orphan girl.

we walk down the hill towards the bus, side-stepping chickens and pieces of trash. jumping across the dirty stream i turn and catch them whispering.

"you're talking about me in swahili again, aren't you."

"eh?" their eyebrows raise almost imperceptibly - a sign of understanding. a slow grin spreads across my face as i poke adah in her side.

"i thought i said no secrets." she giggles and maneuvers away from the tickling, grabbing my hand and leading me to the make-shift bridge. rose starts in with her sarcasm, telling me again that if she ever came to America she will run from the white people.

"i'm telling you, elora. you all look alike. i will think people are following me."

adah laughs again and a giggle escapes rose's lips before she can stop it. i join in - there is absolutely nothing as contagious as these girls laughing together, even if they laugh at my expense. i lean against the dirt wall of a nearby home and cross my arms. "wait. we look alike? really?"

"yes. your husband looks like your brother."

they're really laughing now - struggling to stand straight amidst the uneven ground.

i let the conversation die for a moment as we hopscotch across sandbags placed conveniently in the sewage. when we see the bus in the distance, i turn my attention back to the girls. "rose, does your mother know your silliness?"

her fingers fly to her lips and i stop. i've noticed this motion these past few weeks. this is what she does when i ask her a question she doesn't want answered. i look in her eyes and she looks away, a vibrant and talkative girl suddenly mute.

adah leans in and squeezes my hand, "her parents died last year. car accident."

my heart stops and i close my eyes before pulling rose close. her sniffing hides the vice-like grip she has on my waist - her weight falling into me. "rose. i'm so sorry. i-i didn't know." we sat there for a few minutes, me and my precious girl recently orphaned. i stared up at her home - the slum i wanted to run away from just ten days ago. a fissure was forming internally and i knew this moment etched itself into the cracks regardless how difficult or painful the reality.

the truth is, kibera is filled with orphans. the sheer number of wandering toddlers and glue-sniffing teens quickly became something of a regularity. while in the headmaster's office, i noticed a chart on a chalkboard labeling the full/half orphans and those with complete family sets.

the complete family sets were few.

so, i told rose i had no idea. but in reality, taking statistics into consideration, it's not a surprise. what derailed me was her tenacity. earlier in the week we spoke of education. "i will do something with myself." she said, looking at me. "i want to be a teacher. like you." and for a half-second i saw gentleness in her eyes as she caught my gaze. but deeper was initiative and drive and determination. i nodded my head when she told me this and said i believed her.

"i can totally see you teaching, rose. you can't be too mean, though. don't make your students do all your dirty work."

her eyebrows shot up in embarrassment. "why not?" she asked and then laughed. i just smiled and shook my head, thinking to myself i had her pegged.

and now this girl who, when asked what she would say to my friends back home speaks with stunning eloquence "tell them i love them and to come visit. to see my home and to meet me - to know kenya" is broken in my arms.

and suddenly the orphan crisis becomes really, really complex and very, very real.

flesh and blood real. bone and tears real.

rose real.

i heard today the problem with stories is that culture tends to rely on thesingle story.  this can be devastating to any cause - any people. a single story can destroy hope.

a single story is dangerous, because it's not complete.

it'd be a piece of cake to take rose and lump her into a single story. orphan in a slum. done.

but this is not all of her story - praise God.

i only know two weeks worth of conversations and prying into a swahili world of color and friendship. rose laughs. adah, her best friend-turned-sister, is her shy partner in crime. rose sings and has a grandmother who struggles to walk yet makes artisan crafts with project biashara so rose can attend school.

the afternoon her world crashed into mine with force, i was left with nothing but tear stains on my t-shirt and a dirty smudge where she wiped her face on my sleeve. but the connection rooted deep and something in my heart shifted. and now, when i stare at her picture, i do not see an orphan girl but a blooming hope.

i'm going into this weekend thinking of her and the way her laugh made me forget the sun beating into my energy. i'm thinking of her taking my hand and leading me to meet her grandmother. i'm thinking of her collapsing against me in weary grief and those eyebrows sardonically lifting repeatedly and her swahili secrets.

the orphan crisis is not a single story to me anymore. it's not just bloated bellies and crying cribs. the orphan crisis, in all of her complexity, has a horror all her own - yes. but it's blatantly hopeful and breathing life into weary hearts. i can't forget this. i can't forget connection.

"when you leave for america, you will pray for me and i will pray for you." rose says in a small whisper. i fight the tears and nod my head.

"absolutely, rose. i will always pray for you."

she smiles and lifts her eyebrows, "and remember me?"

the tears won then, and they win now - because yes, rose. i will remember you. i couldn't ever forget.

Posted on February 24, 2011 .