Kia con bu’o’m vang
Xoe doi canh
Tung canh bay nam ba vong
En ngoi xem
There the yellow butterfly
Spreads its wings
Takes its flight
We contemplate it
– Vietnamese Nursery Rhyme
The Baby Orphanage is home to twenty eight children, the youngest a newborn, the eldest four years old. The orphanage gates are tall, wide and baby blue, mostly rusty and uncared for, opening to a courtyard, wide and sunny, with a few trees and plants. Bicycles and motorcycles are strewn in the shade of the trees. In the centre of the courtyard are the stairs leading up to the orphanage. The entrance is open to the elements, as is most of the Orphanage, and no physical barrier holds these children in. Walking through these gates, I am treated to a welcome like no other in the world. Tiny excited figures come running, screaming with excitement, attracting the attention of the other children who run in this wake. At the top of the steps they jiggle, shout, dance on the spot and leap into my outstretched arms.
Giang is first into my arms, a beautiful little girl of two or three, big liquid brown eyes, soft hair like a baby and flawless latte skin. I lift her onto my left hip. Lan Chi is next, a little tomboy of three or four, gorgeous plump shapely lips, petite nose and equisitely shaped eyed, in blue clothes and lilac flowered sandals. She swings herself into my free arm and onto my right hip. Gai runs to me, a girl of two or three, with her round face, sparkling smile, arms stretched open for soft cuddles and a giggle like no other, she wraps her arms around my right leg. Nhu takes my outstretched hand, smiling shyly, a quiet and calm girl of three or four, her elegant eyes reflecting her long elegant limbs, small string of tiny beads around her neck, she loves to write and adores to be praised. Ngoc appears, a strikingly beautiful girl of two or three, pale skin, distinctive eyes, revealing an ethnic makeup from beyond Vietnam’s borders, into wider Asia. She places a soft hand on my left leg. She is followed by Chi, girl of three or four with a sad and worried face that melts into a beautiful free smile at the tiniest kindness, often sharing kindness herself in consoling other tearful children. I buckle under this pile of children and Chi runs to us as we all giggle, tickle and hug.
On other days I am greeted by the boys, arriving to find them keeping watch at the orphanage gates. First into my arms is Ca’an, a caring and warm boy of four, beautiful big smile, from one of ethnic hilltribes, he loves to be lifted and cuddled, always with a protective eye on his younger brother. I swing Ca’an onto my left hip as Loc emerges, king of the jungle, a four year old boy with hydrocephilis, a little boy who loves to talk, laugh, play and sing. He runs to me, already talking, taking my hand, tapping on it and chattering to greet me. Tu runs out to see what is happening, a naughty and mischevious little boy of three or four, always the one to knock things over with flying limbs, to break things in his hands with overexcited curiosity, a boy with a large vertical scar on his belly left by surgery to save his life when he was very small. Tu does not want lifted, instead he runs energetic circles round us as we gather. Trang appears from behind a pillar, running to me faster that his tiny legs can carry him and he stumbles just as I sweep him up into my free arm. A beautiful, tiny, strong little boy of two or three, always in orange, baby huge wide eyes, always sparkling with excitement, a face that bubbles in anticipation of fun, I lift his tiny weight easily and throw him onto my hip. Not yet through the gates, I am absorbed into a tiny huddle of excited chatter and affectionate cuddles.
The children wear little outfits that look like pyjamas. Clothes are shared amongst children of similar size and come in sets of top and bottoms, always matching, with a child’s name written in pen on the top. Usually there are two or three names, the first crossed out, the clothes passed down. Always the legs are too short, revealing ankles and bellies. To my left, on a washing line in the courtyard, I see tiny matching sets of clothes in every colour swinging in the breeze, along side a few threadbare towels. There is no underwear or cloth nappies, on the washing line or on the children. They are a cute sight in these little outfits, pants far to short and clearly for a child much younger. Even so, the small sizes are far too big for their malnourished bellies. The children hold the waists of the pants as they run, to stop them falling down.
The Orphanage is mainly made of a large open space, around which there are doors opening into small bedrooms and a small classroom on the left, baby rooms directly ahead and an eating area, kitchen and office on the right. The bathrooms and showers are to the back left and are open to the elements. There are signs that children live here. The open space has some rusty and faded playgear, an old slide, climbing frame, seesaw and toy animals, child sized chairs and cushioned floors. The walls are chipped beige paint and colourful painted murals, jungle animals run through green trees, butterflies flutter by under yellow suns. It is bare, basic, stark even, but it is not soulless. The soul of this place is found in its small pyjama clad lives who shelter here. Warm skin, beautiful round eyes, shaped at the corners, high cheekbones, happy giggles and tiny cuddles breathe warm life into this space.
