Issa had three things going against him.
- He was an orphan.
- He had epilepsy.
- His legs and feet were severely burned and were never properly treated.
These three facts have done much to determine the course of Issa’s life. Each fact has followed closely on the heels of the other. For Issa, tragedy has built momentum.
These three facts are unrelated to each other, but they are interconnected. His parents died when he was young, so there was no one to take care of him, or to help him deal with his epilepsy. His aunt and others in his village took care of him, but not very well. He was neglected. He was never sent to school, so he never learned to read or write. Whenever he had an epileptic attack, nobody was there to watch over him and make sure he didn’t injure himself. One day, he had a seizure and his feet and legs rolled into a fire. He couldn’t pull them out, and he was badly burned. Because he was an orphan, no one took him to the hospital and his burns were not treated. His injury was debilitating, and since he could no longer walk, and could no longer work, he became an unbearable burden to the village. He was brought to the city (Niamey), where he could at least beg on the streets and hopefully get enough to eat.
It was in Niamey that someone saw him, and told him about the CURE hospital. “You know there is a hospital here in town where they treat people with burns. Come I will show you where it is.” Issa came to the hospital and spent a few months here. He had a number of surgeries and skin grafts, and now he is taking medicine for his epilepsy. In the meantime we got to know him and heard his story.
“I am tired of begging,” he told us one day. “What I really want is to learn some kind of skill. I would like to learn some kind of trade, so that when I leave the hospital I will be able to support myself.” We asked him what he would like to do, and he told us, “I want to be a carpenter.”
Issa knew what it was like to have to depend on others; he had depended on others his whole life. He knew disappointment. He knew powerlessness. He knew what it means to depend on handouts and charity, and what it means when the handouts come to an end, and when charity runs dry. He decided that he wanted to work. He was tired of letting his circumstances, the facts of his life, determine the course of his life. He wanted to determine the course of his own life.
Hassane and I heard about a vocational school here in Niamey, and discovered that they offered room and board as well as a carpentry apprenticeship for young boys. They usually take boys who are younger than Issa (he is around 18 or 19 years old), but they would be willing to make an exception. We were very excited, and so was Issa. He was released from the hospital and went back to his village with the good news. We made plans to contact him once they were ready to take him at the school.
Then, a week or two later, Issa came back. “I am getting married,” he told us. Now that his feet were healed, his aunt told him that he needed to get married. She even found a wife for him. But he needed some money for the wedding, and so he wanted to know if we could help out. We told him that we wanted to help, and that is why we arranged for him to start at the vocational school, but that it did not seem wise for him to get married now when he cannot even support himself, much less a wife and (probably sooner rather than later) children. “Plus,” we told him, “the vocational school is willing to take you in, but they probably won’t take you and your wife.” He had not thought of that. “Why don’t you go do the apprenticeship?” we told him. “After a year or two you will be able to work, and then you can save up some money, and get married.”
Issa agreed to think about it and went back to his village. He is waiting on our call for the vocational school. It felt like a defeat and Hassane and I were a little frustrated. It seemed like Issa was throwing away his great opportunity. I didn’t really understand why he wanted to get married, but Hassane explained to me that in the village, someone like Issa, at his age and with his set of circumstances, they think you should be married. There is a lot of social pressure on him. To us it seemed so obvious that it was a bad idea, but we have not been in Issa’s shoes.
To the people of his village, someone like Issa is a lost cause. They have viewed him as nothing more than a burden for so long that they cannot believe he could ever truly be a productive individual. Better to marry him off and be done with it. To them he is Issa the orphan. Issa the sick. Issa the hobbled. Issa the cursed.
He caught a glimpse of himself as Issa the carpenter, but making a glimpse into a reality is no easy task.
In the end, he has to make the decision, but I think he heard what we had to say and understood. He told us that we are like his family now, since he doesn’t have any family. So hopefully he will take our advice. But we cannot know for sure. I am realizing more and more that, aside from the surgeries and medical treatment that we do here at the hospital, there are so many other issues involved. Issa’s legs and feet where healed – when he left the hospital, he walked out the door without crutches. Now Issa has less things going against him. But he still faces an uphill battle. Even with two good legs, if he does not learn a trade, he will be back on the street before long, begging for food. Since he never went to school, he cannot really get a good job, and his options are very limited. He was in need of healing, but also of some good advice.
There are so many needs, it can be overwhelming. But that is why CURE is so great. We really do have a holistic approach to healing. Issa’s most urgent and most visible need was physical healing, and that was provided to him with proficiency and care that is hard (maybe impossible) to find anywhere else in Niger. But that was not the end of it. We tried, and are still trying, to help him find healing in other areas of his life, and to help him achieve his true potential. He has broken free of the physical restraints that were holding him back, now he has to free himself from a narrow-minded mentality. From the tyranny of the way he is perceived by others. He has to take control of his own life, something that is easier said than done, especially in such a communal society. He has a great chance, but he has to choose it. We are hoping for the best, but we can only wait and see.