to connect with despite the language barrier; a smart, fun and talented young man with a permanent twinkle in his eye. An avid and good reader, Sele spent many afternoons in the library with Boogie, and there was (and still is) talk about him being sent to a private boarding school, at Amani’s expense, in order to give him the best possible chance to live out his potential. For now though he was sent back to his village and grandfather and the social workers will follow up with him to make sure he readjusts and stays put. Realistically speaking the chances of him staying are probably no better than 50/50, if that. Although life in an institution like Amani isn’t always easy, there’s food on the table, friends in the yard and good teachers in the classrooms. Back home there’s hopefully love and care and the security that only a family setting can provide, but the other elements cannot be guaranteed. Rural life is still predominantly poor and the educational system is strained at best, dysfunctional at worst. I know the social workers will do their best to support Sele’s grandfather, but no one knows how Sele himself will adjust…
I found myself struggling to hold back tears as the sun set and Sele walked over to where we were standing with Daniel. With his little, half-empty red bag slung over his forehead in the casual-but-cool way only a self-confident 12-year old can, he was clearly overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving behind the life he knew and probably liked. I asked Daniel to tell him in Swahili that it had been a real pleasure to get to know him and to wish him good luck. A tear rolled down his cheek as Daniel hugged him and told him it was going to be all right. A quick “Kwaheri!” (goodbye!) and he was off. He was doing his best to hide the worry and sadness he was undoubtedly feeling. No one likes change and no one likes to say goodbye. Although I know we’re not supposed to have favorites or get too attached, it’s hard not to, even after only a few weeks with them.
I only hope that he’ll be loved and cared for at home and that he will get to go to a good school nearby. Let’s hope this bittersweet moment marks the start of a bright future for young Sele.
Good luck, little friend & all the best.