(Photographs of Samweli by Will Campbell)
The writer in me really wants to begin this story with, “From the
first time I saw Samweli at the church, I knew there was something
about this little boy that was going to change my life forever.” But
that wouldn’t necessarily be the truth. To be fair, I do remember the first
time I saw him, and I do remember noticing something different about
him. He wasn’t like most of the other kids at Grace & Healing Ministry
of Dodoma (GHMD) in Dodoma, Tanzania. No, the reason I noticed
that Samweli was different was the simple reason that he was walking
with a very pronounced limp in both legs. Although “limp” wasn’t quite
the correct word for it; it was more like a drag, or as if both of his feet
were about 20 pounds too heavy, and he had to adjust his entire torso,
pelvis, and both knees to accommodate dragging his feet back and forth
to shuffle forward.
Later that afternoon, I found myself playing a pick-up game of
soccer with about 30 of the kids from the Lahash sponsorship program
at GHMD in a fi eld near the church. As I alternatively fl ailed and
lumbered about the fi eld showcasing my sub-par soccer-playing
prowess, I noticed someone off to the side of the fi eld, standing behind
a bike watching us play our game. There stood Samweli, taking in every kick,
every shot, and every score. When the sweltering heat (and,
in all honesty, my pleas for mercy) eventually brought our game to a
close, Samweli mounted his bike, struggled against the dirt and sand
to produce a bare minimum of momentum, and rode beside the other
boys as we walked back to the church, trying to be a part of the excited
chatter and also keep his bike upright.
But it still would be another two days before I would properly
meet Samweli. On our third day at GHMD, the staff was coordinating
the home stays for us travelers. Home stays are pretty much what
they sound like: a traveler is matched up with one of the kids in the
sponsorship program, where he will spend the evening, share a meal,
and sleep over night with the child’s family at their home. As a first time
traveler, a home stay occupied the same lobe of my brain responsible
for the anxiety and awkward terror associated with walking in on
someone using the bathroom. Except I didn’t even know if the home
I was visiting even had a bathroom that could be walked in on. Also, I
didn’t know the Swahili word for “Ohmm-gosh-I-just-don’t-I-can’t-what-
just-I’m-so-sorry,” which is what typically falls out of my mouth after
walking in on someone using the bathroom.
I was matched with Samweli. He had an impish smile, like someone
who is very pleased with a joke only he can hear or understand. He
stood less than five feet tall, and I guessed he was around eight or nine
years old. He was polite, a bit shy, and other than the condition of his
legs, seemed similar to the rest of the boys his age.
A taxi picked me up later that afternoon, and I was accompanied
by Edwin Angote, Lahash’s East Africa Director, who would serve as a
translator for the evening. We packed the trunk with a new mattress and
mosquito net, gifts for the family as a thank-you. Our paved road gave
way to an unpaved road, which gave away a bit more to a deeply rutted
dirt road, which then gave way into more or less of a field with clumps
of corn sprouting up willy-nilly, leading to Samweli’s home.
His uncle, Matthew was the first to greet us. He gave us a tour of
the main living area and bedroom we would be staying in. The “tour”
consisted of pulling back the curtain covering the entrance to the home
and simply pointing: the main living space was a small rectangle room,
overstuffed with a couch, three arm chairs, a coffee table, and two large
tables pushed against opposite walls. A small bedroom was off to the
left, separated by another curtain.
We ate a traditional dinner of rice and beans and chapati, along
with tea, served to us by Samweli’s aunt, whom everyone simply called
“Mama.” As guests, we were served first, followed by Matthew and Mama,
and then Samweli and a teenage cousin who had joined us. Although I had seen
the process of who is served and in which order several times by this point,
I thought I noticed some sort of oddness in the way that Samweli hesitated
and halted slightly when it came to his turn. It was a very brief moment,
however, and it would be days before I finally understood the reasons
for his hesitation.
As the coffee table in the middle of the room was being cleared
of our plates and serving dishes, conversation turned to Samweli,
who obediently followed his uncle’s directive to show me his school
notebooks. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see — perhaps
workbooks with large type and simple story problems suited for an
eight- or nine-year-old — but that certainly wasn’t what Samweli laid
in front of me. He set down six composition-style notebooks, each
labeled with an individual subject. Inside, written in English and with
meticulously perfect penmanship, were incredibly detailed and in-depth
notes on Literature, Civics, Government, Physics, Business, History,
and more. The fi rst notebook I opened was his Physics notebook. He
had told me he liked math, and in my head I pictured cutesy little
multiplication and division exercises, perhaps a story problem involving
goats. But on the fi rst page alone there were formulas on fi nding mass,
force, energy, coeffi cients, and…well, to be honest I don’t know what
else, because my own knowledge of math ends with cutesy story
problems involving goats.
I looked at the notebooks, and line after perfectly written line of
Samweli’s schoolwork. Then I looked at Samweli. Then back at the
notebooks. Clearly Edwin heard the sound of the gears clanking and
grinding in my head, because he fi nally asked me why I looked so
confused. I asked him to ask Samweli how old he was. Edwin asked;
Samweli answered. He said he was 16. I asked Edwin to ask him
again, thinking they both misunderstood what I was asking. Edwin asked again;
Samweli answered again. He said he was 16.
