In the UK we are taught to be frightened of strangers and being wary of the unknown is what many parents teach their children.
When this little boy and I first met he hid behind his dad’s legs and for nobody was he going to come from behind them and say hello. I will admit here I did actually make several children of a roughly similar age cry, though it turns out, luckily for me, that this was because they’ve never seen a white man and my presence was for them, somewhat frightening! He never cried, nor did he speak and to begin with neither laughed nor smiled. During my first week in the village he kept a wary distance from me, though he did spend a lot of time looking at me and it was obvious he was curious.
I learnt from the teacher that he had developmental issues, couldn’t read or write at all and was very subdued. Over the following two weeks, little by little, we spent more time together. I had said before I came to Cameroon the first time that if my presence could make just one child smile all the effort before, and hardship during my stay would be worthwhile. I can remember when he finally overcame being frightened of me, and stood beside me for ages. After a while I reached out my hand. It was and always will be one of the gentlest moments of my life when he took my finger and just held it and didn’t let go. I walked him home, and left him with his family. Every day he would be with me, most often not very far away and usually holding onto my finger.
During all this time I only ever recall him making two very subdued attempts to talk, neither of which if I am honest I understood. At the end of my stay when the school was handed over to the village committee responsible for running it, I carried him on my shoulders to the ceremony. I thought that would be the last time I saw him. As I left the village the following morning our vehicle pulled passed his house and he ran out. We stopped and I got out and he gave me the longest hug, the first time he’d done it, which seemed to go on for ages. I’d been saving the last lollipop I had for the journey home (I’d been giving them to the kids during my stay) and gave it to him. As I gave it to him he smiled.
Even as I write this now I still cry!! We drove off trailing a huge plume of red dust behind us, me sitting on the window sill of the vehicle looking backwards, and stood in the middle of which was my little boy. Whenever we go away, there’s always at least one child that you make a special bond with. But he was the first. For me, he, and others like him will be the reason why volunteering can make a difference, to those you are working alongside for sure, but just as importantly for yourself.