Yesterday morning I woke up at 5 a.m. Dhaka time with an hour and a half drive ahead of us. Today was the day. I was going to meet the child I sponsor.
When I learned I’d be going on this trip to Bangladesh with Food for the Hungry, Max & I decided to sponsor a little girl named Kajol through their program. Max already sponsored a little boy through Watoto, and I a little girl through WorldVision, but I knew somehow that this was necessary. Although always a skeptic about where my money is going, and if non profit organizations actually give what they say they give, I’ve learned that generosity and trust are two beautiful things I want to possess. And so I am practicing.
I had no idea what to expect when we left for their small rural town. I felt a sort of guilty for knowing so little about her. I had zero relationship before meeting her. A friend of mine once got to meet a child they’d sponsored for years, and said it changed their life. I remember thinking, “How amazing would that be!” adding it to my assumed list of things that, let’s be honest, would never happen to me.
We drove out of Dhaka proper, and through rural areas….
…and had devotions with the staff working in the small village when we arrived. All the staff are locals, so they all speak Bengali. While it is awkward and clumsy to repeat everything in 2 languages, I’ve learned that the heart of God and the heart of man are exquisitely simple, despite their vastness. It is slowly calming the noise in my head I’ve grown
accustomed to crazy from hearing.
The villages are small, but they have something like a long “main” road with little roads shooting off that end in groups of little homes, built amidst a jungle of trees. Empty fields break out into the background in certain places. Joy and Logan went to their respective little road to meet their sponsored children, and Max and I walked down our little road with our translator.
I have no idea what I was expecting, but I thought maybe someone would point a child out of a crowd of them and say, “That’s Kajol! The girl you sponsor!” And maybe we would hug and I could meet her family.
Instead, we walked into the center of the group of little homes, and every single person and child gathered instantly around us, staring unabashedly. Our translator rattled off some Bengali to a few women, peeked his head into a little home, and informed me, “They have powdered her face. This is, this…this is unusual. Come this way.”
A tiny, tiny girl in a bright gold dress appeared in the doorway, face to the ground. Her mother pushing her forward, I saw that she was full-body shaking. Her face had been powdered a shade lighter than her skin, her hair was wetted down with a flower barrette planted right on top, and she was wearing the jewelry of every woman in the village. Necklaces, bracelet after bracelet, rings, eye shadow, eye liner, all of it. Contrasted with the half-dressed, dusty children, it looked like she was being offered as a sacrifice to the white people coming to her village. She walked towards us slowly, eyes never lifting.
My heart was crushed in that moment.
Everyone in the village was clamoring round, shouting or whispering, pointing and staring. All at this tiny, tiny girl who seemed to have no idea what was going on – and at me, the overwhelmed introvert, who felt handicapped and unprepared in a thousand ways.
What was I doing here? Who is this child? I love her. I love her I love her I love her. She is so scared. I am so uncomfortable. What do I do? What do I say? She is shaking. I’m going to cry. I’m crying. Everyone be quiet. I want to hug her. I want to take her away. Please look up at me so you can see in my eyes that I love you and that I am safe. I CANNOT MAKE HER FEEL SAFE. Please feel safe, please feel safe, please feel safe.
I commanded every cell in my body to attempt to orchestrate a smile on my face. Maybe if she sees me smile she will know I am a safe person and there is no reason to be afraid. Have you tried to smile hard and not cry at the same time? It makes it all worse.
I reached out my hand to touch her. Maybe if she felt my hand on her shoulder she would feel comforted. She jumped, and I choked. I looked to Max with a desperate hope he would be able to miraculously do something, anything, to make this better for me and for this tiny dolled-up creature.
“Amar nam, Lauren.” I choked out as I put my hand over my heart. “What is the word for beautiful?” I asked the translator the thousandth time. I still cannot remember. I want to tell her I love her, she is beautiful, she is safe. I expect nothing. I have only love and gifts to give. She owes me nothing. I want to apologize for this nonsense and for putting us both in a situation that terrifies both of us. I want to say, “It’s okay. I am shy too.”
But all I can say is amar nam, my name is Lauren. All I can do is squat at her eye level as she and her auntie put flowers-strung-on-thread necklaces around my neck, and try to keep the feeling of guilt from drowning me entirely. I do not deserve these gifts.
I ask if we can go sit somewhere. This standing with everyone around me is just terrible. The translator nods and points to a blanket set out for us on some sort of porch of someone’s home. I reach down and take her tiny hand to walk with her. She reaches up to take mine too, and it’s freezing. I walk slowly with her, a crushing combination of frustration and love welling inside me with each step as I realize that I am beyond unprepared for this. I should have studied her language. I should have read her sponsor sheet more closely. I should have asked more questions about what to do when this moment came.
