Jambo sana! It’s been quite a trip so far in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo! This week and next week I am running an art/English camp for the kids here at Panzi Hospital. I have 20 students on any given day, but it varies. The kids I work with here are from about six years old to 13. There are three wonderful women who are the caretakers of the kids, Jeanette, Noelle and Mapendo. Jeanette is the most talkative and a wonderful person.
These kids have almost nothing compared to those of the same ages in the U.S. but they are extremely eager to learn and able. None of the kids have had easy lives, even though they haven’t been on this earth very long. Their mothers are at the hospital getting treatment because they have been violently raped and attacked in their villages. All of these kids are the products of those attacks. Many of the kids have only one parent, and I know of three so far who are orphaned. Some of the mothers who are living at the hospital getting treatment leave once finished and leave their children at Aire de Jeux. I asked Jeanette why this happens, and she said it was because the mothers resent their babies, as they are a physical reminder of the atrocities committed against them. Also, when the mothers leave the hospital, they have little left where they came from, especially if they have lived at the hospital for over a year. Many have no work to return to and they know that if they leave their babies at the hospital, they will be taken in by other moms or the partner organization Maison Dorcas, and guaranteed some care.
Yesterday I asked Jeanette which kids were orphaned, and she pointed out one girl in particular and blatantly said out loud right in front of her, “This one here!” I quickly told Jeanette that it’s fine if you tell me quietly but I don’t want to upset the girl in any way because this is no easy subject to talk about. She said that it was no secret for the girl. Her mom died here at the hospital right in front of her last year. This girl is only nine years old. She now has no family to care for her. This is just one example of the many stories I have yet to learn.
Every morning class starts at 9 a.m. Emmanuel, my 16-year-old translator (new little brother!) and I walk down to the Aire de Jeux, the open air, small center that has one of the only “typical” playgrounds in the country, with some tire swings and a sand box. This is not a “well to do” center for the kids by any means, but it is a great space built by some NGOs here like UNICEF and PMU Health. The kids have a greeting song that they sing every time a new visitor or friend enters the Aire de Jeux. It’s a welcome song in French. Then they sing a prayer song to start off the day. That is followed by some songs and games that I teach the kids, like “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes,” “The Banana Song,” and others. Today I asked the kids to teach Emmanuel and me some of their other songs and dances, and we had a blast, laughing. They thought it was hilarious when I tried to do the dance moves that at seven years old they are so good at. One boy is the drummer, and he provides the beat for all of the songs. He is so good for his young age and small hands. He has no drum, just an empty water container and two sticks. This is an example of how resourceful one has to be here. For example, when the kids and I painted yesterday, we didn’t have even paper plates to mix paint on or put paint on, so I cut the top half off of water bottles and we kept paint in the bottoms of them.
Today the three women who work with the kids told me I am not allowed to leave Panzi for at least the next 10 years. They said that when I am there with the kids and we are laughing, singing, painting and having fun, they forget about why they are there. They forget that their mom’s have been hurt, that they are not in their own home, and for those moments we are all the same, just having fun.
Arianna De Reus is 17 years old and attends Hollidaysburg High School in Pennsylvania. She is currently volunteering at Panzi hospital in the town of Bukavu in eastern Congo, where her mother, Professor Lee Ann De Reus, is doing research.