Rwanda: Beauty and Loss

Sisters of Charity Mission, Kigali — A woman lies terribly weak and emaciated on a cot, a jug of water beside her, and when I approach, she uses all her effort to shake my hand.

"Amakuru," I say.

"Nimeza," she whispers, meeting my eyes, matching my smile. I bend down beside her, gently caress her bones, graze her cheeks with my fingertips.

She could die at any moment.

She is surrounded by flies.

The tiny boy with AIDS gets in my lap; he clings to me with such urgency, and once carried on my hip, he has the air of a child satisfied and comfortable and completely attended.

I oblige him, but with great reservation. There's the dried — and drying — snot, for one, the big eyes and sunken cheeks, the bone-thin body. He has no mother.

In a rocky courtyard outside, demented women wander about, and others sit silently on a bench. "She's lost her mind," Josephine says of one.

She'd been raped in the genocide, seen people killed, the nun says.

The old woman beside her was blind, and I touched her hand and bent down before her so she could touch my face. She motioned for me to sit beside her and her hands moved all over me and the little boy in my arms. She touched the boy, grabbed my breast, and shook her head with a disturbed look on her face. I was not the boy's mother.

In the men's quarters a boy lies in a crib twitching, and Sister Josephine tells me he is an epileptic and is therefore not to be placed with the other children. As I make a move toward his crib, a man approaches and lifts the child, who is approximately 3 years old, and places him in my cradled arms.

The boy is wet, urine and sweat dripping off him into the pools of his plastic crib cover. My dress and jacket are drenched, and I place him on a cot beside the crib. He is crying now, suffering, telling his story in sobs and huge tears.

Sister Josephine yanks off his sopping pants, and poop rolls out, small and speckled. I caress the boy's head until he is calm, and when the man brings a cloth to clean his filthy face, he is not gentle enough and I take the cloth from him and use soothing strokes.

But even when it appears that the boy's bottom has been thoroughly wiped, it is clear that his shirt remains drenched, and I make no move to hold him again. Josephine reads me and leads me outside, where we wash our hands with water running in a makeshift sink.

When it's time to return my clinging boy to his playmates — in fact, two older boys also closely accompanied me on my tour, one who held my hand and the other, my attention — I realize how my interaction could be construed as yet another abandonment. I tripped over the foot of the boy who had held fast to my hand, and when I looked, his toe was bleeding. I turned to Josephine and asked her if we could help him, and she assured me something would be done and urged me on. The boy screamed after us, and at the top of steps leading to more dormitories, I turned to see that he and the other older boy had followed. They looked longingly at me, and I smiled weakly back.

"Is she yours?" a woman asked as I sat in the nursery, feeding a pretty baby some unpleasant-smelling pink slop. She wanted a job, she said. She would cook for me, teach me Kinyarwanda, while I was in town. But I would not entertain such plans. I told her I'd be leaving in the morning, and concentrated on my feeding, still concerned about my damp lap.

Another baby was also a bit damp, but very hungry, and I fed him the remaining pink slop, using the same spoon, and wiped the thick mucous from his nose with the same rag the nanny used to wipe everyone, and possibly everything else. I took on a third baby because she was very cute, and when she didn't eat, I cuddled her until a taxi was summoned and arrived.

I could adopt that little baby, I realized later, just cart it home with me. But I won't.