A big adventure today. We volunteered at a hippotherapy (hippo—Greek for horse) session. A British woman, Jane Anne, who married a Sudanese man and settled here in Khartoum gives riding lessons to expat and wealthy Sudanese children (“rich kids” as she puts it) but several times a week gives horse riding lessons to disadvantaged and handicapped kids. We had read about her in an expat magazine and then saw a flyer at our neighbourhood grocery store asking for volunteers to help with the charity lessons.
We had arranged with Jane Anne to attend Tuesday morning when she gives rides to a group from an orphanage. She lives pretty far from us, and on the other—unfamiliar!--side of the Nile, so while David was still here, he and I had driven there and taken copious notes so I could direct a taxi driver. That, of course, would require an English speaking taxi driver, but we got a recommendation, and I had called and arranged with this taxi driver to pick us up early (well, 8:15 AM, not that early) this morning, so I thought we were set.
Unfortunately, we waited and waited and waited and he never appeared. I called him a couple of times, and he never answered his mobile phone. I called Jane Anne to warn her we might not make it, and she gave us a great suggestion. “Just go stop one of those little white mini-vans. They’re cheaper than taxis anyway, and then call me and I’ll tell him where to go.” (These are tiny, tiny vans, micro vans maybe. You can sit two across in them. The kind of van I think Mma Ramotswe has in The Ladies Detective Agency series.) So we hiked out to the main road and flagged down the first mini-van we saw. I whipped out my mobile phone, got Jane Anne, and she gave him directions. It turned out he spoke really good English, so I probably could have directed him anyway. (And now I have his phone number so I can use him again.)
He got us there without any problem and despite the delay our missing taxi caused, we arrived at the same time the orphanage van (a Doctors without Borders vehicle) arrived. The orphanage sent along the psychologist who arranged the visit and five women they called nannies, who care for the children, as well as ten children. Our job was to play with the babies while Jane Anne gave them rides on horses. At one point Lucy helped lead a horse and Ed rode on a horse, holding onto one of the babies, but our main job was to play with the babies—to talk to them, to give them toys, to take them on walks around the pasture to look at things and pet the animals.
This orphanage takes care of children until they are 2 ½ years old, at which point they are transferred either to a Boys’ or a Girls’ Home. At the home, there is a 5:1 adult:child ratio. The children are obviously very well-cared for—they were all dressed in clean clothes and had their hair all fixed and neat. Isaac—in his grimy T-shirt and shoes on the wrong feet (because he dressed himself)—and Nora—who woke up this morning with a runny nose—looked neglected next to these kids. And yet there were certain telltale signs that these kids have a very different life from my kids. For one thing, they were all very skinny. I think of Ellie as being tiny and worry that she doesn’t eat enough, but her legs have shape to them. These little guys had such skinny legs I could hardly believe it. Most striking, though, was to see how they acted next to how Ellie—who’s the same age—acted. Most of them would take a toy if you gave it to them, but only one of the ten kids would actually reach out and try to grab it. Ellie, by contrast, was reaching and grabbing any toy that was in reach. She obviously felt entitled to those toys in a way that the other kids simply didn’t.
I was really happy to have Eleanor and Isaac along. Some of the kids were really interested in Eleanor, and she was very interested back in them. The nannies were also interested in Eleanor and played with them. Isaac got to play the big brother role, showing the little kids how to pet the horses’ noses and giving them toys. Well, trying to give them toys. They tended to not take them when he offered them.
The big kids were really great with the babies. Lucy picked up one little boy soon after we got there. At first he whimpered in her arms but she managed to calm him down and then the two of them were simply inseparable. He cuddled into her shoulder for about an hour. She had just finished singing him some lullabies and nearly put him to sleep when it was time to load the kids back into the van.
Sam took several of the kids on walks around the pasture. One little boy was older than the rest. He is five years old—sadly too old for this home--and suffers from cerebral palsy and is only at the home because he was just (in the past month) abandoned by his mother. He had a love-hate relationship with the horses. He kept wanting Sam to take him close to the horses, but then he would arch his back in fright as they turned their heads toward him. Sam was great, getting him just close enough but then backing away if he started to get anxious. He eventually warmed up to the horses, and Jane Anne ended up giving him two rides on the horses because he loved them so much.
Ed took a little boy to see the horses, but it turned out the little boy didn’t really like horses. Ed pointed out a car on the distant road, though, and got his first smile. After that, all he had to do was to make a car sound and the little guy would grin. Ed was very good at making funny noises that amused the kids. I loved hearing little laughs.
Ruth was great with all the kids. One little boy discovered the great game of knocking over a lawn chair next to Ruth. He would giggle and she would set it back up. I think she must have set that chair up twenty times and he laughed every single time. She spent a lot of time with a very cute little blind guy. She said hello to him in Arabic and he said Hello back to her in English! There was also a sturdy little curly-haired guy who was hilarious—very friendly and funny and eager to play.
I did pretty well carrying Eleanor in one arm and another baby in the other arm. They tended to be more interested in each other than in the farm animals, but that’s not a bad thing! I discovered that some of the quieter, less-engaged kids would light up if I did finger plays and rhymes with them—“This little pig went to market” and “Round and round the garden like a teddy bear” were the two big hits. I guess that combination of gentle touches and the music of rhyming words is unbeatable.
Besides us, there were two other families there volunteering, both from the British embassy. Their kids match up really well in age to our kids’ (and the ambassador’s kids just got here after his assignment in Sarajevo!), but unfortunately they are all boarding school students in Britain and just here to see their parents over the summer holidays. I am thrilled to have found a place that is so welcoming to children volunteers—even baby volunteers!—especially after our disastrous attempts in Romania to find anywhere that would let our kids volunteer. So it was a great day. We’ve already arranged with our mini-van driver to take us back there again next week.