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Fixing A Broken Arm

By: Sarah Friend, Brookline, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

I sit in a plastic chair that barely could support it' s own weight, let alone mine, editing Mr. Peri' s letters to the World Monetary Fund. Slapping away the mosquitoes, I feel tired of both the heat' s persistence and of Mr. Peri' s ignorance.  The sums of money he requested would make Bill Gates blush.  He is one among thousands of semi-established orphanages, with no real legitimacy except an old rubber stamp that said “Tilerane Orphanage” with the date under it.  The stamp is the only thing not used prudently; no object within a half-mile radius of the orphanage could escape branding.  The ink mark signifies importance, or so they seem to think.  Since my first day of volunteering, our different opinions were as apparent as our different skin colors.

Why doesn' t he find ways to become self-sustainable within the village, instead of waiting for the U.N. to drop by with a check?  I sigh with frustration.

The room feels suffocating and claustrophobic; if I wiggle my big toe I would find myself next room over. Not as though the next room over is an improvement. The floor looks like the surface of the moon; made from a drab cement, potholes ominously polka dotted the floor and exposed brown earth.  A chalkboard slumps against one corner of the room, although the teachers never have any chalk. Instead, they lead the class outside, snap stalks of brittle straw from their fence, and then use the straw to trace alphabet letters in the mustard-colored dust.  The dust!  It coats everything, but the name “dust” is a misnomer; instead, it feels like an oil slick that I can' t rub off, no matter how hard I try. The tattered curtains shiver as a wind that smelled of sweat, burning plants, and dust blows into the room and disrupts my thoughts.

Keep going, almost there.  Two paragraphs left.

Suddenly, a young boy with big eyes explodes into the room, crying and holding his left arm with his right hand.  He leaves a trail of worried people in his wake; several of children peer in from the windows, and Mr. Peri' s footsteps echo from the doorway.  The boy, whose name I never learn, was playing kickball when he tripped over another kid, injuring his arm. 

Mr. Peri charges in the room and surveys the situation.

“One of our doctors, he lived down the road, yah, he died of H-I-V, yah, Mr. Peri says; breathless, he sounds like a rubber toy, the letters being squeezed out of him one at a time.  “Oh yah, the other doctor, he goes to Lilongwe.” 

Mr. Peri pulls out a small first aid kit, which consisted of hand sanitizer and band-aids.  He looks at me expectantly.  “What are you going to do?”

Panicking, I squat down to the boy' s eye level.  Gingerly, I touch his arm while trying to conceal my own pulse' s increasing palpitations.  If I mess up, I' ll make this boy' s arm worse and ruin the use of his arm for the rest of his life, I think. The boy, whose name I never learned, howls and retracts.  As I try to think of what to do, and what not to do, the wind visits the room again, brushing my sarong up against my sandaled feet.  I bend over.  The tenuous blue material tears easily. 

I stand up and ask for the pencil box. By snapping a ruler in half, six inches of plastic transforms into a split, which I then bind against the boy' s arm with what was once the bottom of my sarong. For several minutes, anxiety hangs suspended in the room as the boy whimpers and Mr. Peri and I uncertainty stroke his skinny shoulders, his angular back, his dry neck, pretending to be calm. 

Soon the wind blows again, this time sweeping all the tension out the window.  Whatever I did appeared to assuage the pain.  The boy' s runny nose eventually runs dry, and Mr. Chimube pats him on the back and sends his home for the day.

“Are you done with the letters ? ”he asks nonchalantly.

This question shifts my entire perspective by several degrees. 

Until this time, I had felt extremely frustrated by my trip, still unsure as to why I had come.  Curiosity had aggressively driven me out of my home; curiously about the world, and curiosity about where my boundaries lay in my capacity to help. However, stuffed somewhere in between my anti-Malaria pills and insect repellent, I managed to carry with me a romanticized perception of what my experience would be. 

I envisioned Africa as a prehistoric and peace-loving continent that would shame all the money vultures of America.  I dreamt of stepping off of the plane to be welcomed by masked black men hopping around a fire as lion cubs wrestled in the distance to monkeys singing hakuna matata.  I knew the stats, I knew that some of these men had AIDS, but I had come to help with that.

However, my antiquated projection only revealed my own unawares and naiveté. Yet as the image melted under the hot sun, I tried harder and harder to shape my experience; I held onto my belief that every African epitomized harmony for the peace of mind that I understood something, anything. Yet as the days passed, and the dust tenaciously clung, I grew towards perfection' s polar spouse as I confronted their coarse reality. 

Children, kicked out of their homes and told not to return without cash, prostituted themselves on street corners for less than the cost of a pack of gum.  Men raped virgins to cleanse themselves from AIDS.  Youngsters could not go to school because they literally did not have any clothing to wear.  Women who were exposed to have AIDS were shamed and thrown out of their homes, only to waste away on street corners, waiting for the inevitable.

Malawi' s president, Bakili Muluzi, was centuries away from embodying the noble village chief, completely alienated from the people he “represented .” While I was there, a government official leaked that he had sold off the emergency grain reserve to his allies and pocketed the money, leaving people to starve after a severe drought ruined much of the country' s crops. Within the orphanage, I witnessed similar power abuses as Mr. Peri coveted donated money for his own family and then feed the orphans just one meal a day.

I became angry with him and began acting how I thought was best for the orphanage, even if it conflicted with his wishes.  But my ambition for revolution eventually wore thin.  Everyone needed my help, and I became resentful of all the time and money they asked of me, and resentful of robbing me of my extremely distilled understanding of how the world works.  I became exhausted, very confused, and bitter.

That is, until I wrapped my sarong around the boy' s arm.  Instead trying to mold my experience, I finally allowed it mold me.  I began to see a different beauty in Africa, one that lives beyond Disney' s imagination.  This beauty is not found in sunsets or in unsubstantiated beliefs, but in the mutual trust of others, the acceptance of outsiders, and the philosophy of, “it takes a village to raise a child.” 

While desperation may cause corruption, there is even splendor is in the struggle for survival, and in the love for one' s children overriding all else.  This realization dizzied me, forcefully grinding away my presumptuousness and leaving me raw and exposed to my circumstances.  And once I came to understand this, I began to see Malawian' s humanity and benevolence radiating from everywhere I looked.

Finally, I saw Africa.

I still wonder about the boy on occasion and start to reminisce. But then I remember him as an emblem of the love and exhilaration that swathes me, wherever I am, when I choose to be honest and vulnerable to what life brings me; I let him go, and I continue on. 


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