I met Rachel on Wednesday at the New Times Primary School in Kishanje. Dressed in a pink “Drama Queen” sweat shirt over her school uniform, she seemed very short for her age and rarely smiled in the few minutes I spoke to her. Around the school yard, while the other kids laughed and teased each other, she moved like a shadow, keeping to herself, never daring to invite judgment.
I mentioned Rachel to Moureen Kyokusiima, the Director of Child Services for Juna Amagara Ministries here. “She seems distant,” I offered. “Would you like to see where she lives?” Moureen replied. I said I would.
We walked a half hour over steep, meandering paths though the corduroy hills of Kigezi to a mud-walled shack, a house typical of many others in the area. The auntie was home and brought benches outside for sitting. She teetered and fumbled – hospitable but drunk. Three other children hovered by her side. She allowed us inside the hut where we found two single beds for five people. Then, as Rachel crawled into the lap of a visitor, Moureen told me her story.
Rachel’s parents had died of AIDS two years before. Rachel came to live with her only blood relative, this auntie – and her three cousins with a sometimes-present husband. As the uninvited guest, Rachel was expected to earn her keep by doing chores – fetching water and firewood and digging in the garden. This tiny girl was strong and could carry a full jerry can, 40 pounds of water, all day. “That is why she is stunted,” Moureen offered. She sleeps on bare earth. She eats last. She is often beaten and rebuked. The people at Juna Amagara had noticed Rachel and, with the auntie’s permission, invited her to come to school. They found a sponsor to cover school fees. She now gets at least one hot meal a day and spends most of her time in a loving environment. “She was sick and undernourished when we found her,” Moureen said. “Juna Amagara saved this girl’s life.”
Watching Rachel seek a warm lap amid the cold hard reality of her life broke my heart. But what can we do? There are Cinderella children everywhere. What shall we do?