Joy was 6 months old when we first met. He was absolutely beautiful, and interestingly enough, was one of the few babies who didn’t burst into tears when seeing me. He had the most beautifully big eyes and when he looked at you, he wasn’t just looking at you, he was studying you, staring into your soul. When you looked into his eyes, you could tell he was an old soul and knew more than you ever would.
Joy and I grew up together. In a family of 15, getting lost in the shuffle can be very easy. Joy and I were thrown together. Everyone had their jobs and mine quickly became taking care of him during the evenings. Having a job gave me a purpose, and more importantly helped with the massive culture shock I was trying to deal with.
One day, Joy crawled to my house while I was listening to the radio and washing my dishes. Joy crawled around making sure everything was ok and then crawled back home. A few minutes later, I heard him crying from the main house. But he kept crying. And crying. I decided to investigate since someone should have picked him up. I walked over and found Joy all by himself sitting in the middle of the yard with no one around. I picked him up and brought him back to my house. I gave him some biscuits and he fell asleep. I brought Joy with me that night when I came for dinner. Sonia saw me and a look of panic washed over her face. She looked at me and said, “Joy?” Everyone thought someone else had Joy, not thinking he would be with me.
Joy was a constant at my house, along with all the other kids who weren’t old enough for school. Most of my Peace Corps friends wouldn’t let the kids from their families into their houses, but I didn’t mind. I had boxes of toys and boxes of colouring books and crayons. The only rule was that they had to pick up before going back home. They also had to ask in English for what they wanted. Hanging out with the kids was one of two reasons I knew (and still remember) any Chitonga. I taught them Uno, they taught me Chitonga.
Josh was at my house one weekend and had just gotten a package from home with cheese and crackers. He opened them up and started eating. Joy came over and sat down next to Josh and asked for one. Josh shared and I took pictures. I sent these pictures to Josh’s mom who forwarded them to the church group who was putting together books for my school’s new library. Josh got a lot of emails from random people asking about him feeding the poor and starving children of Africa.
When my parents and grandparents came to visit, they couldn’t believe how comfortable Joy was with me. Whenever I had visitors, the other kids would keep their distance, still wary of these interesting foreigners that were friends of mine. But Joy never seemed to care. He would come over as he pleased and always made himself at home, because it was his home. I was cooking lunch for my parents and grandparents, Joy came over, crawled into my lap and went to sleep. I continued cooking.
I was gone from the village for two weeks once. I can’t remember why I had left-sick, vacation, training-I don’t remember. I do remember coming back home and Joy suddenly knew more Chitonga than me. This was a sad day for me. But I felt a bit better when he started teaching me Chitonga words; but then he started correcting my tenses.
I have a million stories from my time in the village, and almost all of them include Joy.
When I was leaving the village, I really did want to take him with me. I knew if I asked, the family would let me. But my friend Kim talked me out of it. She told me that I couldn’t be stealing children from Africa. She also wisely told me this: Joy wouldn’t like it in America. Who would he play with? Where could he run around in the bush? Who would let him start a fire to cook a snack? And what would he do in winter?
He died last year, right after his 4th birthday, from a curable disease.
He should be 5 years old. Instead he has become a statistic on reports. Just another one of the millions of children who don’t make it to their 5th birthday.
I don’t regret not taking him with me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had. And Kim was right, he wouldn’t have enjoyed America
Now I work for an organization that has partnerships with other international NGOs. We are all working together to try and achieve the Millennium Development Goals. And more importantly, show the UN that we should have a plan after 2015 when the MDGs are supposed to be achieved.
I don’t think that people will stand up and make changes unless stories are shared that turn statistics into people. Joy will never be a statistic, he will always be stories. The millions of other children who also didn’t make it to their 5th birthdays all have their own stories. And in sharing these stories, we can start making positive change and work towards achieving the MDGs.