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.
Lan Chi is a warm little girl, independant, generous with her friendship. She has a cheeky and confident sense of fun and it was this lovely quality that made me warm to her in the first days we met. She is always dressed in blue and has short messy hair, so I at first assumed she was a little boy. The only girly touch is her lilac flowered shoes, more often than not she wears them on the wrong feet with a cute vulnerability, but the little lilac flowers are a pretty touch all the same. As far as little girls go, Lan Chi is not pink blooming petals. Her soft beauty is quiet, blurred by tomboy clothes and a cheeky sense of fun. Looking closely, her beautiful feminine features are equisite. She is a little lilac flower.
Lan Chi teases me by standing on my toes to walk together, wearing my sunglasses upside down, playing with my hair. She find the pink basket I use to bring crayons and books to the orphanage, turn it upside down and puts in on her head. I smile to myself at her feminine beauty that she dresses with unladylike mischeviousness, a blend that runs warm in my own blood, straight to my heart. Lan Chi catches me laughing, wraps her arms around my neck, holding tight and swinging wildly as I lift us both up. We become little kindred spirits, Lan Chi and I. I warm intensely to this little lady, I see the lady in her, she sees the little girl in me.
One warm sunny day the children run out to greet us dressed in their summer clothes, the boys cute in their shorts, the girls in little strappy summer dresses. It is lovely to see them out of the pyjama style clothes and they jump, dance and twirl for us in the warm sunshine of the courtyard. Lan Chi runs in her little lilac shoes to greet me, jumping into my arms. She is wearing a beautiful white strappy summer dress, with a simple decorative lace pattern, so very much like something I would be found wearing. It is so different from her usual style, but her exquisite beauty is only enhanced by this beautiful, pure, pretty and delicate dress. On seeing me she jumps into my arms and I swinging her into the air above my head, as she laughs freely.
She then runs into the sun of the courtyard with the other children and twirls herself in the warms sun, arms outstretched like a little spinning angel and her dress floating up around her. On her left shoulder exposed by the strappy dress, I see for the first time that she has deep, noticible scars. Later I learn that she arrived at the orphanage with these marks, no one knows how they came to be. Sunshine rests on her warm face and her beautiful white dress billows out as she runs through the courtyard, through the green and twinkling sun and shade through the leaves of the green trees.
The scars on her shoulder are eclipsed by her beauty. She is beautiful, she is feminine, she smiles, she is free.
As the days passed, the Maes warm to me. They are unsure at first, but my unusual blonde hair and a long beaded gold necklace I wear, both of which I let them pat and admire, moves things in my favour. They think I am beautiful. I tell them I think Vietnamese woman are the most beautiful, indeed they are, with their perfectly sculpted cheekbones, soft cherry red lips, long dark eyelashes, equisitely shaped eyes, coffee coloured skin and naturally peach flushed cheeks, framed by long, luminous, soft hair bouncing with a natural wave. The blush and giggle at my suggestion of their beauty, hushing me away. As I learn a few words in Vietnamese we develop a baby sign language to help us communicate about the children. They giggle at my efforts at Vietnamese, a very tonal language and difficult to perfect, I laugh at their mimes for the children’s moods. I feel them warm to me, and I warm to them.
With this tentative friendship blooming, I try to bring some little changes to the Baby rooms. I desperately want that we be allowed to take the children out of their cots and outside to play with the other children, to get some natural light and fresh air, to stretch their little limbs and to taste a little freedom outside their cots. On the first day I attempted this I lifted a mostly unresponsive baby out of his cot and took him into the courtyard where the toddlers and children were running and playing. We sat in the grass and I put him on his tummy, sat a few feet away and reached out to him, beckoning for him to come to me. He climbed up on to his hands and knees, rocked back and forth a few times, then crawled towards me. This baby had been ready to crawl, he had just never been given the space. He pulled himself up on a plant pot, I offered him my hands and grasping onto a finger from each, he took his first steps with me by his side. This baby had been ready to walk, he had just never been given the support. I was impressed with this baby, who had just become a little boy in front of my eyes. His little body and spirit had not given up in the confines of a cot twenty four hours a day, he was just waiting for his taste of freedom. That day in the courtyard he got his freedom, crawling, toddling, walking, exploring the new colours, scents and sounds. From that day on we would go straight to the baby rooms and lift as many children as we could carry out of their cots and take them out to play. Before long previously unresponsive babies were crawling, playing with toys, walking and playing with other children. It was a simple thing to do, just to take them out of their cots. This simple thing allowed us to change their worlds. It was a magificant priviledge to do so. The simple sense of purpose and of righting a wrong changed my world too.
