The second day of teaching the Bible Institute on Buvuma Island in Lake Victoria, Alfred and I noticed a small boy, dressed in rags, hanging around quite a bit. I wondered why he was not in school, and at first we thought he was trying to steal something, and so we watched him very closely and guarded our stuff diligently, trying not to leave anything lying around where it would be easy to take. But finally, when he returned every day to the hall we were renting from the village, we decided to pay a little more attention – he seemed more curious about us than malicious. As we approached him, we discovered that he was mute and used a complex series of obvious hand and arm gestures to communicate.

As the week went by, we discovered James is actually deaf. From the villagers we learned that he is nine years old, abandoned by his parents, one at a time – the father is the brother of one of the local pastors and hasn’t be seen for about seven years. The mother disappeared several years ago after trying to make it on her own with James. Now he lives with his grandmother – or perhaps his great-grandmother – who is a wanderer; that is, she wanders widely around the island, sometimes being gone for days, and often returning to her home late at night, where James dutifully opens the door for her when she awakens him.

James helping Alfred set up for teaching

James helping Alfred set up for teaching

When the grandmother is not around to care for him, whatever little care it may be, the extended family tends to keep him fed and occasionally gives him castoff clothing. This family is mostly Christian, the main brother being a pastor, with another of the brothers being a pastor also. It seems hard for them to care for him because each of them is young, married with children, one already having eight children of his own.

Here is what I observed. James is very bright. He can make himself understood with his “unofficial” homemade sign language. I understood him quite well, even to the point of him being able to identify which of the brothers is responsible for the scars on his face and back from beatings. It was like James had a story to tell, and when he finally had someone to “listen” to him, he eloquently answered a number of our questions in this manner. He also can ask questions in a way that you just know he is asking you a question. He is a little boy starved for relationship, quickly bonding to anyone who will love him or pay any kind of meaningful attention to him. He is independent because he must be in order to survive, but he seems to crave company.

When Alfred and I accepted him as just he is, talked to him and loved on him a little, including him in the setting up and tearing down of our teaching equipment each day, he became a fixture at the Institute, sometimes stretching out on a bench and sleeping for an hour or more while we taught the adults. James is not particularly accepted by the people, who are typically suspicious of someone with such a disability. For a long time, when he was not responding

James, happy to have his picture taken

James, happy to have his picture taken

correctly to their commands as a small child, they all thought at he was rebellious – hence the beatings, though I am appalled at the admission of it by the one who did it, both to hear it and to tell it to you. At that early point in his life, they decided he was retarded or brain-damaged, and so things became somewhat easier for him. Now most of the villagers understand that he is a deaf-mute.

Bless his heart, Alfred confronted the man who administered the beatings – a student of the Institute and a pastor. At first the man was defensive and left the area. Then he returned and confessed to Alfred the story I have just told above. He apparently feels guilty, as well he should, and treats James – his own nephew – more gently now and makes sure he has food to eat. Still, cultural differences aside, I am struggling with my feelings when I recall the multiple scars on James’ body.

James became very attached to both of us, running to greet us every day, smiling and laughing with us through the day, and sticking by us when we were present. I had some concerns about having to leave him behind when we left the island because of this. Alfred was even considering for a moment just taking James with us and raising him by himself, since he is single. I talked with Alfred much about this, and it was clear that he had little idea of what this would mean in terms of lifestyle changes. Ultimately, we decided to come back to the mainland and investigate options before disrupting James’ life with a temporary plan that is not

James with Alfred, my driver, translator and assistant

James with Alfred, my driver, translator and assistant

well thought out. I don’t think James is going anywhere in the meantime.

So let me summarize: we have a nine year old boy who is intelligent and loving, who has no one to care for him, cannot attend the local school because they have no way to teach him, has never attended school, but is already able to communicate by a system of signs that he has worked out himself. He will “talk” with anyone who will listen, but mostly no one does. They see him as a less-than-whole feature of the landscape, and, aside from keeping him fed, they do not seem to think much about him at all. His future is bleak. There are simply no resources or services available for a person like James in such an isolated location. It is likely he will be a beggar when he grows up, living alone at a barely subsistence level for the rest of his life. He is a strong boy, and maybe he can find work as a laborer if the people will accept him.

I find this probability very challenging. I am not at peace with it. Please pray with me for James. He has crossed our path for a reason. It is true that we cannot save them all. I am not at peace with that either.

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