HE WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD, AND HE WAS TOTALLY ALONE.
The clothes on Katib’s back were his only possessions. He did not have a pair of shoes. Because he had not bathed in weeks he was filthy. His hair was matted and his teeth were stained. The stench from his body was overpowering. He was emaciated from hunger, and he limped as he slowly walked. He had multiple open sores that attracted flies, which he repeatedly tried to brush off. His seeping wounds needed immediate medical treatment, but there was none available. His right eye was almost swollen shut, the result of a beating he received from some older boys when he refused to give up the scraps of food he’d found in a pile of garbage. At times he felt like an animal instead of a person. He wondered if he would ever resort to hurting someone and taking their food? He was afraid he might if his hunger got much worse. He had already considered stealing, but so far he had resisted the temptation. His appearance was both wretched and heartbreaking.
Five months earlier Katib’s mother had died from HIV/AIDS. The year before that his father had died from the same disease. He once had two younger sisters but both were now dead. One died from malaria and the other little girl simply became so weak from hunger that it was impossible for him to understand exactly what killed her. It didn’t matter. His family was gone forever, that was all he understood.
Things were happening to him now that he could not find the words to describe. He was completely isolated in the world. He had no relatives, and no support of any kind. He spent most of the day begging for food or sorting through trash in the hopes he would find a few crumbs of bread or some rotten vegetables to eat. He was always thirsty. Sometimes he drank from dirty puddles. His stomach ached constantly from the unrelenting hunger, but even more painful was the loneliness he felt. He tried not to cry but there were times when he couldn’t help it. The lack of love was crippling. There was no way for him to express how much he missed his father and sisters and especially his mother. When he closed his eyes at night he could see her face. He dreamed of her often.
One time a person had come to the area where Katib lived and he had brought some books with him. They seemed mysterious and almost magical. The books could tell you things. They could take you places you had never imagined. They were a window into another world. A world without hunger and disease. From that moment on his goal had been to learn to read. He would have been the first in his family to do so, but now that dream was shattered. He knew he would never go to any kind of school or have a teacher. He would spend his whole life just struggling to stay alive. From time to time the despair of his situation overwhelmed him. He was so hungry that he had no choice but to beg, but it made him feel ashamed. Sometimes a person would be kind and give him a scrap to eat, but most of the time they simply ignored him. Occasionally someone would be cruel. He had been hit and kicked many times. Some had thrown dirt in his face and many had spit on him. He was often told he was worthless. He tried to understand, but he couldn’t. Why wouldn’t people help the orphans? They just wanted food and water. It wasn’t their fault their parents were dead. And yet it seemed that most adults did not even notice him. He often thought of himself as invisible. No one seemed to care. He began to think that maybe he was worthless.
But as bad as the days were, the nights were even worse. He was always scared. He tried to sleep in out-of-the-way places so he wouldn’t be noticed, but it was often difficult to find a safe spot. Sometimes the only shelter he could find would be invested with rats. He had been bitten many times, but there were far worse things to fear in the dark. One boy he knew had been killed in the middle of the night by a pack of dogs. In this part of the world the dogs were just as hungry as the humans. But mostly Katib feared the militia. They often came out after sundown. They had AK-47s and they weren’t afraid to use them, with or without a reason. Some in the militia were only a few years older than him, and he knew one day they would come for him and try to force him to join. He had no idea what they were fighting for, but he had heard that those in the militia were well fed. That fact alone convinced many to join their ranks. But he had no desire to carry a gun. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He just wanted to stay alive, and learn to read.
In the dark of night he often worried about whether he too had the disease that had killed his father and mother. He thought it was selfish to be thinking about himself, but he couldn’t help it. With no medicine available their deaths had been horrific. He knew he did not want to die that way. He worried about what would happen to him if he became really sick. What would he do? Where could he go? Who would help him? Katib had watched his mother take care of his two dying sisters as best she could. He felt pangs of jealousy because they had both been able to die in her arms. That would not be his fate. Being totally alone in the world was the very worst part of his existence. Worse than the hunger, worse than the fear and the worry. The thought of always being by himself without a single other human being noticing or caring made him feel sick to his stomach. Even at this young age he knew that it was important that your life mattered to someone.
THE YOUNG ORPHAN WAS NOT AFRAID OF DEATH, BUT HE DID NOT WANT TO DIE ALONE.