I spent time in the baby rooms when the babies were to be inside, during feeding and nap times. Feeding whilst being held was reserved for the tiniest babies and only if there was time. Instead a bottle would be propped onto a pillow or blanket and the baby left to feed alone. I made an effort to take the babies out of their cots to feed them, to allow them to be held, spoken to and loved as they sucked on their bottles of watered down milk. Blank stares disappear and are replaced by response, curiosity and smiles. When they all slept, I crouched with the Mae on the floor to help fold or iron laundry. Slowly the Mothers warmed to me more, greeting me, chatting to me in Vietnamese and allowing, even helping me, to make small changes. The babies were warming to me too, learning that I would come to them, lift them from their cots, talk to them, sing to them, walk with them, even beginning to recognise me and know me in a relationship that had begun with my silent tears and their blank stares. The babies would now reach for me, but also allow me to put them down without fuss, as they knew I or someone else like me was coming back to them and they were not being abandoned forever in their cot. It warmed my heart to know that they felt this. It also warmed and flattered my bruised heart, when on seeing I was leaving one day, a beautiful little girl who I spent lots of time with, Choi, saw me kiss the Mae and wave goodbye till tomorrow, pulled herself up in her cot and screamed. She screamed, she cried, she screamed some more. I was so very happy to see that this little girl was learning to form bonds, learning to like and trust, learning to know what makes her happy and scream when she does not get it. The institutionalised blank face was now a regular little girl, happy and able to make her feelings known when she was sad. I was so proud of her and flattered that the one she loved and trusted was me. Mae Ba smiled and signed, “She loves you”. I gave Choi a kiss on her chubby cheeky and said “Sleep well darling, I’ll be back tomorrow”. I was. I was there to see this baby girl wake.
The moment when I would first take an abandoned baby from an orphanage cot and into my empty arms had weighed on my shoulders for some time, following me across oceans and continents, whispering in my ears and burning my skin as I fitfully slept . Now that moment was here. The room was quiet, the babies still, the only movement in the stillness the gentle nervous throbbing of my heart. I reached into a cot and lifted up a baby boy. Instinctively I put my forehead to his, my hand supporting his neck and cradled him in my arms. His skin was soft and he was as light as a feather. As I stroked his chubby cheek with my thumb I whispered, “Hi Baby”. I carefully sunk down to the floor with my back resting against the wall, not taking my eyes from his for a second. Holding him close to my body, I gently rocked the little bundle in my arms.
His little hand reached out from the bundle to touch my chest, my neck, my face. He was soft, warm, comforting, innocent, beautiful. I stared into his eyes, my teary glassy green to his warm deep innocent brown. My heart ached for my own loss, my lonely arms so long weighed down by emptiness, and for this child, this poor mite, with no protective loving arms to hold him. Cradling him close to me, quietly singling lullabies, looking into his tiny face, his tiny body, I felt our shared injustice. A mother denied her baby, arms weighed down by empiness, heart crushed by loss. A baby denied his mother, no arms to cradle him, his little heart confused by rejection. Now, in this moment, my arms were not empty. I cradled this baby with whom I shared a lifetimes worth of pain. Resting comfortably in my arms, as our eyes met, our little union felt right. With that, I did not feel alone in the world anymore. I looked at his tiny beautiful face, his big curious eyes and gently rocking his tiny body I whispered tiny lullabies. I held him until I felt his little body relax and he fell asleep, as I held him in my arms.
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.