Bernard Makachia invited us to a charity walk this morning (Sunday) for Foundation Karibu Tanzania, a rescue centre that rehabilitates child victims of severe domestic abuse. The foundation also counsels the parents of these children so that the kids can go back home after healing of their wounds. Their physical wounds, at least. Bernard wanted Iris, “his photographer,” to be there. So we hopped on a dala dala and followed Bernard’s directions to the FKT centre.
I wasn’t prepared for this morning.
We arrived and saw Bernard and his staff lining up a group of children. They were handing out water, carrying toddlers, and getting everyone ready for the 3 km walk. I had my camera ready to take pictures since Iris had committed to taking mostly videos. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but the other interns and I had resolved without much question to be present for the charity walk and the ceremony afterwards.
We left with very full hearts.
Once everyone was prepared to depart, the children that are staying at the FKT centre and a group of children from another organization that seeks to get street children back with their families assembled behind an FKT banner. They lined up in groups of two or three, holding hands. Some pairs held posters reading “stop child abuse.” There were two police officers with us leading the way to direct traffic around our group. We set out walking, and I awkwardly took pictures and smiled at curious kids that stared up at me. As we walked, the children began to sing. I don’t know what they were singing, the only words I understood were “FKT tuna sema,” which I’m pretty sure means something like “we say FKT.” Walking with these children that have suffered in their few years more than I will ever suffer throughout my entire life, listening to them sing and seeing them smile and clasp each others’ hands, brought tears so my eyes. We weren’t even down the street from the centre, and this white girl was walking with her big camera and backpack, wiping away tears as they spilled down my cheeks. I couldn’t help it. These children were so precious, and my heart bled for them.
It still bleeds for them.
We walked for about an hour to a field where there would be snacks for the kids and speeches. On the way, I found a friend. I was walking near the front, and the boy walking beside me nudged the girl in front of him to move faster, as the lines were being shifted and he was bumping into her. This boy (I cannot remember his name for the life of me, although I did ask for it) was probably six or seven and full of life and curiosity. I inserted my hand between these two children. The boy grabbed my hand, and I walked the rest of the way holding the hand of this spunky kid that would periodically look up and smile at me. He didn’t sing along to the FKT song, so I sang for the both of us. I didn’t know the words nor what the words meant. I imitated what the children around me were saying, and likely got most of the words completely wrong. But I couldn’t not sing. I couldn’t walk alongside these children and not belt out the words of the song they had been taught. It was a song of hope, but also an appeal to whomever would listen: don’t hurt us. Don’t rob us of our childhoods and cause us to find ourselves in a rescue centre, being treated for physical and psychological injuries. Tears are in my eyes as I write this, remembering all of those children.
We reached our destination. The children grouped together under a tree to receive water. My new friend looked up at me and said something in Swahili. Unfortunately, my Swahili remains incredibly limited; I crouched down, looked at his expectant face, and said “sifahamu, pole” (I don’t understand, sorry). He ran away to join the others. I resolved to let the kids do their thing while I sat with the other interns and adults, but before I could make a step, the boy was by my side again. He gave me his water bottle, so I took the seal off, opened it, and gave it back to him. We had limited conversation, which did frustrate me. I snapped a few pictures of everyone in the field, and then crouched down to show him what I was doing. Then I showed him how to take a picture. Then I gave him the camera and let him play photographer. He took pictures of the other children across the field, of the people sitting down, and then took pictures of me. Before anyone thinks I just handed a random kid that probably has nothing to his name a camera that isn’t even mine, I made sure to stay close and had the strap in my hand most of the time. I also wasn’t worried about this kid taking anything; he looked like a bit of a troublemaker, but was such a sweet little one. After a bit (and a mental struggle to figure out how to ask for the camera back), I said “sawa, naomba camera” (okay, I ask you for camera). He handed it over with a big smile. I gestured that we should go over to where the other children were. He grabbed my hand and we went.
The kids had snacks, and my special little friend grabbed his snack bag and came right back to me. We sat among the other children while they ate through their bags of candy, crackers, and biscuits. I took pictures of their smiling faces, and they took turns asking me to open bags of things and saying things to me that I didn’t understand.
I like kids in general, but these sweet little things were so special.
