To continue the story: A lived with me for about six months, during which time he started school and learned a lot of appropriate skills. He started to refer to me as his mother. this is not such a big deal as it may sound – most African children have more than one adult woman they will call or refer to as Mama – it is sometimes necessary to ask people whether the person they are talking about is their birth mother/father and it’s not considered at all an insulting question. He would tell people when we were out that I was his mother – when he was living with me this seemed appropriate – and people would ask us this. This may seem a completely ignorant and mad question, but you have to bear in mind that it is very common in the region to see a white (albino) child both of whose parents are black, and for all they knew there was a similar genetic error which could make it happen the other way round. A became affectionate – but appropriately so – towards me, and seemed to enjoy living with us (my housekeeper and me).
He was also a little terror. It is very likely that he was sexually abused, possibly by the boys who were living across the road. The pattern in the region seems to be for older boys to “educate” younger boys by either forcing them to have sex, or to watch them. Anyway, he had inappropriate knowledge and, according to a colleague, tried to kiss her very forcefully. After I left, there was a rumour he had tried, or even managed, to rape a girl in his school. He could also be violent and oppositional – he was never violent or sexual to me but could be very oppositional, tended to run away (I had to chase him round town in the car a couple of times).
When A was a small child, his mother died, as I have said. His father was a refugee from Mozambique, and had no family locally. He had worked as night watchman for a family who, I believe, were from the UK, and A had lived with them when he was small. He spoke pretty good English for a child from his area (normally it is limited to Howareyouteacher) and gravitated towards wazungu (white people). The British family had wanted to adopt him but his father had understood this would mean not seeing him again and had said no. The only person left to care for him was his alcoholic father. We think he was enrolled in school aged 7 – we are not sure if there are some relatives of his mother locally – and things seem to have gone OK for a little while, until he ran away – aged 10, at most – and his father didn’t look for him.
Parenting was hard, and I don’t know how I would have coped with life as a single “parent” if it had not been for my housekeeper. Not only did she do lots of practical things round the house (but teaching A to do the things that were appropriate for his age), but she also babysat when I was away (he bit her), and gave me advice on how she would have expected her brothers and sisters to behave at that age. She was very longsuffering and I was, I hope, appropriately grateful.
The end of this stage of the story comes when I had to move back home and find somewhere else for him to live. His father this time wanted me to adopt him and take him home. I didn’t even know where I was going (as it turned out, I spent the next six months constantly moving) and if I would be allowed to do this, I did do some half-hearted investigating but it was never really going to be an option. I needed to find him a family locally.
Fostering and adoption are just not common at all in the region – people do not care for children that are not kin – so this was hard. He went to stay with a pastor and his family for a weekend and they said they couldn’t cope with him. I was in floods of tears coming home from their house – one of those count-on-the-fingers-of-my-hands floods that only come a few times in your life. Finally a very good woman who worked for the project, who was a friend of mine, said she’d take him in. My job was being taken over by a friend of mine, who continued to employ her, and I knew I could send something for his support through him, so I was very relieved. In fact not everyone on the project liked her (the other colleague I mentioned above, in particular, didn’t) but that didn’t really matter. At least he had somewhere to live.
There is more to come, I just don’t know when!