Our journey to Kampala to have the hearing of the two deaf children, James and Faith, evaluated required a long journey from Mbale. This was especially hard for them, both active and inexperienced children from the village (see Part 1) cooped up in the vehicle for hours at a time. Two sad incidents occurred among all the fun and excitement of the three day trip away from Kavule Deaf School. The first was, as I explained in Part 1 of this story, that neither child qualified for any kind of hearing devices or aids since their deafness was nearly complete according to the screening tests.

James and Faith enjoying a relaxing evening at the home of Gail’s friend Irene.

The second incident was more disturbing, and I find it difficult to write about because of both the pain of relating it and the way it affected me personally. We decided to break the trip up into sections so that the children would not get too tired being in the vehicle for such long periods, and so that we could catch up on “care” items for them – clothing, shoes, supplies, etc. Our plan, then, included a stay-over in Bugembe (near Jinja) the first night with the children staying with Alfred and Julie. Alfred related that they were up at 5:30 the next morning, standing in their bedroom demanding attention and, of course, food. Alfred, showing wisdom beyond his years, invited them to join him and Julie in their morning prayer time. He said the two of them knelt dutifully and folded their hands, even though James, for sure, has never had enough language to receive even basic spiritual training. We really don’t know what’s going on inside his head during such times, but he has become an agreeably cooperative young boy over the last two years, and we are hoping to reach his spirit anyway before we will one day have access to his mind for such concepts as God and spirituality.

James, happy to have his picture taken when we first met him on Buvuma Island.

The second day, after the screening in Kampala, we planned to stay at the home of one of Gail’s friends in Mukono, a suburb of Kampala, and it was here that the incident happened. We had been to the market for shoes and clothes, and it was coming up on 5:30 pm when we pulled into Irene’s compound after a long, long day of many adventures in the city. I’m not certain even now what cues we mistakenly gave to James as we disembarked from the vehicle. Perhaps it was our gathering of his and Faith’s plastic bags containing their meager belongings, but not getting our own bags from the back. We began to lead the children up to greet Irene, Gail introducing Faith to her at her door, and I leading James in that direction.

I got about halfway to her door when I became aware that James was resisting me. I looked down at him, and as he stared at the house, he began a high-pitched keening from deep inside his chest, as if emanating up from his heart. I stopped and turned to him, and to my astonishment tears were running down his face – this little hard-hearted street child of two years ago who never shed a tear back then, but glared at us crossly and once even threw rocks and dirt at me when he became angry. I fell to my knees and motioned, “James, what’s wrong?” The sound of his utter despair continued to rise in volume as he stood frozen in place, refusing to make eye contact, staring ahead blankly.

The night we dropped James at his new school in Mbale after rescuing him from the islands. He has realized we are leaving him among strangers. This was a terrible moment for all three of us.

It took me, in my adult insensitivity, a minute to figure out what was happening right in front of me as this small boy was melting down. Then it came to me like a slideshow of tragic photos – the time we dropped him at his first school after rescuing him from the island and traveling across 150 km of southern Uganda in the vehicle, took him into Mbale to purchase his school supplies and new clothes and shoes, etc., the first city he had ever seen. Then we had to leave him there among strangers in a foreign place, and Alfred and I were near tears as we drove away into the evening, knowing that this was the best thing for him but that he could not understand, which was why he stood alone, glowering at us with my cap perched on his head, the poor and inadequate love offering I gave him just before I turned away from him and climbed into the car to leave him there.

Then I remembered moving him from that school to the new school at Kavule where he is now, away from the friends he had made and his first teachers ever in his life whom he had now adjusted to, and the teacher Catherine whose little family he had bonded with, and how we had again left him among strangers in a yet another foreign place, and had again driven away from him as he stood motionless and glared after us, unwilling to show anything but anger.

Of course James was reliving his abandonments, not just the “necessary” ones by us, but the time his mother left him when he was five because she couldn’t deal with his deafness on the one hand and her drunken husband on the other. Then, he relived the abandonment two years later on Buvuma Island when his father left him among the clan and disappeared almost for good, except for a brief alcoholic and abusive reunion just before we rescued him. We found him on Buvuma, virtually living by himself at age ten, without language except what gestures his bright little mind had invented to make himself understood–the boy with the scars on his back and face from the “canings” he received as early as age three when they judged him as “rebellious” because he wouldn’t obey them, only later discovering that he was deaf.

In those horrifying moments this week in Mukono, as I realized he thought we were abandoning him yet again, I replayed what I knew he had suffered, which he was telling us by the despairing sound of his grief and fear, the best a small deaf boy could do in the circumstances, echoed now by Faith who had seen by now that something was terribly wrong, and who began to cry reflexively also next to a baffled Gail and Irene. This tableau, even down to the time of day, was all too familiar to James. We had unwittingly set him up for it.

I threw my arms around James, and hugged him and began to tell him we were not leaving him, knowing that he could not hear me. I pulled back from him and gestured that we all were staying here tonight, that no one was leaving him, that “James, James, we are not leaving you. You are safe. You are safe. We love you. No one is leaving you….” But he could not hear me, and could not understand my words.

I took him to the back of the car and opened up the gate and pulled out our suitcase and our personal bags to show him we were staying here with him. Slowly, he began to respond, hugging me back, letting me hold him as the stiffness bled out of his little frame.

James knows abandonment.

James will see abandonment for many years to come where there is none in the unthinking actions of the people around him. This wound is deep and flows through the roots of his little being like a river of pain, not understood, misunderstood, owned personally, and turned into personal beliefs not about deeply flawed parents and weak and selfish clan leaders who did not acknowledge his personhood and value, but beliefs about James, himself, and his tiny broken identity – “ALONE,” “WORTHY ONLY OF ABANDONMENT,” “THROWN AWAY.”

I want to reach into this child’s shattered heart and piece it back together. In my own selfish way, I want to bring him home with me and nurture him back to life, even though I know that he needs to stay in his culture and be African. In place of the sewage of the world he has known, I want to give him the river of life flowing out of him. I don’t want to wait years until he can understand and receive – I want it NOW.

I also know abandonment, and remember it well, a small boy crying on the floor of the backseat of our car as we returned from the father and son Cub Scout banquet, which I attended with my mother. According to the Book, all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose. I know that’s why James came into the hall where I was teaching three years ago on Buvuma Island, and I know that my heart which has been mostly healed read his pain without knowing his story – it had a familiar ring. I know what I’m supposed to do. I pray for the years and the means to do it.

And yes, before you remind me, I know only Christ can ever be the river that heals James, but maybe I can be the hand that leads him there.