A true story that echoes the reality of the desperate life of remote Malawi:
I choked heavily on the flurry of dust thrown up carelessly in the lorry’s wake as it sped down the compacted earth road. A giant thundering between wood and clay huts, passing by a life so different from my own.
Yet for this little girl, it was an opportunity. She scrambled from her mother’s lap and hurried into the road. The dust cloud swarmed around her like a million flies over a carcass, veiling her from the harsh mid-day sun.
As she skipped over, her shoulder slipped through one of the tears in her dress that had crept into a larger hole, causing it to hang lopsided from her tiny frame. Her feet were bare; calloused from her everyday lack of shoes, her hair neatly swept from her face to reveal two large brown eyes, wide with a child’s excitement.
She held a clenched fist to her chest and said simply ‘Emily’, then thrust her hand toward me. Laying on her palm were 7 shards of ragged plastic, gems unearthed by the passing lorry. She selected carefully from her treasures; one edge rounded, the other sharp like a dagger, and gifted it to me. In the sweat of the day the plastic stuck to her finger, leaping from my hand into the dust. Horrified, she dropped to the ground to rescue it. The sharpness dug in slightly as she pressed it once more into my palm, this time ensuring it would not escape.
‘One’ she said with uncertainty, looking at me for verification. A fly perched on her cheek, but she did not flinch.
I nodded and smiled. ‘One’.
Unsure to start, but growing ever confident she progressed in this foreign tongue, until all were settled in my hand. Her father nodded to her in praise. The achievement repeated a thousand times that afternoon until I settled down to speak with the rest of her family.
Emily settled by my side and plaited my hair, only to run her hands through it, setting each strand free. A deftness passed on by generations before her. She interrupted us now and again to vie for my attention, picking up the plastic pieces once more.
‘Tionana’, I wished them, taking my leave. ‘Good night’.
I started down the raised mud track, narrow like a balance beam, channelling a path between two fields of maize. Running my fingers through the fronds as they brushed gently past my thighs, basking in the last of the late evening sun. I heard footsteps coming upon me at pace, and turned; Emily’s father heaved his breath back quickly.
‘Take her to England’ he begged, ‘Her mother has Aids, soon we will have nothing. Give us one hundred pounds and take her’.
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