A widow foresees a new world in the children.
A remarkable widow on the western edges of our city has turned her modest home and courtyard into a harbor for the burgeoning numbers of children cast adrift here in this maelstrom called AIDS. Over several months I kept company with this amazing family, wanting to catch a little of what binds them joyfully together and snatch a moment or two of song and fun with them along the way.
During one of my visits I learned that the children had set about raising funds to build a small shelter for a destitute woman, now felled by a stroke, who used to collect kindling amid the thorn scrub in their neighborhood.
One afternoon I happened by the widow’s courtyard. The children were waiting for me. They insisted I follow them and that I bring the traveler’s guitar I often carry in my battered 4×4. This unusual procession threaded past the broken fencing, the cinder-block shanties and ditches, the odd, emaciated dogs and mildly curious village folk and finally mustered in a forlorn courtyard with a matchbox shelter.
Beyond the open door in a white plastic chair sat the old woman, who made as though to stand to welcome us but could not for the weakness of her left side. She smiled warmly, though, and introduced herself—Mma Phiri (Mrs. Hyena)—as we settled ourselves on the bed that occupied at least half the extraordinarily tidy little room. We inquired after each other’s health and families. She insisted, much to my astonishment, as she glanced out the door at the gathering rain clouds, that this would be a good year.
But I suspect it was not the skies she was taking note of. Rather it was the circle of children—of AIDS orphans—who stood outside her door, ranged now around the freshly turned earth of the footings they had already dug to enlarge the old woman’s little dwelling. By now they were shouting to summon the neighborhood to come join in some spontaneous singing and dancing.
The guitar was unsheathed, and soon the courtyard was rocking in the brilliant summer sunshine, bare feet pounding rhythms on the courtyard, hands clapping in syncopated time. “Re tsamaya leseding la Modimo” (“We are walking in the light of God”), they sang as they circled the old woman, now settled in a chair under a thorn tree. Nearby children edged into the dancing choir, wanting to be fully part of the good times the old woman had foreseen.
It all came to rest in a quiet circle around the messy footings where the rain water still lingered in muddy puddles. We gazed down into those homely footings as the strains of the last song faded away. Whatever that new world that we all yearn to see, whatever the rapturous dreams for a day when all will live in friendship and dignity, surely it begins here. These are the footings.
Jonathan Larson lives in Gaborone, Botswana.
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