I had first noticed Samweli because of his limp. Outside of that, he
looked perfectly normal and healthy to me — just as normal and healthy as any
other eight- or nine-year-old boy. Except that he was 16.
And his limp wasn’t the reason he was considered “vulnerable” and part
of the Lahash sponsorhsip program. Edwin went on to explain to me
that Samweli was HIV-positive, and the reason he looked at least seven
years younger than he should was from a lifetime of malnutrition and
other ravages the disease had visited upon his system. Edwin related
that Samweli had been very, very sick the year before. The illness,
brought on by his HIV status, came so fi ercely and quickly that within
weeks Samweli was completely unable to walk or even get out of bed.
Because of this he had not been able to attend school the previous year.
After talking with the family a bit longer, I looked over to see
Samweli, who was sitting in a chair tucked in the corner. He had laid his
head against the cement wall and had fallen asleep. We decided to call it
The next day we were back at the church. I wanted to know more
of the specifi cs of Samweli’s story, so I talked with Tiffanee Wright, the
Program Coordinator for GHMD. She knew his story well, and began
to fill me in.
Samweli’s uncle brought him to the program in June of last year.
Samweli had just recently been released from the hospital after having
been sick for nearly a year. He did not know why he was in such
poor health; his uncle had never told him why he kept getting so sick.
Tiffanee convinced his uncle that it was time for Samweli to know
what was happening to him. After his uncle gave permission, she told
Samweli that he was HIV-positive, which, along with a severe fever, is
what had put him in the hospital.
Samweli sat quietly upon hearing that he had been living with HIV
his entire life. Then he looked at Tiffanee and said, “Now I know why
my mom died.”
But HIV was only a part of Samweli’s problems. His mother had died, and
his father was very ill and unable to care for him. He was taken in by his
aunt and uncle but typically makes his own food, boils his own water, and fends
mostly for himself at home. Because of the stigma assicated with HIV, he often
struggles with feeling like an outsider. As Tiffanee told me this, I flashed back
to the hesitancy Samweli showed at dinner. He simply was not used to being welcome
to eat with others, let alone with guests.
Samweli had also developed neuropathy, a condition that can be caused both by
the virus itself as well as some medications used to treat HIV. Neuropathy attacks
and damages nerve endings, causing chronic pain at the very least, as well as weakened
muscles, and sometimes paralysis. The year before, when Samweli had been so ill with fever,
neuropathy set into his legs so badly that he was unable to walk at all.
After joining the Lahash sponsorship program, Samweli was able
to enroll in a daily lunch program at GHMD, finally getting the proper
nutrition to effectively battle his disease. He also began to see a physical
therapist, and was outfitted with properly tying shoes containing special
inserts (instead of the flip-flops he had been struggling to walk in).
Although his nerve damage is most likely permanent, his ability to walk
is slowly improving. Since walking long distances is nearly impossible,
the program also purchased a bike, allowing him to travel to and from
school and the lunch program. He is truly a changed boy since coming
to GHMD last year. He arrived a quiet, timid, sickly boy, and now his
true personality — funny, curious, and a bit of a troublemaker in the
clever, wry sense of the word — has blossomed.
The next day I sat in the back corner at the church, thinking again
about Samweli’s story while half paying attention to the children’s
choir and dance practice. My finger traced the notes I had taken about
Samweli, moving along the bullet points describing the facts of his life
as I had heard them: the boy who shuffled around the lunch program;
the boy taking in every moment of our soccer game from behind his
bike, the boy who couldn’t participate in physical activities with the
other kids; the boy with the copious school notes written in perfect
handwriting; the boy with HIV and neuropathy who feels like an
outsider. I didn’t know what to do with it all. Samweli already has a
sponsor through Lahash, which is a great thing, but it made me feel
even more helpless to do anything for him.
As the children continued their choir and dance practice, I looked
up from my notes. There, way off to the right and a little further away
than anyone else, was Samweli. Except this time he wasn’t watching.
He was dancing. This part of the dance required only hand and
waist movements — perfect for Samweli. And I noticed Samweli
less than I noticed his gigantic, beaming smile. A smile so large,
so fulfilled, and so rich with delight in dancing in the presence
of God that it seemed to obscure everything else in the room.
A smile that all but walked itself across the room and hit me
between the eyes. It was one of the most beautiful things I had
I knew then what I was supposed to do. I needed to give
Samweli’s story legs to walk on. Out of the hundred or so kids at
GHMD, it was Samweli, the boy whose legs did not work, that I was
chosen to stay with. It was his story that I learned. I was to take his
story and walk with it back home. Samweli has no opportunity to share
his own story — in fact, he didn’t even tell me his story. He was
too shy…several other people told it to me. But it was his strength,
his resolve, his attitude, and his larger-than-life smile that caused his
story to get up out of its special shoes and walk over to me.
Now I carry that story, and it is up to me to honor Samweli
by bringing it to you. Parts of it are tragic and heartbreaking but
it is encased with hope and happiness. His story is a glimpse into
the work of God and His power to heal and change us. His story
reminds us that we don’t always need the ability to walk on our
own — we just need to be carried by each other.
(See more of Will Campbell’s amazing photography at http://www.willcampbellphoto.com/)