By Samantha Swantek
Immediately upon stepping off of the bus, my friends and I were bombarded by a fit of giggles and jumbled words in a language we did not understand. Among the throngs of high-pitched, elated children, one stood out to me. She was standing in the back of the crowd gently fixating her eyes towards the ground, with two small girls clinging to each leg. As I caught her gaze across the dusty field, she glanced up at me with the slightest smile. Her name was Mary.
When I traveled to Kenya last summer, I never expected to develop this close of a bond with one of the children. We were living at an orphanage; many of the children had very little education and fell victim to a strong language barrier. All of them had lost their parents, so they were bound to be emotionally guarded. Initially, this was the case with Mary. She was tentative, cautious and quick to pull away when we reached for her. She swiftly nodded in response to everything we said, and besides the occasional smile we never had any sure indication of how she was feeling. It was not until our first game with the children that Mary opened up. The game was called “quiet coyote.” Upon one of us yelling “go,” the children were allowed to run around and laugh to their heart’s content. When the leader held up “quiet coyote” however, they had to freeze and fall silent. The first round of the game, I screamed “GO!” and let the children frolic for a minute or two. I then thrust my hand into the air, bringing my two middle fingers together with my thumb and raising my pinky and pointer as ears, forming an animal snout. All of the children screeched to a halt and their murmur quieted to a hush, all except for one- Mary. She burst into a bout of hysterical laughter, running up to me and throwing the hand signal in my face. She thought it was the damndest thing that I had gained control of an entire crowd in one simple swoop, something she had been struggling to accomplish for 12 years.
Mary’s appearance emulated her inner as well as her outer strength. She had smooth, dark chocolate skin blanketing every inch of her body except for one place. Her round face was covered in scars, some exceptionally long and deep. They appeared to be from burns or beatings, and made me yearn for her. Her dark eyes, large and wide set, were trapped in the past and bearing ghosts. Her tall slender figure came equipped with lengthy legs and muscular calves from days of playing soccer barefoot; she was better than all the boys. Her competitive nature and bad temper while playing a friendly match made me wonder where those traits came from. I concluded to myself that Mary had possibly suffered from a life of poverty and had to compete for food. Her aggressiveness and anger when she lost displayed that it was more than just losing to the boys; it was life or death.
One morning, I walked into the kitchen and found Mary with the two little girls perched on her lap, and another little boy at her feet. Paulina was only three, and Ida and Moses were two. She was spoon feeding them rice from her bowl, as the pile of rice around them indicated that they had dropped theirs. I asked her what she was doing and she told me in broken English three simple words, “They are hungry.” Her selflessness surprised me. Just hours before I had seen her shove a boy on the soccer field and storm away, overwhelmed by rage. I flashed back to the first day, when I had seen her standing with the girls, and suddenly recounted many more moments where I had seen her carrying, cuddling, and even bathing the little ones. It suddenly dawned on me what she was doing; Mary was displaying a sense of motherhood that she had never received. Her love and encouragement towards the three was an example of something never provided to her. She was trying to properly model what a mother should be; not only for the children but also her own peace of mind. Her contrast in spirit was quite polar; her compassionate, parental qualities were nothing like her uncertain mindset or irate outbursts. Mary was putting on a brave face despite her obvious vulnerability, and pushing her skeletons further back into the closet. She was trying to better her life by embracing positivity and care, but was still struggling with the demons holding her back.
On our last day at the orphanage, Mary taught me something I will never forget. In her native tongue Luo, which is a form of Swahili, she taught me two simple words; beautiful and mean. Beautiful is pronounced “beyr” and mean translates to “duni.” These two phrases struck me because they were so different. When I asked her why she chose those words to share with me, her explanation was simple yet impactful. “Mean is me then, beautiful is me now.” I was later told that in Swahili, mean is used to denote someone as insignificant and lowly. For 12 years of her life, the word echoed through Mary’s mind until she believed that she truly was. It was not until she arrived at the orphanage, that “beautiful” began to define her. The founder of Foundation Stone Orphanage, Tim, told me that all the adults employed there make a point of calling the girls beautiful. In a society where women are degraded simply to fertility, they have an extremely low sense of self worth. Every day since her arrival at age eight to now, Mary was reminded daily that she is indeed beautiful. Now she knows that she has been all along.
The day I left Mary, we held each other and cried. Her spitfire personality and genuine sensitivity for others has impacted me greatly. Never have I met someone with so much holding them back, that tries so intently to push forward. On the plane ride home, I learned more of her story. Tim was keeping it from me because he did not want it to alter my opinion of her. It did however, but in the most positive way. Mary was from a single mother family, and had lived in destitute poverty since birth. Her mother beat her out of frustration, and she had to compete for scraps of food with other inhabitants of the Kenyan slums. After her mother fell ill from either AIDS or Malaria, possibly both, Mary was taken in at Foundation Stone and attempted to start her life over. Her scars tell a story of abuse and battering, both from her mother and strangers on the street bearing her same burdens. She is trying to forget her scars, and as they slowly fade in the beating sun, so do the memories of her haunted past. All this time I knew there was something about Mary, but now I am sure; she is a fighter.