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“I don't like seeing people happy, and I hate it more when you ask me to be part of it.”
My niece said this to me during a Christmas party, after I had asked her to join in the fun with the rest of us. It was a shocking response, until I coaxed out an explanation later.
“Being happy makes me feel disloyal to mum and dad,” she told me when I jokingly demanded an expression of happiness after spending five hours plaiting her hair.
That's when it dawned on me. For eight years, my niece has been grieving silently for her deceased parents and we did not see it. Ntiinta lost her father when she was only 2. When she turned 12, her mother — my elder sister — passed on as well.
As years went by, they seemed to drain away the happiness from my niece. Nothing seemed to interest her anymore. She stayed indoors, spending most of her free time alone in her room.
In time, the family learned to live with the situation since we could not understand. We avoided the topic of her parents at all costs — especially in her presence – because we felt we would make her sad. Another hollow we helped create.
And I couldn't even begin to understand this grief until I experienced the loss of a parent: my father.
Eight hours after celebrating my birthday this year, I lost my father to diabetes. On Friday, October 9, I received the call while at a Youth Health Corps training workshop in Kafue, Zambia, 54 km (34 miles) from our offices in Lusaka.
I felt helpless and cried the whole trip back. Unlike a young child strapped on her mother's back for comfort, I was expected to take the news with stride. I had flown away from the nest. People expected me to take control of my emotions, find a step and get on with things.
“Don't cry. Stay strong for the sake of your mother,” comforters would say. People assume that when you grow up, are independent and can express yourself, that you can handle anything. Wrong!
If you are still emotionally dependent on someone, regardless of other safety nets at the ready, you will still feel the world under your feet sinking — just as a young child would. The feeling of abandonment creeps in immediately, especially when the deceased has been your role model and source of inspiration, the way my father was to me. Everything I thought safe, secure and solid was no longer.
A month later and still grieving my father, I noticed I was losing interest in a lot of things I loved doing before, just as I had observed in my niece. For example, the excitement of being behind the camera — one of my greatest joys — was wearing off. Just touching it triggered tears and a lump in my throat as I remembered my father helping me grip the camera when I was little and teaching me to use it.
The first camera he bought and owned was a 1950s Kodak Instamatic 133 film camera. As with all film cameras, there was no instant viewing or deleting of bad photos. Every click mattered.
It was when I grew up that I realized only a loving parent would allow a child to waste away film. It seemed to take so long to finish the film. Sometimes it would take weeks to get prints. From just enjoying the clicking sound the camera made, with time, I slowly learned to put objects in focus, and the passion was born — a passion instilled by my father.
I turned that passion for photography into a job. As sponsorship officer in my previous job and field correspondent at CI, I spend time with kids simply chatting about their interests and shooting photos of them. After our conversations, I write their stories. Having worked with vulnerable children (many of them orphans) for more than eight years, I have observed common trends and behaviors.
It's always been a challenge to keep a conversation going with most of the orphaned kids. Asking to take a picture of them is like asking them to get a jab. I have come across cases where all I see is emptiness and pain in a child, quite a familiar sight I saw from Ntiinta.
Having all this paralyzing pain in my heart, I am now able to put myself in my niece's shoes and the many other orphans I have worked with whose behaviors I judged unjustly. Now I know what little was done in helping them keep the memories of their beloved ones alive. We left them alone to deal with their emotions and memories. This, in a way, created a feeling of abandonment even as we tried to support them.
The hollow created when you lose a loved one runs deep. Many kids who fall in it find themselves trapped. A lot of vulnerable children face many challenges, many of which may be overlooked due to cultural beliefs. Knowing that someone else cares about what they feel brings a sense of hope — the kind of hope amazing sponsors like you offer.
It may look like just a letter and a photo you send or receive today, but those words and pictures have the capacity to help a child find comfort and the strength to move mountains 20 years from now.
It's the kind of comfort I am getting from carrying my father's camera around with me. All good memories are like a pole vault carrying you over life's hurdles. All good gestures create a sea of abundance.
From a retro Kodak Instamatic to a Canon EOS 7D digital camera, I will continue clicking and capturing memories. If not for me, then for a child with a quietly crushing heart in need of hope that a kind person across the globe is willing to provide.