That Sunday at towards the end of the soccer game, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and turned to see a tall young man with soft wide set eyes. “Hello,” He extended his hand “i’m Eric.” I shook his hand. He asked my name and politely, not my age. “I’m 14 years old” he offered. That surprised me as he was almost a foot taller than me, and I’m 5’8”.
“Do you play football?” I asked him as we both pretended to watch the soccer players.
“Yes. Sometimes at school.” He was soft spoken. His english was perfect though his accent was strong. “Do you sponsor any kids?”
“No. Not here. Two in a different country.”
I didn’t go to Africa with the intent of sponsoring any kids, in fact, I was trying not to sponsor any. This is part of a thing I try to do: compartmentalizing, holding back, not getting attached. In one of our morning devotionals we were told to think about what holds us back. That was pretty easy: will.
“Do you have a sponsor?” I asked him.
“No. I talk to people every time they come here, but no one ever sponsors me.” He looked down and I looked at him again: Tall, quiet, well spoken, smart, very proficient in English.
“Would sponsorship change your life?”
He looked at me slightly incredulously. “Yes.” He told me that his dad died four years ago. For some reason, I thought it would be inspiring or comparable to tell him that I didn’t have a dad either. “My mother doesn’t work.” I let him have that one. He said something about going to school that I thought at the time meant he would be able to go to school if he were sponsored. He didn’t ask me to sponsor him directly just then, he was too smart for that, but somehow he gave me the soft close and I found myself saying that I would talk to our group about him and try to help him find a sponsor. He walked back toward the van with me a while and parted with another handshake.
I did talk about him. It was a striking encounter. He’d reminded me of myself, and it was a very different way than I would’ve envisioned meeting a child to sponsor (and indeed we did ‘Dream Visits’ later in the trip that were the polar opposite of this encounter) I admired his forthrightness, his intelligence, and his advanced sales techniques. When I spoke to Eddie about him later, he said the older kids seem to have a tougher time getting adopted. I thought of Eric saying that he talked to people every chance he got and I hoped I could help find him a sponsor.
Later in the week after building gardens, we ended up back in Kageyo A. It was a school day and there were a ton of kids everywhere, and out of the hundreds of kids all in the same looking uniform, I spotted him standing alone under a tree watching our van drive away.
It surprised me that he was there and in a uniform and I asked someone if that meant he was sponsored and they said yes, which confused me even more, but also relieved me. Maybe he hadn’t understood our conversation, maybe I was absolved.
Would you believe I saw him again? The very next day. Same scenario – hundreds of kids. I was walking back to the van, traumatized from having to use the loo. It’s beyond a stretch to call it that, like calling an old boot over an open fire a kitchen. I was so grossed out that I instinctively shuddered as I walked away, and on that walk, up strolled Eric.
“Do you remember my name?” He asked. I did indeed.The question was on his face. Did you find anyone? And maybe did you think about it?
“I’ve been talking about you,” I told him. “I don’t understand… They said if you go to school here, you have a sponsor.”
“No. I don’t” the tone of his voice was higher than normal.
“How do you go to school here then?”
“I talked to the headmaster. You can call my mother!” He implored, slightly emotionally, slightly pleadingly.
“I haven’t given up trying to find you a sponsor.” I said, and I hadn’t.
I looked on the Africa New life website that night, thinking maybe I’d write something like this and share his information, what a unique kid he is. I searched 14 year old boys in Kaygeo A and the results returned one boy who was not Eric. At the time, I mistakenly believed that all of the kids that could be adopted were on the site, and I also mistakenly believed the bystander effect and that it would work out in my favour.
I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues
-Leonard Cohen (‘Almost like the blues’)
I saw him again. Of course, the universe is good at patterns. “Did you talk to the headmaster?” he asked, as though we were long acquaintances moving forward in a business deal.
“No, I didn’t.” I said
“He’s at the school right now.” He pointed towards the building. “You can go right now.”
“I looked at the Africa New life site and I didn’t see you. There was only one 14 year old boy.”
