We’re driven down a winding paved road that leads out of your remote village. The hot sun relentlessly glares at us through dusty car windows. Our only shelter from the heat are the small clouds that pass by one by one as we drive, giving us brief moments of rest from the great sun’s watchful eye.
As we drive, our thoughts are consumed with the stories and photos we gathered these last few days. We wonder, did we take enough? Will they be compelling? Will they make a difference?
We tell ourselves that regardless of whether these stories are successful, we’ll cherish the moments we had with your community. These encounters changed us…helped us gain perspective…made us appreciate what we have at home.
While we gaze out the windows at the beautiful rolling hills that pass by, we’re occupied with thoughts of sharing these stories we captured with the outside world. We imagine how we’ll share them in carefully curated photos and captions.
But then the car starts to slow. Something isn’t right. We notice the road we are traveling has become littered with branches of lime green leaves matted with mud. We’re told by our driver that these branches signal for cars to slow down. We squint through the front windows and see that there seems to be some commotion up ahead.
The air feels thick now. The sun is beaming down with an intensity that forces us to shelter our eyes with our hands. We get closer and see a mass of people formed alongside the road. Their clothes of brightly colored, lively patterns stand out against the dense green landscape. The crowd hovers and stares at something in the road. They stare with a strange calmness, as if this sight is nothing new.
And then we see you lying in the middle of the road. A blurry heap silent and still. A few feet away, a little blue rubber sandal sits alone.
Our car passes by a woman off to the side who we can only imagine to be your mother. She is curled into a ball beside the road. She sinks into the tall green grass as she pushes her head into the ground. The earth seems to swallow her body, lessening the sound of her wails. A man from the crowd cautiously walks over to her and puts his hand on her shoulder.
We stop the car and roll down our windows to ask someone we recognize what has happened. It was an accident, he says. A child was hit. The police have taken away the driver.
The man tells us you were 9 years old. We didn’t happen to catch your name.
From where we’ve stopped, we are close enough to make out your tiny mass of limbs. They lay heavy against the paved road in utter defeat. You were surely no match for that speeding car.
The open wound confronts us now. Your eyes loosely shut. We try not to stare, but we can’t seem to look away. We silently pray for you and your family.
We sit there…not moving…unsure of what to say. We settle on asking if there is anything we can do, but we know it’s too late.
Your life was taken here, as are so many lives along this newly paved road. You join the others whose only crime was choosing a flat surface to walk instead of the brush. You were probably just walking home from school.
There is nothing for us to do now except continue to our destination. As we drive by your body, we try to avert our eyes, but instead meet the gaze of the surrounding crowd. They watch us slowly pass by–their brows frowning.
What must they think of us, we wonder? Another group of mzungus, leaving as fast as they came. Another moment we have interrupted, taken from, and play ignorant to the footprints we leave behind.
Tomorrow we will venture home to our loved ones. We will boast of what we learned about your community, and how we think we can save it. We will continue telling stories of you from the comfort of our homes, while others like you continue walking along this same road each and every day.
It’s true, we had the purest of intentions when we came here. But what we captured weren’t just photos and stories.
We take a piece of you every time we come and go. A piece you can never get back–no matter how much money we raise, how many items we donate, or how many ideas we graciously bestow.
As we leave your life behind, boy with the little blue sandal, you now watch us from your new place above. It’s a place of your very own–one nobody can take from you. A place hidden from our gaze. Indeed, it’s a place we can no longer watch you, but you are surely watching us.
Melissa Pack is a Freelance Writer and Florist. As a Co-Curator at Ethical Storytelling, she writes for and edits the ES blog. Melissa has worked in the fields of Philanthropy, Global Development, and Human Services for the last 10 years. She’s worked with nonprofits such as One Day’s Wages, Village Volunteers, The Center for African Education, and Cocoon House. She’s a believer in the idea that humility and vulnerability are the storyteller’s greatest assets. To connect with Melissa you can find her on Facebook or Linkedin.