He was standing there alone, as he often did; standing where he wasn’t supposed to be, as he often did.
Somehow he’d found his way onto one of the dirt mounds that would one day be the floor of a new classroom. He’d had to cross several narrow planks to get there, over the deep trenches we’d been digging for the past few days.
He stood there and silently watched as we finished off the last of the concreting from which we’d taken a break to walk back to camp and have lunch. It was lunch break at school and while the other children played in the ‘yard’ (little more than a cleared space between the buildings), he’d done his own thing, as he often did.
The concreting done and seeing the children starting to gather to go back to class for afternoon lessons, I reached out my hands to lift him over the trench to where he could join his classmates. As I picked him up to swing him over, I felt him reach to wrap his arms around my neck. Aware of my responsibilities in regard to child safety and not forming attachments that I could not sustain, I smiled at him and kept him at arms’ length as I carried him over to the other side.
He went off to class. We went back to work.
As we walked back to camp, he was there. Standing some distance away, he was shouting a word at us over and over again. From the cheeky look on his face, I’d guess it was a Not Nice Word. As we came closer, he ran towards us. Stopping still some way away he suddenly spat in our direction.
Shocking? Maybe. Disgusting? To some, I guess.
Me? It just endeared him to me all the more. I’ve always been attracted to the ‘naughty’ ones.
We were all, workers, students and teachers alike, heading home at the end of the day. I saw him and he came, wanting to be picked up. Perhaps against my better judgement but unable to resist, I picked him up and carried him down the hill to the turn off where he went right to go home and we went left to go back to camp. As I put him down, he grabbed for my hand, wanting to follow. A teacher arrived and intervened, shooing him away. I watched as his big sister dragged him back along the path to home.
Our last day and I asked a friend to take a photograph of me with some of the kids but most particularly with that one little boy. I wanted to pick him up but I resisted and instead knelt down beside him for the photograph.
Later, after a beautiful and emotional farewell from the village, we were walking out of the school when I passed him and his family. I reached out my hand to say goodbye to him and he grabbed it and held on tightly. My resolve broke and I leant down and gave him a hug. As I released my arms and went to straighten up, the tiny arms around my neck tightened and his feet lifted off the ground. Several times I tried to set him down and each time he held on tighter.
“Pick him up and carry him down to the corner,” suggested our guide.
So I did, walking down the hill back towards camp for us and home for him, chatting to his father with his mother and sister close behind. As we reached the point where our paths diverged, I felt his arms hold even tighter. I said goodbye and then turned to our guide who reached up and took him from me. I quickly walked away, not looking back.
Halfway back to camp, our guide caught up with me and said, “He is still crying for you.” I stopped and looked back only to see his tiny frame running along the path towards us, his mother in close pursuit. It took all my resolve not to run back to him. I stood there and watched as his mother finally caught up with him and dragged him crying back towards home.
Many tears were shed in camp that night.
In a post I wrote last year about Voluntourism, I questioned the ethics of volunteering for short periods of time in orphanages. I felt it must be cruel to bond with children and then leave them forever.
I didn’t mean to bond with him. Against all better judgment I did.
And it tore away a piece of my heart to leave him.
How anyone could volunteer in a situation where it is part of the job to bond with not just one child but many children and then to be able to just walk away at the end of it is beyond me.
It’s still there, that piece of my heart. With a tiny boy in a small village in Nepal. Just one child and my life was changed forever.