On my last meeting with the hospital Director of Mercy ships (beginning of 2014) we discussed the results of my research on board of the ship. They only had two weeks left in Congo and shortly entry of the ship would be forbidden to prevent locals from hiding in the ship hoping to go with them. I asked him if there where any projects left behind in Congo that I could look after. Now that my thesis was out of the way I felt ready to take on a new challenge. Helping Cheryl setting up her dream to open an orphanage was one of them. He mentioned that his wife had been looking after a handicapped girl and was looking for someone to look after her when they would leave. So this is how I got to know this beautiful girl: Merveille, although at the time i didn’t see it like that. I went with some of the crew members of Mercy ships to visit Merveille, Herma (the hospital directors wife) told me she cared for this girl very much and was sad to leave Congo and her behind. When we arrived I was a little confused as I followed the others down a mud road and we then took a side road which was almost impossible to walk on as it had rained heavily the day before. A very narrow passage with an unfinished church on the one side and a pile of rubbish on the other side. The path led to a small opening where hidden out of sight was a small wooden house (in my world we would call this a shed), to them their home. Like many Congolese houses, phone numbers written all over the sides of the house. I assume in lack of paper, or when something happens neighbors would know who to call. Merveille’s mother came out and looked sad and happy at the same time, she welcomed us and got the only three chairs they owned out side so we could sit there. She then got Merveille………………………….
I have grown to love this little girl and find it hard to go back in time but I do remember being scared, shocked, emotional and feeling guilty for feeling all of the above as the others didn’t seem as shocked as I was. I wanted to run! I felt sick to my stomach for feeling this, but could not help thinking I CAN NOT DO THIS! Not even to mention the smell, the smell from the house, the little plot of land and Merveille (who is not potty trained, and does not wear diapers). I used to put Vicks vaporub under my nose whilst changing my children’s diapers, yes i know ridicioulus right? I just don’t deal very well with “smells”. I had to get over myself, and quick, as it would be disrespectful towards all of them for me to hold my nose (even though I so badly wanted to). Herma told the translator that she brought with her to explain to the mother to go and wash Merveille. To watch this child being undressed and washed was an experience I will never forget! I now wash her myself every week and actually quite enjoy doing this. But this first time was something else, she looked like she was about 7 or 8 and was extremely malnourished. She does not have much control over her muscles and therefor her arms and legs are in a awkward position. She cant speak or walk but the smiles she gave us were priceless. After being washed and dressed she was put onto Herma’s lap who gave her some squeezy fruit snacks that she brought with her ( I still give her those Herma, she loves it) and was singing songs to her. They then went on to pray together, I found this hard as to me if felt that God had left this place a long time ago. But they saw this very differently and I admire the way that they believe. This was Herma’s last visit to Merveille and although she was very sad to leave she was thanking me for being there in her prayer and telling me I could do this. She must have felt I needed that encouragement, which I did!
Once home I told my husband about my day and how terrified I was that they all thought I would now continue to care for her. “Babe, if you don’t feel comfortable then maybe you shouldn’t do it”, was his reply. That made me think though, moving to Congo made pretty much everything I did uncomfortable or to say the least you are forced out of your comfort zone. He supported me whichever decision I would take, although Im pretty sure he knew I was going to do this anyway.
Which I did, the first times were horrible, uncomfortable and so incredibly awkward. I don’t speak their language but here I am….another Mundele (white person) that comes along to save Congo/ Africa. This is what I felt like, I would come up with so many reasons not to go but always ended up going and every time felt a little less awkward. The people in their neighborhood started recognizing me, i got into a routine of washing, feeding and singing or dancing to Merveille and it felt good. It never felt rewarding but it felt good enough to continue. With a lot of google translate I managed to understand the full story as to why Merveille is handicapped. She is now 16 (at the time of our first meeting she was 13) and was born healthy. Her mother cherishes this one picture that she has of Merveille from before were she looks happy and healthy.
Merveille is the eldest child followed by a another sister who is two years younger. Before Merveille turned 3 she got meningitis, the family didn’t have the means to pay for medical treatment. And when they finally got money from family members and brought her to see a doctor they didn’t recognize the disease and she never got the proper treatment. This felt like a punch in my face as one of my sisters had meningitis when she was three and after months in the hospital she survived with “only” damage to her hearing on one side. Why can life be so unfair? We don’t choose were we are born, but this matters in terms of receiving medical care! The Congolese believed that this was work of the devil and the family became outcasts, not soon after the father disappeared leaving the mom in an almost impossible situation. To take care of a child so severely handicapped, in a country that has no room for the disabled. She found a new husband and had another two children, her new husband treats Merveille as well as he is capable of. Her mother suffers from depression and again lives in a country where you can not be depressed, depression is a luxury, although I never looked at it that way before. All of them; 2 parents, 4 children, 1 dog + endless puppies that come from this one dog all live in this wooden shed where there are two bedrooms (this is an overstatement) lets say two areas where they all sleep. The mom and dad sleep in a single bed on a foam mattress that is probably a 100 years old by the looks of it. The rest of the children sleep in the other bed, which is only a little bigger then the single bed and with the same mattress on it. Because Merveille is very restless when she sleeps and not potty trained they put her on the floor, a concrete floor! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, the handicapped girl sleeps on the floor, the girl that is not potty trained and is always covered in her own feaces has to sleep on the floor. How unfair can life be?
I would bring toys that I thought would be stimulating for Merveille to find out the week after that they had been sold. It took me a while to understand that there was no point in bringing toys for her as they don’t understand the importance of a child needing to be stimulated. Nowadays I bring food and I hired another local to go and help out with her and her family every day. We slowly make progress and there are days where I feel she would be better off dead. I am a problem solver, that is what I do, you tell me your problem and I will offer you 3,4 or 5 solutions. The amount of problems I see when I am there are overwhelming and impossible to solve. Mainly because my motives are so different from theirs. I would like to improve their living conditions and they are surviving. A sudden case of Malaria in the family and the table is gone because they had to sell it in order to get medicine. Where do you stop helping? Is it accepted to stop helping? I am not a humanitarian I used to be extremely driven by my career and never thought I would be in this situation. Where I feel that my help is never enough but I still continue with the “little” help that I can offer them which results mostly in spending time with Merveille and buying things for the family. Why doesn’t it feel good and rewarding when I arrive with bags full of groceries and clothing for them? Do I want to be seen as one of them? Is it because I perfectly portrait the image of the helping Mundele? Is it because I get there in my big 4×4, leaving from my big house (with pool) in the Beverly Hills of Congo? Is it because my husband makes a fortune compared to their salaries, or me working one day a week at an English school and making 5 times the amount that I pay Christelle (my housekeeper)? I don’t know what it is exactly, probably a mix of all the above. My friend Cheryl has the best attitude: One child at the time, or one person at the time! Seems so simple right? Well if you live here it is not, as you see people that could use your help everywhere, and it becomes overwhelming.
So I keep telling myself this and force myself to feel good about it, when I hear Merveille laughing when I walk onto the path towards their home and smell all the smells I actually feel happy! Thank you Herma for introducing me to Merveille!