Eye on Africa

The hug-swarm starts to clear, leaving me breathless and uplifted. Photo by Michelle Bose.

June 4, 2012

A visit from Asante Choir yields free eye-care for children from Burundi and insight on the plight of children in East Africa.

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I was hugged today by about 20 children, at the same time.

I’m not talking about the obligatory double-back-pat, nice-to-see-you-Great-Aunt-Myrtle hug, either. This was a full-body embrace that nearly knocked me down—physically and emotionally.

It was one of those moments (and I’ve had a few in my life as a writer) when perfect strangers have touched my heart, filled and lifted it, even as they break it a bit.

The children doing the hugging are members of the Asante Children’s Choir and they were at Pacific University this morning getting free eye exams after one of their members was diagnosed with trachoma, a bacterial infection prominent in Third World countries that can cause blindness.

I spent a couple of hours hanging out near the children, joining a group of them on a brief tour of campus, observing as they had their eyes tested and just generally blending into the periphery as they played, talked and laughed.

Most striking: the constant smiles. Whether greeting someone with a hug, looking around the University library, dancing in an impromptu performance on the Taylor-Meade Auditorium stage or answering an optometry intern’s questions, they beamed. These children seemed to embrace every single experience with wonder and appreciation.

Perhaps they are joyous to visit a world so little like their home. To me, though, it seems all the more amazing that they can smile after I learned a little about their home.

Let me tell you about Burundi, where these children live: It’s a small country, about a tenth the size of Oregon. Much of the 1990s and early 2000s were wracked by civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities. (If you’re thinking Rwanda, you’re right: Burundi is next door to Rwanda and shares some of its cultural and political heritage. The difference is that Rwanda’s per capita gross domestic product is more than three times that of Burundi.)

Even though the war has ended, problems remain: It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with an economy dependent on growing tea and coffee and on international aid. Education is sporadic and costly. Less than half of the people have access to improved sanitation, and hunger and disease (from hepatitis and malaria to HIV/AIDS) are rampant.

The infant mortality rate is more than 10 times that of the United States, and for those who do live through infancy, life expectancy is maybe 60 years.

Most telling to me, though, was learning that the median age in the country is about 17, and almost half of the country’s population is under the age of 15. You don’t have to do much math to realize that that’s too many children with too few adults to care for them, too many children are abandoned and orphaned, left to wander the streets and survive on their own.

Organizations like Asante strive to help these children survive and climb out of the cycle of poverty. They provide food and shelter and education, and they provide hope.

Leslie Upton, one of the host mothers for the children who were at Pacific this morning, told me that, as hosts, they aren’t supposed to ask the children about their backgrounds; the children are supposed to be free to focus on the present and the good, not the past.

Still, she said, things come out. On a trip to McDonalds, one child told her, “Back at home, people die all around you from hunger.”

“It hurts because we have so much here,” Upton said.

It hurts to picture those children hungry, to think about what they've seen, what they've survived, and how many haven't survived.

It hurts to realize that there’s a part of my brain thinking about my lunch and dinner even as I write this.

It hurts to wonder how fate or luck or chance gave me so much and them so little.

And it’s OK that it hurts. I’m not writing this to incite guilt or even to convince anyone to give to Asante. (Everything I know about the organization, I learned this morning; but if you do want to learn more, visit asantechoir.org.)

My purpose is just to tell you what I saw and what I learned.

I find hope in the notion of education, in the idea that the more people are aware of what’s going on in the world around them, the more opportunities they have to make a difference.

And I find hope in the fact that these children were able to smile, were able to find joy, were able to hug with such fiercely open-hearted abandon.