See the girl in the very front, staring straight at you? That is Zawadi. Her name, appropriately enough, means gift.
She is the younger sister of Riziki, one of our craftspeople. She is not handicapped, and is in fact, perfectly healthy. But she spent two years as a young teenager, living at the Handicapped Center in Goma. What were you doing when you were thirteen? Going to school, playing sports, making friends? So was I. But this young girl was in a city where she had no friends and no family, living in a treatment center for handicapped people so that she could care of her older sister.
Zawadi is not unusual. She was doing precisely what was expected of her, what is expected of any family with someone in the hospital. In the US we have nurses and nurses aides. We have people who come in and change the sheets and feed us when we are sick. We have little buttons to push and call for help. In Congo there is no such thing. You bring your help with you. You bring someone to bathe you, cook for you, feed you, and help you stand.
At a hospital, people tend to leave quickly. They either get better or they get worse. And few people can afford to stay in the hospital for long. But at the handicapped center, people are there for years. Riziki was in the Center for an operation, traction and intensive physical therapy to straighten her legs, a process that takes years not days. And her younger sister was at her side every one of those days.
I find the Handicapped Center to be one of the most humbling places. It is filled with young girls like Zawadi and old women too. Carrying their loved ones, as though it were the task they were born for. And I suppose it is. I suppose it is the task we are all born for.
And I guess it is the same even here. We may have nurses and nurses aides, but I always think of my grandfather sitting by my grandmother's bed in the nursing home. Closing the door, he insisted on bathing her himself. And I think of Henri Nouwen the writer and Catholic priest, who was an esteemed professor at Harvard and Yale before he left to work in a center for developmentally disabled people, bathing them and feeding them...
In this life where we rush around, so full of plans and accomplishments, I am humbled by those who sit by that bed, day after day. Life in the Handicapped Center is full of lives interrupted. There are man and women, interrupted in the prime of their life, by a debilitating illness or accident. And beside them, are others who have allowed their lives to be interrupted too. No one chooses the disease or the accident, but there are those who choose to sit by that bed. They choose to put their lives on hold for the sake of others.
And that is my mistake. I am looking at it all wrong. I am quite sure that Zawadi never considered her life put on hold. This summer, she returned to Goma to live with her sister again. Only this time she is living not at the Handicapped Center but with the SHONA women. Riziki no longer needs her sister's help, but that isn't why Zawadi came. She came because she loves her sister and wants to be with her. And that is the same reason she sat by that bed at the Handicapped Center years ago.
I am reminded again that there is no such thing as a life put on hold, or a life interrupted. In fact it seems that life is found most in the very places we choose to lay it down.
On another note, we would like to thank each of you who have become SHONA members. We have already raised over a third of our goal and are deeply grateful to each of you. Your gifts have made it possible for us to keep cloth in our craftspeople's hands. There is nothing they appreciate more. We still have 27 days left, and if you are interested in helping us become self-sufficient please visit this link. Truly a small donation makes a large difference to us.