Today while I was at work, I received an embassy travel alert about travel to DRC. I've seen many of those over the years, and while we were living in DRC I tended to ignore them. I mean, we were living in the place where the embassy warned people against traveling. Given that I am about to fly to eastern DRC (assuming I raise the funds I need to raise first) in the coming months, the warning felt different than it did before. Now I live in an area of relative safety and peace. I no longer live in an area that makes the news or where I daily see guns and soldiers on walks with my kids. It feels different to read the following statements and buy a plane ticket to the same area they are describing.
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) (DRC). The Department strongly recommends you avoid all travel to the city of Goma and the province of North Kivu, and all but essential travel to the province of South Kivu and the Ituri region in the province of Oriental.
Armed groups, bandits, and elements of the Congolese military remain security concerns in eastern and northeastern DRC. These armed groups, primarily located in the North Kivu, South Kivu, and Orientale provinces, as well as the northern part of Katanga province, and the eastern part of Maniema province, are known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.
I commented on this at work and one of my co-workers was shocked I would consider going to eastern DRC. She read the email over my shoulder. She said she didn't think I should go given the dangers.
And then she asked, "What is it that is so important that you need to go there?" That question really hit me hard. I thought for a minute and replied, it's not "what", it's "who". Immediately, a little girl came to mind in answer to her question.
This little girl.
This is Chito Wambili. I have known her for 3 years and two months. Saying goodbye to her was very, very hard. She is why I must go back to DRC. She is that important. I first met her when she was 14 months old. She was in a crib in the corner of the orphanage we were visiting for the first time. She was very quiet. Disturbingly quiet. I went over to her and could only cry. Her eyes, just a blank stare. Hands clenched up by her face. She lay in her crib, rocking her body back and forth and back and forth. I reached out to stroke her arm and she shuddered. She glanced my way and then stared back up at the ceiling again. She couldn't even hold her head up and she weighed very little. She wasn't touched by any of the staff that day, except once to be changed and fed and it became apparent on subsequent visits that she was rarely touched. I didn't blame the staff. There were two women most days with 40 or more small children. The orphanage didn't have older children that helped hold the younger ones. The women were doing the very best they could. But if you didn't cry and fight to get your needs met, you were overlooked. And Chito was very overlooked.
Over the next year and a half or so, we visited often and improved the conditions at the orphanage. The mamas were happy to finally have enough formula to feed the babies and more women to help them. Chito still looked lost, even though physically she was slowly improving, she learned to hold her head up, to sit, to stand, to walk. Once a friend visited with me and she caught a brief fleeting smile. She was still hiding her heart deep inside, but she was beginning to let us see glimpses.
When I knew I we were leaving Congo, I wasn't sure how I would say goodbye to any of the children, especially this little one. Because she was the one that I fought for most of all. She was the one who was hurting the most. The one who encouraged me to keep raising funds, to make the orphanage a different place for the children living there.
When I arrived at the orphanage that last day in July, I was completely shocked to see that she was the first child to come toddling to our vehicle to greet us! I was even more shocked when she raised up her hands to be held. And then astounded when she looked in my eyes and smiled, and even laughed! I don't know if I can put words to that moment. I felt like I was seeing her for the first time, that her light was shining brightly and there was nothing holding her back. It was one of the best moments I have ever experienced.
What I wish I could say was that she went home to her family shortly thereafter. I wish I could tell you that she was reunified with them and she no longer lived in an orphanage. I wish I could say her trusting little heart had a happy ending. But I can't.
Her family is from another territory, a territory where there is constant insecurity and fighting. A place that isn't safe and hard to get in and out of right now. It will take time to find her family, assess their needs and their ability to care for Chito. Why do I need to go to DRC? For her, for little Chito Wambili. Because she and children like her shouldn't linger for years in the orphanage.
Instead of lingering in the orphanage, babies that enter in the orphanage need a rapid assessment done on their family. There needs to be a plan in place that ensures their time in the orphanage is short, or not at all. The assessment needs to capture the critical time when the family is known and accessible. And then thorough follow up needs to take place so that the family is not lost to the staff and the child. Then if the family situation is not one that is safe for the child, alternative care can be implemented. This is what we want to be a part of doing.
Chito's family hasn't visited in years. Much is unknown about their situation. She arrived when her mother died giving birth to her and her twin sister. Her twin sister died when she was around 7 months old. It was a time when resources for the orphanage were dwindling and there were too many babies to care for and too few staff.
Why is it important that I visit DRC? Because when I look at the photos I receive of her every few months from our director, I see the deep sadness and hopelessness in her eyes. This cannot and should not be the end of her story. That trust with which she reached up her arms to me two years ago must be honored. She is loved, by us and most of all by God. She is not forgotten.
Our website is www.reedsofhope.org.