It was around this time that I started to notice things. An FKT staff member carrying a toddler because her foot was in a cast. A little girl with mangled, shiny scar tissue covering half of her hand. A boy with a circular scar running around his lower leg. Many of the kids had gauze taped in various places. Many kids had scars and scabs on their heads. Bernard told us before the walk that FKT only takes “severely tortured children.” All of the children the FKT takes in are victims of extreme domestic violence, and the goal is to rehabilitate them for as short a time as possible and then reintegrate them into their homes again. He stressed that they can only take in the children that are severely abused.
Every single one of these little ones had suffered incredible abuse in their own homes recently. Pictures on FKT banners during the walk showed images of burn marks and open wounds on heads, backs, arms, and legs. A picture I was shown by an FKT staff member once we got to the end of the charity walk showed a child whose leg had been almost completely cut off.
I have no idea what had happened to my little friend to end up at FKT.
Bernard deemed the field we ended the walk in as unfit for the ceremony afterwards. It wasn’t the field that they had originally booked, and there was too much going on in the area. We packed the kids in two dala dalas that had been rented and hopped in cars to head back to the FKT centre. Chairs were lined up once we got there, and everyone took their seats. A government official (I think) served as the guest of honour, and speeches were made. While all of this was going on (in Swahili and too quiet for me to really hear anyways), I watched the children sitting all around me. They joked and played with each other. They traded packages of crackers for lollipops. My new little friend made sure he sat near me. I didn’t mind one bit.
The language barrier was frustrating, but the kids apparently didn’t mind me smiling and making undistinguished noises in response to their questions. I tried to get by with “mambo” and “ume shiba?” (“what’s up?” and “are you full?”). I couldn’t get enough of their smiles. I held it together without crying for the most part, only tearing up a little during the speeches when I thought about the prospects of these children. These kids will return to their homes likely in a few months. These children (none were over 8, I’m guessing) would go back to their families, who will hopefully have successfully completed counselling and will know that they cannot resort to hurting their children. They will also return to poverty. Bernard shared with Nuri and I his frustration with this; domestic violence often is a result of poverty. A hungry child will get into the kitchen and eat the food that is supposed to last the entire family the week. The child will not know any better. The child will get beaten. This particular story is one of many, but the common theme tends to be poverty.
My little friend will return to poverty and little prospects. That hurts me more than I can say. I don’t know what to do about that. I prayed over all of the children, but this boy especially. I asked God to keep His hand on this one. That’s all I can do.
Feeling so helpless and not even being able to relate to these kids in their language was disheartening, but I hope I made up for it in smiles and love. I hugged my new friend and told him that I would see him again (we’re hoping to go on an outing with FKT soon). I said “kwaheri” to as many kids as I could before we left. I rubbed little backs and held little hands and kissed little heads. I couldn’t get enough of these small humans. I already miss them.
I was thinking before we left that I didn’t know if I could say goodbye. I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know how to leave and possibly never see these children again before they left the centre and were reintegrated back into their families. I had established a limited relationship with them, but a relationship nonetheless. I have no idea how people can work with kids in other countries for a short period of time and then leave forever. That would kill me.
I hope to see my friend again. I also hope that he returns to a family that now knows how to nurture him and see that he grows into a man that knows how to love.
[Afterwards] I really struggled with this post directly after publishing it. I wasn’t sure if including pictures was ethical. These children have been through hell and back, and if you’ve stayed with me all the way through these posts you’ll know how I feel about images. Visuals are great things, and for people that aren’t seeing Mwanza like I am it’s difficult to truly understand what I experience, and therefore what I feel. Images are powerful, even if they can be skewed. I’ve kept all of the original images except for one; I feel like these images are all in context. I wrote about all of the individuals depicted in their own pictures, and don’t think that these children are shown in a negative or victimised light. That being said, I’m still struggling. I don’t know what these kids have been through. So who am I to share their smiling faces? Who am I to potentially encroach on their privacy and security? I’m a white girl from a good family in Canada.
This post was really hard for me to write. I needed to write it, but it was very difficult. I’m still processing everything that I saw and felt. I’m still reeling from small realizations that I had during the walk and that I am continuing to have. Domestic child abuse is something that should never, ever happen. I really hope I haven’t just capitalized on it.