My tiny hotel room smelled like bananas. The two clusters of bananas I’d bought were fresh from the tree and their smell permeated my living space.
The morning of Visitation Day at the school had arrived. Parents would arrive to visit their children and to talk with the teachers about their child’s progress. For most it would be a happy day.
For the orphaned students it would be one of the most difficult days of the year.
The school had been buzzing about Visitation Day for weeks, but underneath the excitement I heard quieter voices, one in particular belonging to Ivy.
“Ivy, are you excited for Visitation Day?” I asked.
“Sure,” she shrugged the word out of her mouth.
“Is your family coming to visit you?”
“No, my parents died when I was a baby and my aunt is paralyzed and lives too far away to travel.”
“I’m coming to Visitation Day to visit my sons. Maybe I could visit you, too?” I suggested.
“I’d like that,” she smiled and looked down. “Alicia, lots of kids here call you Mum. I know you have three sons. Could I call myself your daughter?” Ivy avoided eye contact.
I was taken aback by her request, but when I saw her downcast face, the only appropriate response was, “I’d like that, Ivy.”
“Good. Then when the other kids ask who is coming to visit me on VD, I can say my Mum is coming to visit,” she smiled at me from behind her glasses.
I picked my heart up off the ground and wondered how many other orphaned kids were wanting to, but couldn’t say their mom was coming to visit.
Word spread around the school that I’d be visiting kids that day and soon the list of kids claiming me as their visitor grew quite long. I asked around about exactly what it is parents do on Visitation Day. In addition to visiting their children, and speaking with the teachers, parents bring them special foods from home.
I had the visiting thing under control, but I didn’t have the skills or the kitchen to prepare any special foods from home. So I called in help. The day before Visitation Day, I had a meeting with Joseph, the fledgling chef who works at the hotel where I’m staying. Joseph is twenty-one years old and is trying desperately to earn enough money to finish his final year of culinary school.
“Joseph, tomorrow is Visitation Day at my school and I’m going to have a big picnic. Where could I get a ton of chipatti and a fresh order of bananas, too?” I sat across the table from him, drinking mango juice he’d squeezed that morning.
“Give me the contract and I’ll have everything perfect for you tomorrow morning,” Joseph replied.
We agreed on an amount and I gave him some Vigilante shillings. We shook hands and the evening before Visitation Day, two clusters of fresh bananas were placed in my room and the morning of Visitation Day, the chipatti was perfect, just as Joseph promised. I already had a jar of fresh groundnut paste (like peanut butter, only better) that would round out the meal.
I’d planned on looking my best for Visitation Day, wearing my cleanest hand-washed clothes, shaving the layers of dirt off my legs and washing my hair, no matter how frigid the water was. I woke up that morning and didn’t hear the familiar rumbling sound of the back up generator. Oh, good, there’s electricity today. I flipped the light switch. Nothing happened. Oh well, no electricity today. In the bathroom I turned the hot and cold water knobs. Again nothing happened. I guess I don’t have to worry about cold water or any water for that matter. I put my relatively clean clothes on my relatively dirty body, brushed my teeth with my one remaining bottle of water and clamped a headband on top of my out of control curls. I looked in the mirror. It would have to do for the day.
It rained the entire morning and I sat by the window in my room willing the rain to stop. Instead it poured harder. The streets were devoid of sputtering bodas. When the rain slowed to a drizzle, I packed the bananas, chipatti and groundnut paste into my backpack and called my faithful boda driver, Denis. Juba Road was a slick mess of red mud. Mud flicked off the back wheel and splattered my skirt, but I was sure a little water would take care of the mud splatters. That thought was still hanging in the air like a bubble over my head when a truck came barreling down the road from the opposite direction. It raced through a puddle and splashed muddy water all over Denis and I. I was soaked to the bone and at that point all I could do was laugh at the muddy mess I had become.
The drizzle continued all the way to the school and kept parents at bay. The school was quiet and subdued, the gray skies matching the mood. The parents would have to come on foot or by bicycle, so rain was a legitimate, but still disappointing reason for their absence.
When I arrived at school, I pumped water to wash my face and skirt, but the mud was so caked to my skirt that adding water became a recipe for an even bigger mess. So I planted my mud caked self under the covering of the open classroom and waited to visit with students. A few scuttled here and there in the rain, bundled up in layers of jackets in the 70 degree weather. As the students hurried by, I called out, “Happy visitation day! Come and visit with me!” Almost every student I invited took me up on my offer and pretty soon I had a cluster of kids around me, some who were on my list to visit and other new additions. My two youngest sons were at the center of it all and they were in fine form hamming it up.
One of my favorite boys, a sweet orphaned boy, said, “I didn’t think you would come because of the rain.”
“I promised you I’d come. It’s my first Visitation Day. I’d planned to look a little more presentable, but that didn’t work out so well for me.” We both laughed at my mud stained clothes.
“It’s okay, Mum. I’m glad you showed up.”
We were having a great time and before we knew it, it was lunch time and so we retreated into a classroom where anyone and everyone was welcome to the feast I’d carried in my backpack. When I unpacked it, one of the boys remarked, “You brought us food just like the mothers do on VD!” They devoured the food like a band of locusts. I must admit my eyes welled up when every single child made sure to thank me afterward.
While we were inside eating, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun came out. Mothers and fathers began to arrive. The mothers were dressed in beautiful clothes and carried baskets of handmade and homegrown food. Not a single one had a splatter of mud on their skirt. They were a parade of beauty and poise and I was a stark contrast.
I continued visiting with students all day, making sure to carve out special one on one time for my sons. It was a beautiful day.
As evening approached, or as they say here, as the sun married the moon, I returned to my hotel where I washed the slicks of mud off my skirt and scrubbed my skin clean with mercifully hot water. Under the tent of my mosquito net, I thought about how it didn’t matter at all that I arrived wet and muddy. What mattered was that I showed up.
Though I searched and searched for her, I never did see Ivy that day. She later told me that she was feeling ill and had slept all day in the dorm. I wonder if the words felt as untrue in her mouth as they sounded in my ears. Many of the orphans feign illness and sleep the day away until it passes. When I told Ivy that I’d missed visiting her, she peered up at me through her glasses and said quietly, “You came for me?” I nodded and she said, “I didn’t think you would. Thanks, Mum.”
The new school year is fast approaching and I know I’m going to have students who are used to being let down by parents who don’t show up. On mornings when I feel caked in frustration with administration, when I feel like I’ve been splattered with parent complaints, when I feel soaked to the bone with exhaustion, I’m going to remember Visitation Day and I’m going to show up. I’m going to show up and have faith that the clouds will part and make way for something beautiful. I’m going to show up and show up and show up, especially for my kids who are hiding out and tucking their hearts safely away. I’m going to show up hoping that when I do, it will give them the courage to do the same.