On Thursday morning we divide into groups for what Spark calls Stories of Transformation. Each group is paired with a Hope student and an interpreter. We’re given plastic bags containing an offering of cooking oil and sugar for those we are going to meet.
My group trails young Paul Mutanta off school grounds and through the dusty lanes, calling “Mwash-AH-bick-EN-NEE!” (i.e. good morning) to the villagers.
“How. Are. You?” they reply in careful English.
When we respond in kind, it’s always the same reply: “Fine.”
These must be the foreign words known to most villagers, even the older generations who aren’t learning English in school.
Paul is silent, walking out front of our contingent of basungu. I wonder what he’s thinking, whether he’s a bit proud to be the center of attention. I worry he might be self-conscious, or even dreading what is to come.
When we get to his home, there’s a bit of bustle to suggest our planned visit hasn’t been communicated throughout the family. The interpreter talks hurriedly to the young woman in the doorway. I gather she’s mentioning the 50 kilo bag of maize meal waiting at school that is the balance of our offering.
Eventually we’re ushered inside.
We sit in a dark and incredibly sparse living area. The material poverty on display is difficult to process; how sharply our western clothes and travelers’ trappings contrast with the humble house. Mama Maureen translates as Paul’s older sister tells us about the family’s situation.
There are thirteen Mutanta children. The father is gone and the mother has been in jail for years. She accused another person of murder while at a funeral and was apprehended, put in jail, and is now mired in a notoriously opaque and unregulated justice system. She’s been awaiting trial for two years.
The second-eldest daughter (far left) is primary caretaker for her siblings, plus a couple of her own children. Her own marriage has ended.
The eldest daughter (center) happens to be visiting—she is married and lives a couple hours away. The infant strapped to her chest has a phlegmy cough. She breastfeeds him occasionally, and there’s a gentle rattling as he breathes out his nose.
Young children toddle in and out; it’s impossible to work out who belongs to whom. Of course, by now I know that’s not really how they compute it here.
They dispatch a child to summon a brother from his day job as a brick maker. They tell us he had to quit school because they could not support the fees and the family needed money. All they want is for him to return to school. Both sisters begin to weep as they tell us this.
A ninth-grade boy appears, barefoot and covered in brick dust. The sisters look at him meaningfully, urging him to tell us how much he wants to return to school. I stare at his dirty Disney World T-shirt. He goes around and shakes each of our hands, offering his wrist, presumably because his hands are unclean.
He casts his eyes downward and occasionally looks up and past us, as is the custom for showing respect. He wants most to go back to school, he says. He wants to get his education; the sincerity on his young face is heartbreaking.
They cry, and some of us cry, too. They ask us for help, especially with the court case involving their mother. I feel powerless and overwhelmed and faintly angry. But we keep listening—we pose lots of questions, and they answer. And we keep listening.
There is some pressure released in the telling, it seems, and I take in Paul (far right) quietly watching his older sisters and brother, eyes wide and watchful and wise. What can he think, I wonder, knowing he has a precious seat at Hope School? Will he eventually have to leave and go to work, too?
We live through the difficult moments. We promise to share what they’ve told us in all the ways we know how. We give encouragement and praise and the women smile and eventually laugh. Paul brightens, too.
They give their permission for pictures, and we snap them and hand the cameras round. I’d like to find a way to get a print of this to that hut in Twapia.
En route back to school we acquire a pack of followers. We snap photos and shake hands. Brian puts his bulky DSL camera around Paul’s neck, and the boy snaps photos of his stomping ground as we walk.
Another boy from the village approaches me soundlessly and takes my hand. We walk at a gentle pace, philosophically taking it all in, like visiting diplomats.
He doesn’t look up at me, but I sense wisdom in this solemn, forward little boy…a knowing confidence. Maybe an old soul.
When we back to the school grounds, I drop his hand reluctantly.
“I have to go back to school,” I shrug.
He gestures to the camera. In the moment I’ve forgotten I have it.
He strikes his pose and I show them the shots. He looks at them and seems satisfied—though he doesn’t smile—and then he turns and ambles back toward home.
The above is excerpted from my photo essay and travelogue A Groupon to Africa, which captures the trip as authentically and faithfully as I knew how.