My friend Beth shared some pictures on Facebook yesterday that I took on my 2009 trip to Africa. As we wrote back and forth concerning them, I began to remember the emotion that I felt when I first photographed this particular little girl, with Lake Albert in the background, separating us from the evil in the Congo. The image of her will forever be imprinted in my mind and the surrounding moments will always be remembered as life changing for me. A five dollar wake up call.
It was taken on net distribution day. We only had a certain number allotted for this part of the refugee camp and the rest had to go to the larger distribution site. As morning gave way to a hazy, hot afternoon and as the line grew, I started to worry that we would run out. I watched as mostly women, children and the elderly came from miles to wait in line for one simple thing, a $5 Malaria net. It boggled my mind at how patient everyone was, especially the children and the women, many with babies on their backs and wearing the only set of clothes they owned. Flies were buzzing their heads, there was no water, no shade, no food. One little girl, crippled and unable to walk, sores all over her body, spoke not a word, just patiently waited. All we had to give them were the nets. To them they were gold. This $5 piece of mesh fabric represented their one shot at beating the statistics, that every 30 seconds, a child in sub-Sahara Africa dies of Malaria. These women had already been through hell, having had to literally run for their lives with no belongings, to a new country and the reality of a refugee camp. The idea of losing a loved one to a preventable disease is almost too much to bear. They knew these nets were there one and only shot at defense making the uncomfortable conditions of the day a distant afterthought.
While waiting for several hours for the allotted distribution time, I was able to get to know some of the refugees. Fortunately, Rita, a vibrant young women with eight children in her care (one her own and seven orphans) stepped forward early on and offered to translate for me. She spoke several languages including French and Congolese and with her help I was able to communicate with everyone. I learned that many of these women were on their own, some of them pregnant or holding babies conceived after being raped. It was truly unfathomable what they had been through, yet they still held it together. Never in my life had I experienced anything even close to this. The feelings that ran through me were ones I had never felt before. It was like seeing both heaven and hell at the same time. The atmosphere of love and gratitude was so raw and prolific. At times I was speechless.
Rita wasn't my only new friend I made that day. I also found several little people to keep me company and even join me in some songs. The children that I met were truly amazing. They sat so patient and while some were a little afraid of us, most were just curious. Two little boys in particular stole my heart, Barack and Sajus. I just loved them and one thing that fascinated me, was how they held tight to their school notebooks and kept them safe under their shirts. To them, education was truly priceless and the only possible way out of here. They walk miles everyday to school and don't care, in their world they don't have a choice. The other thing that stuck out about the children was how small and malnourished they were, ten year olds the size of my five year old at the time. However they didn't know any different, and their smiles lit up the afternoon.
The actual distribution came and we went person by person and gave them their allotted number of nets. For every four people or less, one net; every five to eight, two nets; nine or more, three and so on. Orphans got a net even if they were all on their own and that is where my little girl came in. She was wearing a yellow bracelet representing that she was eligible for her own net and was lucky enough to receive one of the last few we had to give out. After I handed her a net, she quickly tore off up a path leading away from the crowd. She knew they were just about gone and she didn't want to risk having hers taken. As I followed her, the cries from the crowd were piercing my ears, those that left empty handed were heartbroken and so was I. All the fundraising and research leading up to this trip had done little to prepare me for what the money I was raising would truly mean to these refugees. I broke down and let the tears fall at what such a small amount of money meant to them, $5 was the difference between life and death. Not to sound cliche, but I remember thinking that the cost of a specialty coffee could translate into a lifesaving mosquito net. If everyone could give up one coffee a year and donate the money instead, think of the impact it would have for these wonderful people. It would mean the world to them. After I caught up to the little girl I took her hand in mine and just stayed like that for a little while. I cherish this picture, to me represents that love knows no boundaries and that at one point in our lives, we'll all need a helping hand.
If you are inspired to give up coffee for a day and donate the money instead, then go to Think Humanity and donate $5 for a malaria net and save lives.