The Orphanage has two children with special needs, a boy Loc and a girl, Han. Loc is a four year old boy with hydrocephilis, his head is swollen with excess fluid, making it larger than those of the other children. Loc is an absolute hero of a child. A little boy who loves to talk, laugh, play and sing, his antics are hilareous, he will have full and long conversations with volunteers, passionately explaining his views, apausing for emphasis, gesturing, listening carefully and thoughtfully to the response. This little boy is not stopped by the fact that he speaks not a word of English and usually the person he is conversing with speaks very little Vietnamese. He sings and performs Vietnamese folk songs in the style of a drunk Irishman in a bar, stamping his feet, clapping his hands, gesturing around the room, oblivious to the joy and laughter in response. As the children play a game climbing in and out of the bars of the orphanage gates, Loc joins in without fail, his enthusiasm undampened by the inevitable and repeated jamming of his head in the bars. Loc blesses all the volunteers with his warmness, open welcome arms, his friendship and his sense of fun, for me he gave me the gift of knowledge that a child with special needs is the same as any child. Loc is a normal little boy, a very special, very normal little boy.
Han is a little girl with more challenging disabilities. Her feet were not straight and she could not support her own weight, needing a wheelchair to get around. Her hands had not developed like the other children’s, she had to work harder to grasp or hold. If this little girls body was broken, her mind and spirit were absolutely not. Han was a girl with smiles for everyone, a girl who just wanted to play like everyone else. She did not complain about being crammed into awkward positions for balance, so long as she could sit with the other children and play. She was a little bigger than the other children, maybe four or five years old, and her pyjamas were black and white horizontal stripes, like a prisoner. She slept in a bed with metal bars around it, to stop her falling and hurting herself. This little girl smiled, communicated and the other children played with her and chatted with her unaware of any difference. When play moved from inside to outside, a tiny pair of arms from a body too small to see over Han’s chair, would push her outside too. She was adopted by a family of brothers and sisters with special needs waiting for her, they had chosen her to join their family. I knew this spirited and positive little girl would flourish with them and that they would be forever rewarded with her joy.
One day as we gathered our rusty bicycles for the Orphanage, filling our baskets with fruit, milk and books, BJ, always in training for a trialthon ran, grabbed her trainers and ran ahead, to give her strong legs a head start on our wobbly wheels. She took a left and headed for the Baby Orphanage. Five minutes later, we pushed off and took a right, for the Home of Affection.
BJ only realised she had confused the schedule when we did not cycle past her whooping and weaving, and did not catch up with her at the Baby Orphanage. After running for nearly an hour she decided to stay, playing with the toddlers outside, then wandering into the baby rooms. Maes busy elsewhere, the tiniest baby was sucking on his propped up bottle, lying on his back on a double wooden bed frame. BJ sat next to him and chatted to the toddlers as they wandered in to the baby room, to giggle with her and the other babies.
When he started to splutter, she looked down. When he stopped breathing, she jumped up. As he turned blue, she lifted him and screamed for help. She describes the scene as chaos. Maes came running, screaming, crying. Startled pushed aside toddlers looked on silently. As the women crowded round and tapped the baby’s tiny arched back, someone found an aspirator to clear his throat. As he gasped in air and breathed again, there were sobs as he was wrapped up and buddled in a car to hospital. BJ stayed to look after the children who were being cared for the Maes who had left with the baby to hospital, arriving back late, flustered and excited, to tell us what had happened. My hands moved to my face with shock, for the baby that turned blue and for all that I realised had taken place that day.
Miss BJ, in taking a wrong turn, had changed a world. She saved a baby’s life.
When we arrived the next day I went straight to the Baby room, not stopping to put down the children who had jumped into my arms, wrapped their arms around my legs and were now stroking my hair and clothes and chatting excitedly. Our little entourage kicked flipflops of various sizes and colours, tiny shoes flying in all directions. One of our small hands pushed open the door and we entered the Baby room. I saw the empty space in the wooden slats where our newest, quiet little bundle had been, the tiny blue mosquito net and small bundle of blankets more silent than ever.
My eyes then went straight to another empty cot and another unused blue mosquito net. Another baby, this one suffering from dehydration, had joined his tiny roomate in the hospital, whisked away in the night.
Mae Ba came rushing towards me, her hands held to her face, quiet tears running down her sculpted cheeks. “Oh Mae Ba”, I said, softly putting the children down from my arms and taking her into them instead. She wiped the tears from her face and head half bowed, with a look of penetrating sadness that seemed to radiate from her core, explained to me in Vietnamese what had happened. The tiny baby choking, the next baby so sick he was rushed to hospital in the dead of night.
As I listen to this tale again, unsure of the fate of either child, with quiet little arms wrapped around my legs and quiet heads leaning against my calves and thighs, I was touched and relieved to see how much she cared about these babies. She was all they really had and if she did not love them, no one would.
