"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)



I am trying to imagine life without maps.

I love maps. I’ve always loved maps. When I was a child, we took many long trips across the country, from Tennessee to Texas, to Washington, DC, to Florida. Usually we were in the car for at least two full days, sometimes more. Mom would fix the back seats of the minivan so my sister and I each had a bed of sorts (being the oldest, I got the full back seat; my sister had to rest her feet on the cooler by the sliding door). We’d listen to music and play the alphabet game (find all the letters of the alphabet on billboards, but only one letter per billboard), and read to pass the time.

It didn’t matter whatever we were doing, wherever we went: I had to have a map. I’d ask for the atlas over and over again, and anytime mom and daddy needed it to navigate, I’d regretfully give it up before asking to have it again half an hour later. I was (and still am) fascinated with maps. Moreover, I need to know exactly where I am. Like my father, I have an innate sense of direction. We generally know which way is north and which turn will get us out of an accidental detour.

Yesterday when I arrived at C & E’s house in Goma, I was surprised to be greeted by Olivier. Olivier is one of the children from the neighborhood near Heal Africa whose parents are either totally uninvolved, dead, or who just allow their children to run wild in town all day. C & E love these children dearly, but they don’t allow them into their home as a general rule.

It turns out that three weeks ago, just after I left, Olivier was very sick. So sick that they thought he was going to die. So C & E took him in until a place could be found for him at an orphanage or with a family here.

In trying to figure out why he was so sick, Olivier underwent several tests. He’s now on medication for asthma, among others. One of those tests revealed that he is HIV+. It’s probably the result of mother-to-child transmission that happens at birth if a mother doesn’t have access to nevirapine, and given Olivier’s age, his mother couldn’t have had access to this live-saving drug, even if she’d known she was HIV+ (which, again, given his age, she probably wouldn’t have known). It’s only in the last couple of years that serious efforts at preventing and treating HIV/AIDS have gotten underway in this corner of Congo.

(Given that street children here are highly likely to be sexually abused, it’s also possible that he contracted the disease through means that I can’t think about.)

Olivier is 10 years old.

I wish you could meet Olivier. He speaks Swahili, and his eyes light up at the smallest things – whatever catches his interest. He likes to play games, make up elaborate handshakes, and make faces. He likes identifying the animal stickers on the wall in the hallway, and imitating animals and scenes from around town and having you guess what he’s doing. (It’s heartbreaking that one of the things a child would imitate is a volcano exploding, but he doesn’t realize this.) He likes to salute like a soldier, and he likes to stick his head through the curtains in my room. He likes to play with a small toy truck, whose toy driver he has named, “Olivier.” He’s much healthier now that he’s getting adequate medicine, food, clothing, and shelter.

Last night I sat down in the living room with my laptop. Olivier plopped down beside me on the floor. “Iko ni nani?” he asked. “What’s that?”

He was looking at the wallpaper on my desktop, which is a conglomerate picture of the earth at night as viewed from space. You can see quite clearly in the picture where the lights are and where people are poor, where populations are dense, and where there are deserts.

I don’t think Olivier had ever seen a map before, or anything like this. He giggled when I told him that “that” is the whole world. I showed him Africa, showed him where Goma was, then pulled up some other maps of Congo and of Goma.

Olivier has never been to school. His life up until now has largely been one long story of neglect. But he is clearly so smart. I’m not sure he understands the concept of a map, but he quickly memorized each place I pointed out – here’s where our house is, here’s Lake Kivu, here’s Heal Africa, here’s the market.

We looked at pictures after that. I pulled up the Heal website, and he giggled, because the children pictured on the front page are his friends. He quickly identified them for me. We looked at some of my pictures. He memorized what my mother, father, and sister look like, then identified them in picture after picture. He watched as I surfed the web, asking “What’s that?” over and over and over again, about every single page. He reminds me of Favorite Kids #2 and #3 – curious, smart, and creative.

This sweet little boy has no place to go. Going back to the family that almost allowed him to die isn’t an option, if they’re even alive. They thought they’d found a place for Olivier at a local orphanage, but after two days, the director sent him back out of fear that he’d give other children HIV. C & E have to find a place for him in the next day or two, definitely before Saturday. There’s another orphanage who might take him, but they’re demanding a monthly payment, maybe of $40, which is really extravagant here, certainly far more than the cost of caring for Olivier would be.

I don’t know where that money’s going to come from. I don’t know who’s going to take Olivier, who’s going to love him, who’s going to fight to ensure that he gets access to ARV’s when more doses become available and when his blood cell counts get too low. I don’t know who’s going to play with him, who’s going to make sure that he gets to school so he at least has a fighting chance. I don’t know who’s not going to be so terrified of H-I-V that they’ll see through those three letters and save him.

I am hoping and praying and believing against belief that somehow, this too shall be made right. Because no smart ten-year-old boy should have gotten this far in life without having seen a map, without having a clear sense of where he belongs in this great big world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What can I do? Would it help if I tried to do another blog campaign or something to raise funds for him?

I can't look at his sweet face and do nothing. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 4:18:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Yes! Let's do something - what do you think?

If nothing else, I'm going to commit to pay part of the cost myself. Stupid graduate student income.

Thursday, August 02, 2007 3:48:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in for doing something as well. Let me know.

Thursday, August 02, 2007 12:37:00 PM

Blogger Jess said...

let me know as well, please. sorry i have been out of touch. my grandmother died last week.

Friday, August 03, 2007 2:12:00 PM


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