About three weeks ago I had the honor of delivering a special gift to a man here in Bukavu. The gift was from a friend of mine in the states. She had met this man when she was here last year and felt compelled to send me money to buy him this gift. Which I finally did three weeks ago. It took two very memorable trips, and Natalie (our four year old) came with me on both of them. This is a letter to her.
There are so many things about living here I don't think you will ever remember, in fact, I think you will forget most of it. Your home has been Congo and you have lived your whole life here, yet you won't remember this place, the people, and our life. There are many things I want to tell you about your life here, and I will one day. But when it comes down to it. I hope that you never forget two very special days of our lives here. The two days when we met Laurent and we brought him his bike.
The first day, I really didn't know what I was getting in to. I brought you and Isla (2 years old) with me (I probably wouldn't have if I had known what a crazy morning it was going to be!). The driver picked us up and off we went. We headed out to Herikwetu. It is a local center run be the catholics to treat people with handicaps or who need orthopedic surgeries or prosthetics. You had been there before with me, because the women and children who are deaf make beautiful crafts that we have bought before. I had ordered the bike about 2 weeks ago and I was supposed to pick it up that day. My plan was to pick up the bike and deliver it to Laurent. A bit naive of me, looking back.
It had been raining and raining. Industrial ( the area where herikwetu was located) had just had a mud slide/flash flood two days before. It is an area with one main road that runs in front of the prison. The road slopped up into the neighborhood of Kadutu (known for it's huge outdoor market, overcrowding and poverty). When heavy rains fall, the water rushes down from the hills above Kadutu, into Kadutu and through Industrial, sweeping cars, objects, trash and sometimes people with it (and sometimes it goes all the way into the lake!). Well, as we drove up to the center, I realized how very muddy it was. We saw mud everywhere. The road was atrocious. It was like ice skating in mud. There were two trucks flipped sideways in the ditches. People were trying to clean up in the rain ditches that were full of rushing muddy water. Houses and shacks where filled with mud and trash. But, I wasn't worried, we were only going up the road a little bit in our nice landcruiser, no big deal.
We got to Herikwetu. They showed us the bike (or tricycle). I was so excited; it looked awesome! Then, they said, "Madame, where is Laurent? Didn't you remember to bring him with you for the fitting of the bike?". Um, no, I didn't remember that. Amazingly, someone at the center knew Laurent. They gave us directions to his place. No big deal, we would just go get him.
So, off we went, rather, up we went. I didn't really think about it until it was too late, but we were heading up into Kadutu to head over to Essence where he lived. At first, Natalie, you were excited. There was so much to see! So many people, animals, vehicles and stuff! We struggled our slippery way by the market (that place astounds me--a different post later). People out in the mud selling anything and everything you can imagine. You liked pointing out different things, like "mom, do you see the suitcases, or the toys, or the clothes, or the toilets, or the pieces of cow (mom, gross!), or the soda, or the flour, or the rice, and on and on". Well, as we went up, the road got much worse and we started slipping all over and had to really squish our way through the people, goats, motos, and cars. Finally we got to a point where we had to stop. There were three trucks stuck in the mud up over their tires and one narrow way to get through which didn't look big enough for us, let alone the trucks lined up. And it was such a traffic jam. And you and Isla were getting so much attention (everyone probably thinking, what are two little blond white girls doing up in Kadutu?). You started panicking! You started crying, and saying "mom, why did you bring me here, why did you think this was a good idea? We are going to slide off the road in the ditch! We are going to run into someone!". I was ready to cry too. There was no turning around, and to me, it sure didn't look like we could go forward (oh, and did I tell you it was raining?). Isla was having a blast. Kept looking out the window and waving. So we sat and waited, with lots of people around our car. We inched our way through the small narrow passage with the truck stuck in the mud on one side and the pile of bricks on the other (it was close enough to scrape our car). Then we slipped and slid our way through the rest of Kadutu. I was trying my best to distract you, Natalie, but it was really hard when we kept coming so close to sliding into people who were walking all around us, motos, goats, or stuck trucks (often with only a hair breadth of room). After about an hour (!), we made it to Essence.
(Essence is a place I have talked about before on this blog. It is a high crime area and very congested with lots of poverty. I drive that way to get to Kaziba or Panzi.) Natalie, you were so happy to get out of Kadutu! You told me to not do that way again, that was a bad way, and again "what were you thinking, Mommy, you should have left me at home!". We slid our way through essence (also very slippery with the added dimension of a drop off into peoples homes on one side of the road!). And kept asking people about Laurent on the way, trying to figure out where he lived. Well, we finally got there.
You were so excited. I had told you about Laurent already. That he was a grown up that didn't have very good legs so he had to crawl (or in his case, more like drag his lower body around). I told you how it was really hard to crawl everywhere because it was so muddy and dangerous to be on the ground in an area like essence that had so much traffic congestion. You had already seen the hand pedaled tricycle that had been made for him, and you were so excited to meet him and give him his bike.
Even though my friend had told me about Laurent's physical body, I don't think I was prepared. You, on the other hand, where completely prepared and quickly put him at ease, with a quick, "bonjour, do you want to share my cookie". I was trying not to cry. He was full of dignity and very excited. I was definitely the one who needed to pull my act together.
Laurent had polio (most likely) as a toddler. As you know Natalie, you had a shot so you would never get Polio. Laurent didn't get a shot and he got Polio. His legs stopped working and because of that they sort of shriveled up and he had to use his entire upper body to move around. He didn't have a wheelchair or anything else to help him and over time his upper body had overcompensated for the lack of function in his lower body which led to his torso becoming twisted and mangled, and incredible arm and upper torso strength and muscular development. Because he lives in essence, where there is only mud and mud and mud, and because he is poor (and because there are no "handicap accessible areas"), he crawled everywhere. What mattered most to you? You were really worried about his hands and his knees. You were worried that crawling around in the city of Bukavu wasn't a good idea because there was a lot of trash, mud, sharp objects, cars and danger to someone that had to crawl.
So, we headed back to Heirkwetu (on the longer route which was a lot less congested and you weren't scared at all). You kept stealing shy glances at Laurent and asking if you could talk to him. We made it back and realized that the bike was too big for him (because of his back being so twisted he has a very short upper body and couldn't easily reach the hand pedals)! I was bummed, he was really bummed. He didnt' want to get off the bike. He as actually sitting up at a level where he could make relatively easy eye contact. He was off the ground. I think it was really hard for him to get off that bike and back onto the ground that day. So, we drove him home with a promise to come back the next week.
On the way home, you told me, "Mom, why does Laurent have no legs? Mom, why did God make Laurent that way? I'm going to ask God when I see him in Heaven one day, Mom. I sure have a lot to ask him, don't I?". (me too, baby, me too)
I love you Natalie, and your big gracious heart,
Part two ("what I hope she never forgets" and me "really angry") to come tomorrow.
P.S. A tricycle hand bike costs $400. Laurent probably makes $30/month...