Field anecdotes

A Little Girl in Darfur

Kalma Camp, Nyala, Darfur, Sudan, 2005.

Seventeen children had died in the MSF clinic in Kalma camp in a single week. I joined a fellow logistician from another agency, and we set out to test every water pump in the camp for bacterial contamination. One of the pumps was on the grounds of the school run by Unicef, and it showed signs of contamination with a quick bacteriological test.

During the first visit, a crowd of kids surrounded us, chanting “OK, OK”—their usual refrain when seeing a “Khawadjia” (foreigner). A little girl, maybe somewhere between four and six years old, hovered at the inner edge of the crowd, watching us intently. I smiled at her, and she made a shy little moue of acknowledgement. One of the school employees approached Adam, the Darfuri man working with me, and he told me “she wants to meet you.” When she came up to me, I took up the little girl without thought or fuss and sat her on my shoulders. I spent the rest of the time in the school that day working with a grin on my face as this little girl went from near-paralyzed with shyness and fear to lording it over the other kids from her elevated perch atop the giant Khawadjia.

Chatting with the teachers, Adam told me that the little one was terrified of black men. Stunned, I asked why, and he replied that the Janjaweed had killed her entire family in front of her. Her father and brothers, the only men she had known, were dead, she feared everyone who looked like the Janjaweed, which basically meant every man in Darfur. Adam himself couldn’t approach her without her whimpering in fear, and when the time came to leave I gave the girl back to a female schoolteacher.

I came back to that school two more times. The little one leapt into my arms as soon as I crossed the gate the second time, and I placed her my shoulders again as I worked, surrounded by a gleeful mob of kids, of whom the girl was temporarily the undisputed queen. The third time, she spoke to the schoolteacher in her tribal dialect, who spoke to Adam in Arabic, who translated to me, “She is asking if you will become her father.” I didn’t even know what to say, so barely responded, other than some non-comittal phrase about the difficulty of adoption. My response was not translated, but the little one gripped me tigher and laughed, clearly thinking that the conversation was going well.

We finished the work on the water point in the school during that third and final visit. After sitting on my shoulders for another hour, and spending some time in the crook of my arm, the little girl wouldn’t let go of me, and a schoolteacher had to peel her off of me, screaming. I walked out the school gate blinded by tears, trying not to let anyone see my face. I said to myself, and to Adam, “we need to carry on fixing the water points in the whole camp. No water, no life.”

I never saw that little girl, or entered that school, again. I may have been told her name, but I don’t remember it.

I thought I had made the right decision to walk away. Safe water for a camp sheltering hundreds of thousands of people is no light responsibility, and the romantic notion of saving a single person is more self-gratification than serious humanitarianism; the “adopt a child” programs marketed by the schlock NGOs that look to me like businesses are the very essence of what I hate in the aid world. I’m not so sure anymore that I had made the right choice to walk away from her. I think sometimes we acquire a duty to a single individual who chooses you, and that duty trumps the arithmetic of the greatest good for the greatest number. I cannot imagine who that little Darfuri girl is now, or what happened to her. The range of possibilities includes a shallow unmarked grave among the plastic bags and desiccated tree stumps in the deforested landscape surrounding the sprawl of Kalma camp, the life of a displaced woman in Darfur, complete with virtually certain abuse, or, at best, an escape back to a Darfuri village, a farmer husband, a few donkeys, a mud hut, and birthing a child every year, some of whom will even survive to adulthood.

I’m not sure that when someone asks you to be their father, you don’t simply become so whether or not you accept it. In some way, that little girl from Darfur, wherever she is, may still be the sister that my daughters Kaede and Sakura, born long after I returned from Darfur will always have, though they will never see or know her.