I took off my necklace, the one so coveted by the Maes, and placed it round her neck. Grasping her hands, I spoke in English, asking our Translator Mr Tuan to translate, the first of only two times I would ask him to do this, in all my time to come in this remarkable country and heart wrenching, heart warming place.
Through our translator, with all my words, I told Mae Ba that we loved her because we saw and knew how much she loved and cared for the babies, that the babies in hospital would be well and back with us soon and that she should have the necklace that they all thought so beautiful because she was the most kind and beautiful Mae there.
Tears continued to run down her cheeks as she smiled, nodded, touched her hands to her heart, then went back to caring for her babies.
As the days and weeks passed, I witnessed beautiful acts of quiet kindness amongst these children. The children, the toddlers, the babies even, did not typically cry. Tears were not a meaningful method of communication, the children knew they would not be heard.
When I did see tears, they would be silent, running like streams down a small face of a tiny body crouching in an empty room, where the child was hiding till the upset past, till their little lion heart took over again and stopped the tears, then they would wipe their face with a scruffy sleeve pulled over their hand, before composing themselves and reemerging. It was quite heartbreaking to watch, a four year old already alone and responsible for handling their own battered emotions.
Amongst this heartbreak, I also witnessed moments of pure empathy and kindness. When Han arrived back from a trip to a physiotherapist, inexplicably returning confused and bald, Loc went immediately to her, as she was lifted from the back of a motorbike, he wrapped his arms around her, talking reassuringly into her ear, telling her he would look after her and she would be alright.
When Lan Chi had a scarf pulled from her head in a scuffle, the small loss and injustice reminded her small body of the loss and injustice she endured as her very being, I found her curled in a ball in a side room, crying rivers of tears. Chi meanwhile had crawled amongst energetic arms and legs, retrieved the scarf and had wrapped in round Lan Chi like a blanket and was stroking her arm and singing her a quiet lullaby.
When Thuy, newly left at the orphanage by a distant family member, realised she was not going home and clung to a motorbike for hours, stroking the leather seat, sobbing quiety, it was Loc that went to her, told her he had been scared and lonely when he first arrived too, but now he has lots of friends here and she’ll feel better soon.
When the Maes were busy and the babies screamed with hunger, it was Nhu who stood on her tiptoes to reach over the edge of the cots, to stroke their burning cheeks and comfort them.
When I was forgotten, unwanted, deemed worthless, these tiny people welcomed me, took me as their own and loved me, when my own would not, with a kindness, understanding and empathy that my own could not. Not a single one of them was over five years old.
In this Baby Orphanage, amongst these tiny souls, I saw love, I saw humanity and I felt more of both than I ever knew possible.
Many children are adopted from Vietnam’s orphanages and children’s homes. At Tam Ky Baby Orphanage, a few of the smaller children were to be adopted by overseas parents, but not many. Five of the children were unknowingly waiting for their new families to collect them. It was lovely to hold these children and talk to them of the spectacular change that was journeying towards them.
I wondered if we would meet the adoptive parents of the babies and I learned this was down to chance, if we were there when the parents arrived then so be it. We were interested to meet the parents of course and share in this little moment, but more than anything I wanted to tell them how much we loved their baby. The days the parents were expected to arrive were jumbled and changed, so after a while our thoughts drifted from the specifics and we learned a little of the patience that the parents had no doubt been living and breathing.
One day, we arrived to find two babies gone. One of the volunteers managed to find out that they had been collected by their parents the evening before. We had no idea this was imminent and giggled with pleasure and surprise. We had not said goodbye, not seen the ecstatic faces of their new lives, not shared stories of these beautiful babies before they left for their new homes. Looking into the baby rooms we found their cots had gone too, as if they had never been there. A baby girl and a baby boy had disappeared in the night.
I found myself not sad that I had not said goodbye and waved them off. Instead I thought, Thank God. I hoped everyday from that day on to to come to the orphanage and find another little soul gone, to loving arms, without trace.
To any baby, any child, any teenager, any adult, that has left an orphanage with their parents, I will share the words I did not have the opportunity to say to the little souls I loved about the promises I had whispered to them as they were in my arms, in a strange language, in this bare place.
“Didn’t I tell you they were coming for you?”.
Working closely with the babies and becoming involved in feeding, changing and bathing gave me an insight into their physical condition. The babies, indeed all the children in the Orphanage, were covered in nasty, itchy and sore patches of scabies. For the babies, scabies combined with the nappy rash that came inevitably with simple cotton cloth nappies and no nappy rash cream, these tiny bodies were in a pitiful state. Scabies causes an angry, itchy red rash, sometimes the skin blisters and rubs away. All the babies had patches of the rash somewhere on their little bodies, the worse affected was the baby girl Choi. From her chubby cheekys to her toes, she was covered in red blotches, raised and sore. Her nappy rash and with this infection left her baby skin raw, it was difficult to tell where the nappy rash ended and the scabies began, so covered was her body in blotches. Mae Ba told me she struggled to sleep in the night because of the itching and showed me an almost empty tub of precious nappy rash cream that someone had brought from overseas. I looked in the shops for something similar, but there was nothing to be found. In my desperation I bought all the baby products I could find, including a mountain of nappies, all the nappies on the shelf, in every size and shape. Perhaps proper nappies would help ease the nappy rash which it itself was causing pain and discomfort.
