05/10/2009 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Mother's Tribute to a Dead Congolese Child

On this Mother's Day I received the following YOUTUBE link from my Rwandan "daughter." It reminded me of all of the motherless children in Rwanda and Congo whom I have encountered along the way. I am 10,000 miles away and cannot hold them or offer comfort.

Today, with an unending humanitarian crisis and the threat of more volcanic eruptions in the region of beautiful Lake Kivu, I am also reminded of a diary I wrote in January 2008 about the death of a Congolese child who was being cared for at the orphanage run by the late Rosamond Carr. Rosamond was mother to all and taught me so much about the nature of true love. She was my own spiritual mother and we grieved together over the death of a beautiful, innocent child.


Image: Lake Kivu surrounded by the Volcanic Virungas (2009) © G. Nienaber


January 28, 2008

A goodbye from a Congolese child infected with typhoid fever has stayed with me for as long as I has been writing about Africa. His exquisitely beautiful face remains embedded in memory just as a still frame bridges the action in a video montage. Frail body swaddled in frayed blankets as his dirty canvas stretcher was carried up a hill from the radiography building of the Gisenyi village hospital, the child smiled weakly and waved as he caught my eye--and I knew in that moment that he would not live to see another sunrise over the purple peaks of the Virungas.

We were bonded for eternity in that instant with a glance more powerful than a lover's embrace. He had no mother to hold him in those moments, only the brown eyes of the helpless white woman who sat on his cot the day before and wiped the sweat from his fevered face. I was thirty feet down an embankment and could not reach him again, since the stretcher-bearers had no sense that this was a special dying child. They had probably born hundreds, perhaps thousands, up the hill to the fly infested infirmary that was but a waypoint before the pine coffin would hold him, safe from all pain and fever, forever.

Even now, the sounds of the machetes swishing through the tall grass on the hospital grounds are a macabre white noise that, like the symptoms of posttraumatic stress, overpower rational thought. The machetes were in the hands of pink-uniformed Rwandan prisoners. Pink. The color of degradation; the scarlet letter assigned to the perpetrators of the genocide. The same arms that were swinging the smooth handled steel blades were the same that butchered one million in a hundred days almost a decade before the child began his own long journey through death. The swish, swoosh of the machetes was the child's funeral dirge. I remember this. I try to forgive but I cannot; I must not forget.

Our group was on the last leg of a medical mission to an orphanage in Rwanda. The child was Congolese, found sick and alone, abandoned by all that is holy, in a forest on the Congolese side of the border. His parents were certainly dead, or dying. We had two medical doctors with us from the United States. One a surgical internist and the other and emergency room physician, both were highly competent and armed with $20,000 worth of donated antibiotics, designed to combat every super bug known to man--and to God---if there is a god--and I have decided there cannot be a god for the Congolese. If the Congolese do have a god, then I boldly curse the deity for abandoning its creation and its children as surely as mothers have been known to abandon infants on doorsteps or drop them in dumpsters.

Abandonment by a selfish god is the ultimate sin against humanity.

On this Mother's Day we need more moms and less gods.