The Baby Home – where we get to spend Wednesday afternoons – is a hard place to describe. I drive an 8 passenger minibus to take volunteer staff and students there once a week. There are no street signs and no address, but I know when I cross the bridge and head to the nearest intersection, I turn left, go to the first roundabout and head back toward the bridge. When I see a blue fence up on the right, I turn right. Up ahead, there is a dead end forcing me right, and when I see the abandoned instant photo booth, I take a left, and it’s the next open gate.
The guards keeping watch outside are governmental, read that “armed.” After our first week, they don’t check our id, or the letter from the government I keep in my purse that says we are allowed to come and visit every week as a benefit to the babies.
We have been going to baby home for about 5 weeks now and to be completely honest, baby home scared me at first. I would cry if you sat down and talked with me about it. The French spoken by the staff is very hard for me to understand. The toddlers were so upset the first two times we were leaving that there was an absolute cacophony of tears and crying.
When we arrive, we walk down a short sidewalk, past the directrice’s office and then past the toddler’s living quarters.
When we enter the baby room, there are usually no lights on. We enter from the perpetual sunshine of Niger, and the sunlight streams in between our shadows, beaming on the little bodies in their cribs, which line the perimeter, and the women lay down a large mat for us in the center of the room. My teen volunteers get the same baby each time when possible. There is some recognition between volunteers and babies now. The teens eventually move outside to play with toddlers whenever possible, and I hear two of the babies give peals of laughter as their teens play games with them. “My” baby is so tiny that when he first came here, he was placed in a small cardboard box for a few days. If he had been in a crib, he would have been swimming in the free space. But, the women had swaddled him and placed him in a small box that he could stare out of and still feel cozy. The first time I saw him in his makeshift crib, one of the women, Jamila, said I could hold him. I scooped him up, and she prepared his bottle. He stared at me with big luminous brown eyes through his feeding and up until right before we left when he drifted off to sleep.
The third week we showed up with cookies – in hopes of giving them out to the toddlers at the end of our visit as a distraction from the goodbyes. As the teens made their way to the baby room, I brought our cookies to the supervisor. We had to have the staff taste one before we could hand them out. The staff person took a bite and made a face. “Cannelle? Je deteste ca.” I apologized and laughed – and promised to not bring cinnamon cookies the next time. But, it didn’t work out how we thought. She thanked me and said they had just run out of cookies, could they use ours for lunch dessert? Of course! So she and I walked over to where the toddlers were finishing their rice and beans lunch and we used the cookies as a dessert – which was great, right? When it was time for us to leave, the teens asked me if they could hand out the cookies as they returned the toddlers to their beds. I said they had already been eaten. I had 5 teenagers looking at me with great consternation! How could I have let that happen? I explained the problem, but that we would bring them again next time. And, weren’t we glad they had used them when they needed them? Small comfort to teens walking away from crying 2 year olds.
After Danielle (another teacher) and I had taken the student volunteers from Sahel with us three times, I decided we had to bring a language partner who could speak to the staff in Zarma and me in French. Aside from talking with the directrice, there was not a lot of communication going on. I had no idea if we were being offensive, ignorant, or both in the eyes of the staff.
As my language partner baked cookies with me, she asked exactly how many babies there were when she saw the number of cookies we were baking. I told her that I wanted us to send a very clear message – we are there to love the babies and the staff. We appreciate the hard job the workers have – and they get cookies too. What?! The rest weren’t for us? I handed her two cookies. She laughed, and when she was with me at the baby home, I knew what a great decision it was to have her there.
Who knew the staff and I already had a few things we needed to clear up? They were sure that I was the same person who visited them every Thursday with another group (what?!). And, when I came on Thursdays I spoke Zarma! Adama looked at me and asked me if I was coming on Thursdays too? I assured her I was not. One of the women walked right up to me and stared in my face, not believing that I wasn’t the same person as this woman who spoke Zarma on Thursdays. She switched to French – you don’t come here on Thursdays with another group? Nope, I’m here every Wednesday. She shook her head in disbelief, but said ok, it must be someone else (!). Was I really going to keep coming every week? Yes. Why had I learned French instead of Zarma? Good question. Was I going to learn Zarma now? I would try.
Adama talked and laughed with the women. She told them what she knew about me and asked me other questions that they had. I got to ask about them and their lives. At one point during the conversation, Adama and I were each holding a baby, but an older one (maybe 10 months) was trying to squirm onto her lap. She grabbed him and put him on a staff person’s lap. The worker who had been folding clothes just sat and stroked his back as he lay there. I would not have dared to do that, but it was the best, most natural, thing. Adama made a comment in French about the baby needing mama. “C’est ca,” said the staff. That’s it, indeed.
Last week, as my tiny guy lay sleeping, I held an older baby who was 9 months old. As soon as I lifted her from her crib, she wrapped her arms and legs tightly around me. For an hour. If I began to pull her from me to try to look into her eyes, she would make a small sound of protest and cling. She never moved once she had me in her vice-grip until I pulled her off me and laid her back in her crib when it was time for me to leave. We were both pretty sweaty. She began to cry. My language partner was in distress at the tears. The teens had given out their cookies, which had decreased the number of babies crying, but they were distressed too. “Come on,” I said, we’re not helping by standing where they can see us.” And we left.
So, why does baby home scare me? It feels temporary, like it could be gone the next time we go. It’s hot with lots of flies. Nothing belongs to anyone. The babies are clothed in what fits them from the shelves in the next room. Maybe it’s just how the babies hold us, which is really different from us holding them. Niger is a tough place to be an orphan. But these babies are thriving, and their caregivers are tenacious. Please pray for our witness of love and care. I hope to get agreement for two more times per week to have volunteers heading to the baby home to hold babies.