Mobiya Dibango

July 24th, 2012

Fourteen-year-old Mobiya has endured what no child should have to endure. His life has been one of tragic loss and hardship. Yet self-pity is not part of his makeup. An excellent student who each day helps the younger children who are now part of his family, he has an infectious smile and his helping hands are a study in motion. Wearing red soccer shorts down to his knees, a faded black T-shirt, and sunglasses, Mobiya could have been a teenager anywhere.

“I’m from a polygamous family,” he began, eager to tell me his story. “My mother was the second wife to my father. Since my father died when I was an infant, my mother took all of her children to Douala to live where she thought we would be alright. But life was hard there; it was not easy for her to take care of all of us.

“You see, there are fifteen children in my family; eight by my father’s first wife and seven by my mother. We are all of the Wum tribe. When my father died, the first wife took her children to stay with her family and my mother took us to Douala. While we were there, my brother Emmanuel and I used to sleep outside on the ground, on the streets. Our mother could not take care of us all; she was unable to feed us. It was very difficult for her. That’s why she took us to stay with her mother. She thought her mother would be able help us.”

There was no trace of sadness in Mobiya’s voice, no look of devastation in his eyes. Perhaps Mobiya had felt it for so long that he was numb. He went on.

“Because my mother could not feed us, my uncle came and took three of us to his village to live and work for him—me, Emmanuel, and Mary. My mother thought we would be fine, but things were not going fine. Life there was so horrible! He made us do back-breaking labor all day to support him and his family, while we went without enough food to eat. Many days I was so hungry I thought I was going to pass out, but I still had to keep working, keep going. When I was there, I used to do business for my uncle as well, and we were not allowed to go to school. Instead, we worked from sunup to sundown.

“My mother had taught us how to bake flour into ‘gateaux,’ cake; the cakes were plain but sweet, with no icing because it would have melted in the sun. Anyway, that’s what we did to earn money. Then my mother fell sick, and Emmanuel and I had to leave my uncle’s home to go take care of her. I do not know what she was sick with but it was very terrible,” he shared, shaking his head.

Each child I spoke with told me they didn’t know what their parents had died of, even though according to Sister Jane they were all aware that their parents had died of AIDS. It is a tremendous taboo throughout Africa to have a family member die of AIDS. Acknowledging the cause of death only added to the orphans’ being further rejected by their remaining family and friends, even though the orphans at the Good Shepherd Home were not infected themselves. AIDS was the unspoken killer of their parents.

“My mother died in my hands,” Mobiya continued more softly, “at night, at two o’clock in the night. I was holding her. My grandmother sent us to the next village to tell my mother’s family she had died. We had to go that night to tell them. There was no place to keep the corpse cold, no morgue, so we had to leave right then. We left at four o’clock in the morning to go tell her family in the next village. We were trekking for two hours to get there and at first we were in total darkness. We stumbled and made our way as best we could through thick undergrowth in some places and muddy roads in others. I fell several times and my leg was bleeding from hitting a rock.” He checked to see that I was still listening. I nodded, letting him know that no matter what he had to say, I was a person who could hear it.

“We had to pass through rushing water, through a river,” he explained, his voice getting louder. “I was very afraid. The water was full and moving so fast; several times I went under and thought I might not make it. To keep our dresses dry we had to remove them. [All children in Cameroon, both boys and girls, refer to their clothes as dresses.] We had to wrap them up. Our grandmother had told us not to get our clothes wet, so she gave us a wrapper. We were to remove our dresses and tie them in the wrapper, so we did and somehow, even though my head went under, I was able to hold my clothes up high in the air and they stayed dry.

“We finally got to the next village to see our aunt, my father’s sister, but nobody was there so we had to wait, wait, wait, wait. She never came. Finally, we sent other people to go look for her in the next village; she was at a farm. Emmanuel and me and my older sister Yvonne made the trip. Then we left to come back to my grandmother’s and by that time the river had died down; the water wasn’t a problem this time.

“My mother was buried the next day.” … “Our good uncle then brought the two of us here to the Good Shepherd Home on 11 September, 2003....

We just sat there in silence as I continued to absorb what Mobiya had told me. I had no reference point for a nine-year-old holding his mother closely to his young body while she died, then hiking two hours through rough terrain and fording a rushing river in the middle of the night to tell her family. I had a great deal to learn from these children.

Finally I began, “You must have been so afraid and so sad, Mobiya . . . and now I hear you make very good grades and want to be a doctor. What makes you want to be a doctor?”

“I want to help other children . . . like save lives. I like to say it out loud sometimes,” he exclaimed proudly, and off he went down the dirt road to join his brothers and sisters in a game of basketball on the outdoor court of packed earth.

This article is excerpted from: I Am That Child:Changing Hearts and Changing the World by Elizabeth Geitz. Used by permission.

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