Some people are childish, even when they grow up. Others are somber and stern-faced even as infants. Kind of like tiny adults, world-weary on the inside, but trapped in a fresh-faced exterior. That is how Maaouya is. He is a 4-year old grownup. A serious kid, with a no-nonsense attitude that was evident from the moment I first saw him. I am tempted to describe him as “studious,” although, obviously, he is too young for school. But this is a helpful description, as it comes close to capturing his aloof demeanor. He floats above the fray with enviable scholarly detachment, and rarely talks or smiles, as though he is preoccupied with other, bigger problems.
But this is not to suggest that he is unhappy. Au contraire, he seems quite content to look on as the other children giggle and play. To look on but not to participate in their games. There is a small but clearly discernable hint of condescension in the way he watches them. Almost pity. There activities are so far beneath him. So childish.
“Bless their little souls,” he seems to say, “When will they ever learn?”
Maaouya comes from a village about an hour’s walk from the town of Tessoua. It is significant that the distance to his village is measured in time spent walking, because when he came to the CURE hospital, he could not walk. He came on his grandmother’s back. His grandmother is named Hadiza, and she told us that Maaouya’s father is a marabout. An Islamic traditional healer. But when Maaouya was born with club foot, there was no way to heal his feet. His parents accepted his fate – he would never walk.
Perhaps Maaouya acts like a little man because he has grown up around adults and has had little contact with children. Hadiza told us that she didn’t want the other children to make fun of him, so as soon as he was done breastfeeding, she took him in. She didn’t want him to suffer, and she knew that if he stayed at home he would have been picked on by the other kids, and might have fallen through the cracks. So Maaouya spent his days with his grandmother, watching other children playing, but always from a distance. Even though he is very serious, it is clear that Maaouya is very attached to his grandmother, and it is clear that she loves him very much. She sacrificed a lot for him, and she did it gladly.
Hadiza did everything she could to find a way to heal Maaouya’s feet. She looked everywhere. Finally, one day she heard about CURE, and decided to bring him to the hospital. She had to sell a number of house-hold items just to come, but she knew it would be worth it if Maaouya could learn to walk. It was a long healing process, and Maaouya spent months with casts on his legs. Soon everyone knew him at the hospital, and the staff and other patients joked and called him the chief of the hospital. He listened without responding, but always gave a look that seemed to say, “Why are you laughing? It’s not funny. I am the chief.”
Finally, Maaouya was released from the hospital, and scheduled to return for a follow up appointment a few months later. His casts were removed and he was given a brace to wear on his feet. It was obvious that Maaouya didn’t much like wearing the brace, but he reacted to this development as he had reacted to every other development in the long road towards his recovery – a shoulder shrug and a knowing look. “What will they think of next?” He was glad to be going home, and we were sad to see him leave.
A few months went by, and Maaouya returned to the hospital. This time, he walked in through the front gate, holding his grandmother’s hand. Everyone was excited to see him, and thrilled to see him up on his feet. He seemed unfazed by the attention. He took it in stride. He refused to smile for pictures, not because he was unhappy, but because a smile would be unbecoming and crass. I pleaded with him, but instead of a smile I got a look of triumph and defiance. It’s just as well.
Hadiza told us that when they returned to their village, everyone came to see Maaouya. They saw his feet and gave thanks to God for the miracle of healing. They spoke of little else for a long time. All of the village elders came to pay Maaouya a visit – they lined up to see him in a line that stretched out the door. One by one they came in and greeted him, a huge honor for the family. Obviously, I wasn’t there to witness this procession, but I like to think that Maaouya sat watching them, unmoving and unimpressed – with a mixture of nonchalance and entitlement resting firmly on his brow. He received them the way a chief receives visitors, and maybe one day he will be chief.