child carrying

She walked into my clinic room carrying her 3-year-old sister on her hip. The 3-year-old was tired and on the verge of tears. They sat down at the chair next to my desk, and the caregiver tried to comfort the 3-year-old even as she pulled out the bottles of HIV medicine for me to check. Her face calm and composed, she had the usual multitasking ease of someone well-accustomed to looking after a small child.

But this caregiver is only 10 years-old. A child herself.

The pair of them had walked for over an hour to get to their monthly visit at the HIV clinic. The 10-year-old had to carry the 3-year-old almost half of the way.

And, yet, this is only a small taste of the burden this 10-year-old carries. Since her mother died six months ago, she has been the "head" of their little household. Caring for her little sister. Trying to find food for both of them. Maintaining their tiny home in a shack that once served as someone's cooking space. And, amazingly, giving her younger sister medicines and taking her own medicines twice a day, every day.

Her eyes are old.

They have an elderly, bed-ridden grandmother who is technically their guardian, but the 10-year-old reports only seeing her two or three times since her mother died.

"Food is a problem," she says. "It is a struggle." There are some kind neighbors who, while they say they already have more children than they can afford, are often willing to share a meal with the two orphaned girls. Those neighbors have probably stood between life and death for these girls.

I go next door to consult with the clinical officer about what we could possibly arrange for these two girls, and the clinical officer tells me that she saw a 7-year-old who came in by herself earlier. Another child living with only a very sick and old grandparent. Another child forced into great responsibility so soon.

Frankly, do not have much to offer these children. Our social support services have been cut dramatically with the current round of USAID/PEPFAR funding, and we no longer have a social worker or Orphans and Vulnerable Children services offered at this clinic. There is no one for me to send to the house to follow-up on them or to try to manage their cases.

Of course, what they need most are parents. I can't provide those either.

I try to piece together some follow up through my study personnel and connections in Eldoret (which is a 3-hour drive away.) I give them some shillings and the protein bar I had carried along for my lunch substitute. I feel like I am sending them out with nothing.

Just before they are leaving, as I try to muster up my usual talk about hope and the future and staying healthy by taking medicines, the 10-year-old stops my heart.

"We will carry on," she says. Carry on, small warrior.

Posted at 07:59


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