Little Flame: Where Hope And Love Remain

Sr Minerva Marcelino ICM

As Christmas comes nearer I remember an experience two years ago that was painful yet meaningful and challenging. I wish to share this with you as my Christmas greetings of hope and love.

‘Akana Yesu Kavutse’ ‘The Child Jesus is born’, was our song on the eve of 15 December 2005.


That same night, an old woman came to AKAMURI, a center for mentally handicapped children, bringing Adidji, a four-year-old boy who looked more like a two-year-old, whom we took to be her grandson. I took the boy and started to diagnose him. Like many other children I encounter here, he suffered from cerebral palsy. He couldn’t sit by himself, having some contractions in the upper and lower extremities. I started to give him a simple massage to put him at ease with me. Most of the children are afraid of me, because I am a Musungu, a foreigner, a ‘white’ person, which I’m not.

Cossette with another paraplegic child


He seemed different. His smile assured me that he liked the massage and mobilization. As I always do with accompanying adults, I talked with the old woman, trying to explain and demonstrate the ‘how, why and when’ of all these exercises. At the same time I was trying to learn the child’s history. To my surprise, the grandmother wasn’t listening but instead, was talking about how sick she was and in need of medicines. I got so engrossed with playing and exercising Adidji that the next time I called for his grandmother she was gone.

We searched for her, but found no trace of her. It became clear to us that she intended to leave the child at the center. There was nothing we could do but take him, a lovely child. He looked at us all with wonder and amazement. He seemed to know and understand everything but was unable to talk. Annette, one of our big slow-learner girls, cared for him for one week. In the meantime, we continued the search for his family. He had to be brought back home since the center doesn’t have the facilities or the personnel for live-in children. It is our policy and belief that the children should live with and be cared for by their families as long as the situation allows it. Keeping the relationship between the child and the family is a very important aspect of the center’s awareness program.

Special friendship 

A week passed. Annette got tired of giving Adidji baths, washing his clothes, feeding him, changing his diapers – everything. She left him. Cossette picked him up. She is another slow learner who is an aide-therapist, though not in the strict sense of the word. More than anything, Adidji found love with Cossette, who not only fed him but embraced him with much love and affection, just like a real mother. Cossette herself found joy and pride in herself in caring for him. She even asked her own mother to visit Adidji. She was so proud of him and of herself.

Because of love

Adidji started to sit and eat by himself. He started to mumble some syllables such as ‘Ma’. Seeing Adidji’s improvement and Cossette being so proud of him was a real joy for us all at the center. Indeed, Akana Yesu Kavutse.

December 2005 turned to January then to February 2006 and the search for his family continued. We thought that maybe the grandmother had died. We had to try every means to find his family and our search wasn’t in vain. After three months, our mothers in the center found his family. It was a joy, the joy of seeing the longing of Adidji’s brothers and sisters to have him back home. Behind these children’s laughter and joy, our personnel noticed the sad face of the young woman whom they thought to be the mother of Adidji.

No, she was the second wife of Adidji’s father. The real mother left him and went with another man. The old woman who we thought was the grandmother was actually ‘a paid-woman’ who brings unwanted children to somebody else or simply leaves them somewhere. The father of Adidji wanted to get rid of him. We talked to the family, trying to help them to understand their responsibility. Adidji remains their child, he has the same right to love and affection and other things as much as the other children do.

Poverty is no reason to abandon him. In fact the family isn’t poor. Had they wanted to, they could even have reimbursed us for our expenses during Adidji’s three-month stay with us. We made arrangements with the family and left, assured that we had done all we could for this child.

I will never forget the sadness of Cossette one morning, almost four months later, as she told me,‘Masera Agnes, Adidji yapfuye’, ‘Sister Agnes, Adidji is dead’. I could only say, ‘Mpole shar’, ‘Sorry, my dear’.

Gone but not forgotten

The family had locked him up in a room, giving him food only once in a while. I felt so helpless, not knowing what to do. I even wanted, at a certain point, to sue them. But what’s the sense of doing that in a country where the basic needs and rights of children like Adidji are almost forgotten? Sadness, anger, anguish, regrets and frustration enveloped me. Maybe Adidji would still be alive now if we had just allowed Cossette to continue caring for him. Yes, she was his ‘little mother’, feeding him day and night, caressing him, carrying him on her back like a real Burundian mother. The joy we had in finding his family turned out to be a terrible horror. We wanted him to be there with them so he could have a fuller, normal life, as we thought. But that was not the case.

Hungry for love 

Yes, it is still a long road to awareness and acceptance of responsibility. Adidji died not only of physical hunger but of hunger for love and affection, for value, acceptance and respect just like any other human being. This Christmas, I will be looking at the child Jesus in the manger and thinking of the many children in this world who are like Adidji, handicapped in so many ways.

We mourned for a life that was ‘unwanted’. Yet, I look at the sky and still see some lights. Adidji is dead but his memory remains, the memory of a life wanting to live and be loved. It is a call to hope and to believe. I felt so helpless but not too hopeless. Maybe one day there will be a difference. If it is painful for us, it must also be painful for his parents in the depths of their hearts. I want to believe, parents are parents. Adidji remained their child.

I want to continue taking the steps even if the road is so long. It will lead us where we want to go if we believe and continue walking together. If there are Papa and Mama Adidji, there are also Papa and Mama Yabo. Yabo was one of our Trisomie 21 children. She died of heart ailments three weeks before Adidji’s death. She was loved and very much cared for by the family. They did everything they could till her last breath. Beyond pain and helplessness, hope and love remain. 

You may write to Sister Minerva Marcelino ICM at B.P. 425, Bujumbura, BURUNDI, Central Africa.