I sit on the blanket next to Kajol and Max. The translator sits, Heidi sits, and a beautiful young woman in a red and gold Salwar Kameez sits next to Kajol. I am told it is her mother. With a massive sigh of relief, I smile as big as I can and rattle off my statements and questions. “Amar nam Lauren! Apnar Nam ke? I have ech bhai, dui bon (one sister, two brothers). How many children do you have? Where is your husband? What is his job? I am so excited to be here. You are lovely.” I ask again what the word for “beautiful” is. The translator nods his approval at my Bengali attempts and fills in for my English.
I ask Kajol about her younger sisters. I ask what she likes to do.
Sweet Heidi reminds me I can simply ask her anything I’d ask a six year old in America. “But I’m already terrible at this in English, I can’t do it here!!”
Kajol is still shaking, staring at the ground. She’s still too shy to make eye contact. I remember being told yesterday that girls here love to dance, so I ask if she likes to sing or dance. Her mother starts yelling and nodding and gesturing, and the translator tells me that she wants Kajol to sing a song for us. “No! No! She doesn’t have to! No, please. Don’t. I just wanted to know.” I start waving my arms. Dear God I’ve just gone and made this whole thing even worse. Her mother keeps nodding and insisting and Kajol stands on the blanket. Her tiny, quiet voice starts singing.
I keep a smile plastered on my face and try as hard as I can not to cry. I clap and clap when she finishes. I ask about her school, and she jumps up, runs to get her school books to show me. She reads an English poem, a Bengali poem, and points at her math. “She is very bright for only 6 years old!!” our translator tells us. I ask if she picked the flowers from along the street or if she has a garden. She wants to take me to her garden. She grabs my hand, jumps up again, and leads me to a large bush of marigolds.
I ask the translator if every family has a cow, or if they share. Her family has a cow, and I learn that cows are her favorite animal. I happen to adore cows too, and I suddenly realize that maybe I am right at home here, and this is much more simple than I am making it. Kajol darts ahead of me and we walk across a little plot of land to meet her cow. I’m not allowed to pet the cow because livestock isn’t safe for me, and EVERYTHING IN MY BODY ACHES BECAUSE I CAN’T HUG EVERYTHING. Hugging is my coping mechanism and here in this culture it’s not even appropriate to hug my husband, though he seems to be the only thing here that won’t give me a parasite.
I ask if we can give her the gifts we brought for her, and the translator agrees that it is an appropriate time (finally!) and we walk back to her home. She shares one room with her mother, her 4 year old sister, and the 2 month old baby. They sleep in the same bed, and their father comes home one day a week. He works in Dhaka, at least 2 hours away. The entire “neighborhood” follows us back and crowds around up into the doorway to watch. There are no doors, no privacy, and “can we come over?” is a concept that does not exist.
We sit on the bed and Max pulls a coloring and sticker book out of his backpack, a stack of pretty stationary, and a box of crayons. As we hand them to her, her entire demeanor changes. Completely enraptured, she instantly starts coloring. I watch her color in the lines without a single flaw, and when she is done, I watch her count the crayons on the box and see that she puts them back in the box to match the color order on the package.
“Kajol is OCD!” I laugh and announce to Max. She stacks the stationary on the coloring book, the crayons on the stationary, in order of size, and carefully stands atop her pillow to store them with her 3 school books.
After half an hour of coloring and playing with stickers with her, she has adopted me as her new best friend. She finally smiles, she laughs, and she looks me in the eyes. She jumps around and sits in my lap. I decide to go exploring with her, and ask her to walk me around. I find a tiny white flower in the grass and pick it for Kajol. I hand it to her, and one to her friend, and they run ahead of me out into a giant field of mustard plants and pick flower after flower after flower to give to me. For the next half hour, flower picking and giving is the game. All of the children in the village participate, and yes. This. This is all I’ve wanted. I can do this. This is me.
When it’s time to leave, I realize I will most likely never see this child again. I cannot let myself think about it. She is my baby sister now. She is a child. She has a personality. She is shy, and smart, and bright. She is organized. She is quiet. She loves her friends. She loves flowers and cows. She loves her baby sister.
But most importantly, because of the sponsorship program that FH has introduced into their little village, Kajol will live her childhood as a child. She will go to primary school, and she will have the opportunity to attend university. She will not need to be married at 15 like her mother. She will not need to work and drag her 40 pound body through manual labor to help provide for her mother. She will grow into a woman who, unlike most women around her, will be able to read and write. She will learn a trade. She will never have to wish she had an older sister, because she will have one in me. She will have someone to speak hope and care to her, and someone to believe that she has potential and value no matter what anyone around her says.
Never in my life will I be able to find something better to spend $32 a month on. And I will forever remember the difference a friendship makes to this sweet little girl.
If you want to sponsor a child and give them a life they couldn’t have otherwise, please do. Click this link. All my love to you.