We walk into the orphanage and the children leap from my arms to share in the oranges and bananas we have brought for them. Children are swung hugh in the air by volunteers, a cupboard of toys is opened and the Orphanage is filled with the excited laughter of children and the colour of toys and building blocks. Music begins to play as the children run to greet all the volunteers, to find a coveted space in arms or on a knee, or to be trusted with a camera or the key to the toy cupboard. We have to lock the toys we donate away whilst we are not there, else things go missing. I find this so sad. These children have nothing, who would take a few pitiful toys away. I ask but no one seems to know where missing things go. As saddened as me by it, no one wants to know. The children are unperturbed, used to having things taken from them. The sound of their laughter bounces around the orphanage. As the atmosphere settles into the beat of a steady rhythm, I negotiate my way through cuddles and coloured blocks and I walk ahead to the Baby Rooms.
The Orphanage has two Baby Rooms, opposite the entrance. I kick my shoes off before pushing the door open, my sparkly flip flops falling into a small huddle with the dark sandals of the Mothers. Some of the toddlers and children wander into the baby rooms, their presence signalled by their tiny shoes left hapharardly outside the door. I guess bare feet are intended to keep the baby room floor clean for little hands, although I do not find babies crawling or playing on the floor, not on my first day there or any day after. There are two baby rooms, on the right are newborn to maybe seven or eight months old, on the left seven or eight months to about eighteen months, when the babies join toddlers and children. Both rooms are well lit, clean, although very basic. Each has one Mother, Mae, caring for five or six children. Mae looks after the babies laundry, food and bathing, so are busy and not always in the baby room. Usually I would find babies alone in their cots, alone in the room, alone in the world. Some of the cots were made of stretching material and although a little grubby seemed adequate at least, even comfortable. Other were made of rusty metal bars and wooden bases. These were not a baby’s cot or a child’s bed, they were more like cages. The tiniest newborns lay on a double bed, away from the edges, swaddled under layers and layers of tiny clothes, far too many for the tropical heat I think, but there they lay, under rows of tiny blue mosquito nets.
There were no toys in the cots, the baby room toys were tucked away on an out of reach shelf. I searched for toys, thinking there must be something, knowing that I had brought small rattles myself. I found a stash hidden away out of reach on a high shelf and happily passed these out to the babies, giving them something to have in their cots, for fun, colour and stimulation. The babies stared blankly at the strange objects I had put in their hands. They stared blankly at me when I showed how the toy was played with, shaking rattles, cuddling bears. They looked blankly at me when I offered them the toy back, did not reach out for the toy and did not react when I again put rattles in their hands and bears in their cots. I realised that these babies had never seen toys and had no idea what to do with them. When I returned the next day, the toys had been taken from the cots and put back on the high shelf. I got them down and handed them out again. This ritual was to continue for weeks.
The second baby room is home to six older babies, still round bundles but less tiny, at least physically. Lying in cots is replaced with sitting, bottles replaced with spoons. Any affection afforded to them for their baby cuteness seems to be left in the smaller baby room and the atmosphere here is less kind, the Mothers less loving and I am less welcome. In this room babies are potty trained, placed sitting in buckets and tied with rags to the bars of a cot to hold them upright and keep them from escaping. Some ingenious toddlers had learned to move with the bucket still attached, using their feet to propel themselves and sliding the bucket along the floor. We saw their understandable drive to break for freedom, bucket still attached, but the Mothers wanted to keep track of the children, so tied to the bars of the cages it was. This method unsettled me, the children did not look confortable and were often distressed by the use of restraints. If I ever found a tied child crying I would release him or her as this indicated to me that they were being held more than just upright by the rags. It was worth the grumpy looks of the Mae in my direction to respond to a baby’s discomfort and set a child free, if only for a few minutes. Within time, as I learned how the Orphanage worked, the demands placed on the Mothers and the duties they should be performing, I became frustrated with tying of children to bars. Whilst customs and practices of child raising vary from culture to culture, it became clear to me that this use of rags and bars was unacceptable here too. I made my feelings know without a word of english or vietnamese, simply untying the children, sitting with them till they had used the potty, then cleaning them and putting them back in their cots, or on the floor to toddle and play with each other.