MZUNGU! MZUNGU, PHOTO ME!
I suddenly found myself totally surrounded by small, black, smiling faces. I made no attempt to get away, although if some fresh air had made it through the odor of unwashed bodies, I would not have complained. I never expected my slightly outdated digital camera to create such a response.
I’m not sure what I did foresee when I headed halfway around the world to visit an orphanage in Uganda. I knew I would be saddened by the poverty, the constant reminder of death, and the cultural differences. What I never imagined, was the fun I would have. Every morning for five days, I showed up at the orphanage and just played and played. I can’t remember a time when I have given so much of myself. The little girls literally fought over holding my hand, sometimes I had as many as five hanging from each one! The boys just tried to make me laugh, each one trying to out do his friends so that my eyes would focus on him alone. The older girls hung back, but a simple smile or word from me would cause their faces to light up with pride at being noticed.
With the language barrier, I needed someway to connect but was unsure of what to do. When I first pulled out my camera, it was for personal reasons. I wanted to remember the details of this new world around me. Of course, they wanted to see what I had photographed, and pretty soon the crowd of children around me doubled. Everyone shouting “Mzungu” (meaning “White person”) “Muzungu, Muzungu, photo me! Photo me!” At first there was some order. I would take a picture and then show it to the crowd, but I was quickly surrounded, lost in a sea of faces…I couldn’t even see sunlight! Soon, I was just snapping photos. I took as many pictures as I could, and each time I revealed a new one, the children giggled with glee at the sight of themselves.
With all the media coverage over the last few years, I knew that I would see physical hunger. But the emotional hunger, the need for the affirmation that comes with a hug, a smile, a hand or a picture…that was a surprise. It was also something I could give, a small way that I could help. I have never felt such a sense of purpose, before or since. Taking those pictures, holding those hands, being there for a short time, just to love those kids…it was the best and most rewarding thing I have ever done.