This post might be the first of many or the last of one. I found someone in Uganda, then I lost him, and now I want to find him again. Here's what happened...
"Hey lady, where you going?" the little boy said.
"Hey lady, where you going?" the little boy said.
About seven years old, he was covered head to toe in red dust from the road. My new husband and I were riding a pair of rickety bicycles, trying to negotiate our way down a pockmarked gravel path to the village's only internet cafe. Actually, the cafe wasn't a cafe at all, but it was the only place in this tiny town in southwestern Uganda that had an internet connection. On an outdoor porch, the computer table was flanked on either side by an orphanage and an emergency room.
"I'm going to check my email. Where are you going?" I said with mock parental seriousness.
"To the dance," the little boy said as he hooked his thumbs in his navy blue cut-off shorts. Night was falling and it was too cold to be wearing shorts. "I'm performing," he said without adding that he was one of the orphans, although I'd already guessed it.
Every evening at five o'clock, the Bwindi Orphanage sponsors a variety show for the tourists staying in the village. Nestled into the base of a rainforest so dense that you have to climb over partially felled trees to trek through it, Bwindi plays host to the lucky few visiting foreigners who've been granted highly restricted permits to track the endangered mountain gorillas. There are only two places in the world where you can do this, and Bwindi's aptly coined "Impenetrable Forest" is one of them. In other words, attending a variety show put on by a hodge-podge group of orphans plays second-fiddle to cutting through the thicket of the jungle to come face-to-face with your ancient silverback ancestor, with whom you share no less than 99.6% of your DNA.
"My name is Clinton. What's yours?" the little boy asked, still blocking my path.
"Hi Patricia, will you come to my dance?" Clinton said 'my' like he was responsible for the show's production. Notably, he left out the word 'orphan'. So I did, too.
"Sure I'll come to your show," I said, hoping I meant it.
"Do you promise?"
I wanted to promise him, but I couldn't exactly. It had been two weeks since I'd checked my email, and I was waiting to hear back from my agent about the Mongolia book we're in the process of pitching to publishers. The orphan dance was due to start in just a few minutes, and Jesse and I were still a mile or so away from the internet center.
"Clinton, I can't promise you, but I will do my very best to be there."
Clinton eyed me up and down, considering his next move. He still had his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his dusty blue shorts, and he looked like he was weighing whether or not to ask me a favor. "Buy one of my postcards, okay?" he said with the precocious self-confidence of a salesman decades his senior.
As it happens, postcard art is one of my favorite souvenirs. Hand-painted watercolors of villages or people or animals, they're pocket-sized paintings that you put a stamp on and post to your friends at home who can put them on the fridge or even frame them. Better still, the postcards are like windows into the mind of the artist himself, who is usually a child, and who is always sketching simply what he sees every day.
"Now that I can promise you," I said, certain that even if Jesse and I were late to the orphan show, at least we'd be able to find Clinton afterward to buy some of his art.
But I was wrong, and we didn't.
By the time Jesse and I had returned to where Clinton was supposed to be, the show had ended and he had gone. 'Gone where?' you're probably wondering, and so am I.
There are some 250 orphans under the care of the local Bwindi Orphanage, according to its Public Relations director, a man who introduced himself as "Friday". Orphans fall into three categories: children who have lost both parents, children who have lost one parent, and a third group, murkily described as "vulnerable children whose parents are still living". After trying in vain to appeal to Friday about Clinton's whereabouts, I asked him about the circumstances by which a "vulnerable" child would become orphaned. His response shocked me.
According to Friday, each woman bears, on average, seven children. On average. That means a particularly fertile woman could bear, say, ten children. That also means that, on the low end, a woman will still bear as many as four children. In one of the most remote provinces of one of the poorest countries in the world, that's a lot of mouths to feed. But putting food on the table is not the only problem. HIV, AIDS, and malaria run rampant. And according to Friday, many of the "vulnerables" come from families where one or both of the parents are dying. I wondered about Clinton, if he had a parent, or two, or none. Friday didn't know who Clinton was, but he said he'd ask around to find out.
"Come back tomorrow and we'll see about Clinton?" he said, inviting Jesse and I as his personal guests of the orphan show that would be put on again the next day.
But we couldn't come back. The next morning, just after dawn, we were due to return to Kenya and then home to New York.
"Friday," I pleaded, after explaining to him what had happened, "I need to find Clinton. I need to buy those postcards."
"You cannot," he said simply. "But you can sponsor his education."
Ah, easy enough, right? For $200 a year, I can anonymously sponsor Clinton's education. Every year, I write a check made out to 'Future', pat myself on the back, and vaguely hope that the little orphan boy I helped makes something of himself. Ignoring the fact I made an actual promise, I put it and Clinton's abstract plight out of my mind, thinking of all this once in a while, but not too often.
Or, instead of just writing a check, I actually find Clinton. After I apologize to him for breaking my promise, I buy the postcards that I promised to buy, and I tell him why I'm buying them (because he's a damn good salesman for a seven-year-old). Assuming Clinton accepts my apology, I ask him if he'd like me to sponsor his education. Then maybe I ask him what he needs, like a new pair of trousers, for starters?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first: I need to find Clinton.
To be continued.
So, want to join me on this little adventure? I hate tell you that's it's going to take a teensy bit of work on your part. All you need to do though is click "Follow" in the upper left-hand corner of this blog space,and I'll try to figure out how to fix my RSS feed. Thanks for your support.