When I arrived on that first Tuesday morning, I found 30 or so moms and kids, sitting on the floor in a back hallway at Mansa General Hospital. The children’s physical abnormalities were unmistakable. The majority of these kids suffer from cerebral palsy - unable to sit or speak, bent limbs and in constant discomfort, drastically stunted in size.. A few in the group have hydrocephaly, with heads easily three times their own body weight. The remaining few suffer from epilepsy or developmental delays.
I talked with the families of these kids but confessed, I didn’t know what they wanted from me, or what I could do to help. I had learned that none of these children had wheelchairs; they were not welcome at school or church; their mothers were burnt out, and feeling alone. Few were receiving any kind of medical attention. It seemed rather hopeless, to be honest.
Brother Abel, the group’s leader who is a parent of a child with CP, told me that he wanted these kids to be known, and not hidden away. I promised him that I would pray, and do what I could.
I reached out to a few friends, hoping to connect with anyone would could help us help this group with their most basic needs. A full year passed, but eventually we received an e-mail. Our friend Bronwyn, an Occupational Therapist in South Africa felt led to come and serve with us for a week. Working with children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities is her life’s work. We were more than grateful that she would share her skills with the children of Mansa.
We launched into a week of therapy which culminated with an overnight retreat for the families.
In spending time together, I learned that saying “life is hard” for these moms is an understatement. They have no help. The care of their children rests solely on the moms’ shoulders. Were these children in a first world country, they would likely have a team of specialists. Here, most of them have never been seen by any specialist. Some of these kids see a physical therapist, but the parents are discouraged by the lack of results. One mother even shared with us that the PT had broken her son’s leg during a session. She was angry, but also felt defeated - there’s nowhere to complain to, and no other option for help.
The physical burden makes these moms weary. Carrying their children everywhere. having to do all of the feeding and dressing and bathing. Teenagers in diapers. No indoor plumbing. They are understandably exhausted.
And in their efforts to raise their children, to do right by them, they feel lonely. These families have been largely rejected by the community around them. They are not welcome in church or other public places because their children look strange and make noises at the wrong times. At times, the isolation feels inescapable.
But arriving at Choshen Farm for the retreat on the bus - they sang. Loud and together. They talked about their struggles and found courage in realizing their kids are all fighters. As the group learned and played together, the moms participated and watched as their kids were not pushed to the shadows, but rather brought into the spotlight!
Whereas the group in the hospital looked tired, the same people there at the retreat laughed. They cheered each other on. They high-fived one another as their children did things they’d never done before. More than once, tears ran down, as the beauty of a hard but overcoming life took center stage.
Children who were used to spending their days laying on mattresses found themselves running, sliding and swinging! They laughed uncontrollably, and their caregivers did too. We all wished we could bottle that joy and hang on to it forever.
After our new friends had traveled home, we sat and talked as a staff about how blessed we were to have been a part of these lives - there was a sense that we had been amongst angels, special souls placed on earth to give us an opportunity to know what true love is.
We are still praying over the many needs which still exist - for wheelchairs, sitting supports, special feeding tools, income generators for the women who cannot work, friends and helpers to give mom a rest.
Our prayer is that Brother Abel’s desire would be realized: that these kids would be seen, and known, and that God’s people abroad would care about them too.