“Was his name Eric?” he asked as though it was possibly an error on my part and I’d missed a pertinent fact. This made me smile.
“You can talk to the headmaster.” He suggested again. I knew I wouldn’t talk to the headmaster; at that moment the thought seemed contrary to anything I would ever do, like being a parent talking to a teacher. It’s strange, l’m very well ensconced in adulthood, yet a lot of the time I feel like Jennifer Saunders playing a teenager in a French & Saunders sketch.
“I haven’t given up trying to find you someone.” I told him. And I hadn’t.
The last time I saw him, I was sitting inside the van reading ‘Don’t get too comfortable’ by David Rakoff on my kindle. He came to the window at the side of the van and I filled with guilt. I had talked about him extensively, my admiration for him evident each time, yet I hadn’t found anyone to sponsor him. Neither of us talked about it.
“Is that a phone?” He asked.
“No. It’s like an electronic book.” He made the face I think most of us would make finding out that electronic books exist and that other people have them.
“Can I see it?” He asked slowly as though he didn’t really believe that’s what it was.
Since I am very honest by nature, I’ll turn that brutal honesty on myself and reveal that as I handed it to him out the window I thought: Well, that’s that. Been nice knowing you kindle. He handled it gently. Another kid came over to him to have a look and he handed it to the other kid before handing it back to me through the window. I felt ashamed of myself as I received it.
“Are you coming back tomorrow?” He asked.
“No. It’s our last day.”
He looked down. “Can we take a picture?”
Someone in our group had a polaroid and I asked Taz if he would take a picture for us. I posed with Eric in front of the van and Taz, who was very kind and thoughtful by nature took two and handed one to Eric and one to me and then left us alone. There were several other kids around, probably thirty to forty, most trying to look at the polaroid in Eric’s hand, but they seemed to recede. To all be so short, and it was just me shaking the polaroid and Eric imitating my gesture.
“Are you feeling ok?” He asked “You don’t look well.”
The dam I hadn’t realized had been holding back my Woody Allen levels of hypochondria broke fully. “What do you mean? Don’t look well how?” There may have been more of this.
He looked away. I don’t think I ever saw him smile.
I was overcome. Here was this kid who had nothing, not even a home life that he took comfort in, a kid that reminded me of myself in a plethora of ways, and he was asking if I was well. It was in that moment that I realized my not giving up on finding him a sponsor meant not giving up on finding him a sponsor: Not assuming he was fine, that someone else would help him, not thinking he got to go to school so he has what he needs. He wanted a sponsor, he obviously knows what that would mean to him.
I looked him in the eyes. “I will help you Eric” I heard myself saying it, though at that moment I didn’t know what I meant by that, I knew I meant it. True to the scene, to our deal, to character, we said goodbye via handshake.
A few days later, I sat in the office of the Africa New Life Sponsorship Manager with a few other members of our group all asking for special things. I told them I wanted to sponsor a specific kid. They looked through their information about the children in specific villages. “If we can’t find him there are lots of other kids you can sponsor.”
“No.” I replied firmly “I’m only interested in sponsoring this specific kid.”
He wrote down as much information as I could tell him, including what Eric’s school uniform looked like so that he could estimate what grade he was in, and then he called the Headmaster. Well, Eric what do you know, it looks like someone will be talking to the headmaster after all.
Later he told me that Eric was eligible to be sponsored and they would get him set up in their system right away. After talking to many, many people for years, Eric would finally have his sponsor. Me.
It costs $50 Canadian a month to sponsor a kid through Africa New Life. That’s $1.66 per day. Less than 2 dollars to affect such a meaningful life change that a kid like Eric will so value being sponsored that he’ll take matters into his own hands time and time again in the face of constant personal rejection. Eric never seemed bitter or negative. He was unfailingly polite. He is intelligent and honest. He is the sort of kid that it is a pleasure to know and he deserves a helping hand to become the person he was already on his way to becoming. He deserves a chance to change the world, because it seems pretty obvious that he will.