Not Just a Photograph

Soon our journey would be over. That framed picture, displayed atop the bedroom bureau would no longer be “just a photograph.” Soon we’d be able to hug Miriam.

As we inched up the steep slope of the extinct volcano, Villejo kept the four-wheel-drive steady. On our vertical ascent, neighborhood housing declined from well-kept adobes in the foothills of Tegucigalpa to make-shift, cardboard and corrugated tin dwellings near the top of the crag. In Honduras, as in many Latin American countries, prime real estate can be reversed. The rich will pay exorbitant sums for an “ocean view,” but that steep climb up a mountainside in the barren interior screams destitute poverty.

As we neared the end of our undertaking, we surveyed the barrio of Alemania through the quiet swirl of dust. A throng of women sat at the edge of town, on large, inverted orange plastic containers. With blank faces of resignation, they strained their necks down toward the dirt road, pocked with deep ruts. They appeared to be waiting for something to arrive from the city below.

As the jeep crawled past them, they gazed at the Save the Children vehicle that graced their community often. But, what’s this? Two strangers, obviously not Honduran, peered out the grimy, back-seat windows, with their own necks stretched to ponder this unkind terrain. The women with wide eyes and gaping mouths had heard that foreigners would be visiting that day. They left their multitude of brightly colored containers to wait alone and followed the car up the sharp incline, covering their faces against the fine powdery earth kicked up by the tires.

Lydia, Save the Children Honduran field officer, explained the situation. “No hay agua en Alemania.” “Not even a community well,” continued Connie, the English-speaking sponsor coordinator. “Trucks carrying water from Tegucigalpa come every day, but the women must buy it and carry those containers uphill to their homes. Yesterday the trucks did not come. The problem has worsened with the deforestation of the entire mountainside. Cutting trees for cooking and house construction has reduced annual rainfall,” Connie added.

A thin stream of black water, fouled with raw sewage and garbage, ran alongside the dirt pathway, cholera and typhoid lurking. The image of an innocent, eight-year-old child with no water to drink and no bathtub to splash in haunted my mind.

Anxiety swelled as we approached the adobe brick schoolhouse, the first concrete evidence of our monthly monetary gift to Save the Children. My husband and I supported three girls (later five) from Latin America, but we always wondered if those children really existed, if our contributions benefited the child or if the money was eaten up by inefficient bureaucracies.

We decided to journey into the real world of one of our charges and arrange to meet her and her family. Miriam, living in Alemania above Tegucigalpa, always ended her letters to us, as sent and translated by the organization, that she wished we could visit her in Honduras. That wish was about to be realized.

Connie explained that individual sponsorship is tied to a specific child, but the entire barrio benefits from the contributions. Save the Children provided the materials to build the only school here, but the villagers supplied the labor. The Alemania Health Clinic, funded by the organization, immunizes all the children against rampant diseases, not just Miriam, and every mother receives prenatal care and basic health services. We realized we were not giving handouts to one family. We were giving hope to a community.

Villejo parked the jeep. My heart pounded as my husband, Ernie, and I grabbed each other’s hands. Would she recognize us from the pictures we had sent her? Would the photograph back home be transformed into a lively third-grader?

Word of the extranjeros’ (foreigners) arrival spread throughout the dusty hamlet of 1,800 residents. As we approached the small schoolhouse, pandemonium broke out. Eager to meet these strangers from the United States, the children rushed out of the building. Teachers tried to maintain order, but gave up. Chaos seemed appropriate to greet the first outsiders visiting their community.

In the midst of this mayhem, there she was! Shy and appearing overwhelmed by the turmoil, Miriam bravely walked over to Ernie and gave him her biggest hug. Little girls feel safer gravitating toward the strong arms of a father figure. He scooped her up, embracing her thin frame and savored the moment.

Miriam soaked up the attention. In a life of struggles for the barest of essentials, like water, moments of self-importance become precious. Her padrinos (godparents), as sponsors are called, had come to visit her! We sat on a nearby bench and I handed her a bright red, plump backpack, filled with pencils, paper, crayons, sharpeners, chalk—more school supplies than she had ever seen, and now owned. Children who circled around drooled over Miriam’s haul. If parents cannot afford school supplies, the student must go without. Miriam would no longer go without.

Earlier that day, the field office informed us that Miriam was one of the few children who did not have the required school uniform for girls, a blue pleated skirt and a yellow blouse. With her size and the name of a Tegucigalpa store, we had fixed that before our visit. As Miriam rustled through the knapsack, she pulled the blue skirt from the pouch, and then spied its yellow partner. She wrapped her arms around them. She would no longer be different.

Securing her new treasures on her back, Miriam took my hand. “¿Ustedes quieren encontrar a mis padres?” she asked; my immediate response, “Por supuesto.” I asked her, “¿Cuál es tu materia favorita en la escuela?” She proudly revealed matematicas. Simple conversation in Spanish continued between us, as we walked downhill to her parents’ house. A stream of curious residents followed us, as if we were pied pipers.

I pulled Lydia aside and asked if we could give the parents money for things they need. Lydia cautioned me about the cultural ramifications. “You are an American woman and although Miriam’s father, only 25 years old, with an eight-year-old daughter already, is still very proud, you must be careful not to make him feel worthless. He does the best he can to provide for his family.”

“What if I tell him that I speak Spanish, but my husband doesn’t, so I would be translating? I could say, that we wanted to show our appreciation for being allowed to visit Miriam by offering to pay for the family’s water for a month. Connie and Lydia agreed this approach would preserve the family’s dignity.

Two rooms, dirt floors, one bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling, a communal bed with a ragged coverlet neatly arranged on a thinning mattress, an empty orange container, waiting in the corner . . . this was Miriam’s reality. During our brief visit, a flurry of nervous interactions ensued, money slid into a relieved father’s pocket, and Miriam eagerly showed her parents her backpack. As the school supplies spilled out, her mother eyed the blue skirt and yellow blouse. She approached me with a silent, warm embrace.

Soon it was time for Miriam to return to school. We said adios and took a last longing look at our “no longer just a photograph” child. She waved her little hand and smiled her biggest smile, trudging uphill, proudly wearing her new school uniform.

Ernie and I drifted toward the jeep and we both whispered the same thought to each other, that we could take Miriam to the hotel in Tegucigalpa, give her a bath in warm water and let her shop for bright new shoes and a frilly cotton dress. But sadly, we knew it was only a dream. To expose her to a soothing bubble bath, to see her prancing in front of a mirror, wearing pretty things, and then to rescale the mountain and return her to the place where black water runs, would not be a gift of kindness, but an act of cruelty.

We were assisting Miriam to acquire something that cannot be used up, given away or outgrown—an education.

Ed. Note: Interested in more information?

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Carol L. Bowman
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