The next day I swerved my bicycle into the orphanage courtyard, trying to balance under the weight of the nappies I had stacked high in my basket. Arms full, peeking my eyes over the top of my prize, I pushed the baby room door open with my hip and edged in. Mae Ba got to work distributing various sized nappies amongst various sized babies, pausing only to gently remind me that the bigger babies, unlike their western counterparts, were potty trained and had no need for the huge nappies I had brought. Looking at Mae Ba as she held one of the monster nappies in the air before trying to secure to an unsuspecting baby half its size using duct tape, I thought the larger sizes were more suited to her petite frame than the poor baby now sporting a nappy from up under his arms down to his knees. I made a beeline for Choi, scooping her up from her cot and putting her on the bed that doubled for a changing mat. She wriggled out of her scruffy clothes without fuss and I reached into my bag for the best substitute for nappy rash cream I could find, my expensive clinique face moisturiser. It was the gentlest moisturiser I could find in my backpack. The small tub had cost me more than a hundred nappies and I took pleasure in this fact as I smothered Choi’s little body in delicate lotion. She seemed happy at this impromptu Spa, as did Mae Ba who appeared behind me smoothing tiny dabs of the cream onto her cheeks. As the lotion absorbed into the baby’s skin, we stood over her, hands on hips, heads tilted to the side, waiting for her reaction to this cool substance. None came. So we put a nappy on her, dabbed some cream on her nose to make her giggle, and carried on our day.
The next day Mae Ba poked her head out the baby room door, waving for me to come in, chatting in Vietnamese as I peeled toddlers from me and kicked off my flipflops. She leaned over Choi’s cot, pointing triumphantly at her chubby face, Choi’s huge brown eyes peering back. The redness, although still there, had faded. A massively overexcited overreaction it may be, but at that moment I thought I had captured an elusive secret to changing the world. Nappies and over priced beauty lotions.
On other days I stopped my bike at a roadside fruit stall, to the bewildered amusement of the locals, to fill my basket with oranges or bananas. The children in the orphanage were hungry, the government providing only a tiny amount of money to feed them and their meals were small and scarce. Fruit gave them some valuable vitamins and softened the hunger rumbling in tiny swollen bellies.
Although impromptu fundraising meant I knew massive sums of money were on their way to us, I still emptied the supermarket shelves of nappies every day or two, playing nappy super market sweep as I literally swept everything off the shelf and into my overflowing trolley.
We continued to take a bag of fruit for the children every day, but seeing how little it cost I began to buy better fruit, bigger, juicier, more colourful, tasty and ripe. One day I bought two bags, oranges and banana and I still smile at the excited confusion this provoked in the children. As they washed their hands, I set out two bags of fruit, one with oranges, the other with yellow bananas. The first few with clean hands come running and skipping towards me, but on seeing these two bags of different coloured fruits, stop dead in their tracks. A little pile of bodies crash into the back of the advance party, peering through gaps, over shoulders, round arms, through legs, to see why they had stopped. As more little bodies joined the back of the pile up, each causing a shunt forward. One little body forgot to hold on the waist of their pants, tripping over their own feet as they crashed to a halt. Laughing, I opened my arms for them to come to me. Tentatively they shuffle over, looking shy and ready to bolt at any sudden movement or noise. I open both bags and hand out an orange and a banana to each child. They back off, eyeing me as if we are part of some happy conspiracy, holding one piece of fruit in each hand, staring disbelievingly between the two, as if they expect the banana to have disappeared whilst they studied the orange, the orange to evapourate whilst they consider the fillingness of the banana. Once the fruit has been handed out and they have all retreated to safe corners, they want to pose for photographs with their prizes, like I have handed them simultaneously an Oscar and their first born child. As I laugh and take photos I feel a small tugging of a tiny cubby hand of my skirt. This little one, head tipped back to the sky to see me, shows me disbelievingly that he has not just an orange in one hand, but a banana in the other. Lauging I encourage them to start eating by miming and helping peel the fruit. Most of the children delve in, except one little boy who was found sitting in a corner in tears without having taken a taste, trying to stick his orange back together. I found Lan Chi, good with english words and having already mastered orange and banana before today. “Orange”, I said smiling, pointing at her orange. “Orange” she repeated, nodding. “Banana” I said, pointing at her banana. “Orange” she said, nodding again.
“Ba-na-na Chi” I said, smiling. She looked at me thoughfully, smiled a little, looked up am my with her floating brown eyes and said, “Orange”. The appearance of two fruits in her world was just too much for her sophisticated linguistics to handle.