Nairobi, June 2010
Frail little Esther melts miserably into her mother’s lap. Her eyes swell with tears. Absolutely still and expressionless, she neither sobs nor whimpers. Noiselessly, tears simply overflow and trickle down her cheek.
Mama Karau stands next to me, grim but resolute. Already mother to twenty-two former orphans at Hope’s Promise (HP) Sanctuary of Hope (SoH), her heart is fully present to little Esther’s anguish.
The doctor sits in front of us, silhouetted against a large sunlit window. His voice almost drowns out in traffic dissonance of grinding gears and squealing brakes just beyond the glass. I lean forward to hear. Gently he explains that after his initial exam, the follow-up tests Esther needs will be costly. Her daily care will be consuming. At five-years-old, she cannot walk or speak, and the under-lying diagnosis for her lack of development is yet to be discovered.
“You need to determine the value of her life,” he says.
The shock of the moment floods my mind with a thousand thoughts and questions. The world slips, and I can’t seem to find my footing in this surreal experience. I imagine myself teetering in the middle of a scale. If it tips to the left, where Esther huddles on her mother’s lap, how long can she defy the odds? I turn to the right, to Mama Karau, and the balance shifts towards life.
You see, sometimes in the desolation of East African slums, the best a mother can hope for when a baby is born under-sized and weak is that the baby will die. But despite her mother’s recurrent death wishes for her, the child’s lack of normal development, and the rejection of a community that views sickness and disability as evidence of a curse, five years later Esther defies the odds.
As I struggle to wrap my brain around the doctor’s statement, as I grapple to re-gain my footing in this stunning new reality where the value of a life is questionable, I feel others surrounding me, unseen but strongly supportive. Thelma – a woman from my church who happened to visit Esther’s mother’s one room shanty on the day Esther was born in 2005, and gave the baby her name. Debbie – who held Esther in 2007 and pleaded for someone to help the child when a Kenyan reporter noted Esther’s protruding belly as evidence of malnutrition. Chris – a member of a 2010HP Short Term Mission (STM) team to Mathare Valley, who painstakingly fed mountains of porridge to hungry Esther. Moni – a Speech Pathologist and member of the 2010 STM team, who could not forget the shock of discovering that a child who appeared to be a developmentally-delayed toddler was actually five years old. Tracy – who heard about Esther’s plight from the 2010 team after its return and rallied pediatricians and child experts to assess her lack of development and to provide funding for medical care. Each person, haunted by memories of this tiny child.
Knowing that these friends in the US stand with us, I say to Mama Karau, “If you will provide the care, we can secure the funding.”
As she later explains, Mama never doubted that God’s Hand is on Esther’s life and that He brought her to them for a reason.
“This is the child God placed in front of me,” she summarizes simply.
Mama meets the doctor’s questioning gaze without hesitation. She will care for Esther.
Mama is no stranger to suffering children. After almost thirty years of loving the poorest of the poor in Mathare Valley, she stands as witness to the darkest days a child can ever endure. Her heart breaks again and again for the forgotten, the betrayed, the broken. She knows she cannot save them all. But as she steps into the gap for each child God places in front of her, she stakes a mighty claim. She boldly declares, along with all those who stepped forward with her on Esther’s behalf – every child is a priceless gift.
If you meet Esther today, you will never suspect her story. With glittering eyes and cheeks flush with health, she casts adoring smiles on her new family. Within months of coming home to SoH, she learned to walk, wildly cheered on by a gaggle of brothers and sisters. She is a child of immeasurable worth, set free to be who God made her to be.
No, we cannot save them all. But we can love the child God puts in front of us. And whenever we do, we add our voice to an insistent chorus that swells with the heart of God – every child is a priceless gift.