Mokete has been at Touching Tiny Lives almost as long as we have, which has recently begun to feel like a decent chunk of time. Enough time to get into the rhythms of the place, to know all the names, to identify some of the quirks, to get used to the food and the routine. So, as we prepared to have Mokete return home on Monday, I thought a lot about what that might mean for a three year old boy. Many kids have been reunified since we arrived here in September, and some of them had even been in the safehome for longer amounts of time than our buddy Mokete. But most of these kids were younger, less expressive. Mokete, on the other hand, must still remember his mother and his home from before he came to TTL, and he would certainly be aware of the magnitude of change going back.
Anyway. On Monday when we get down to the office preparations are already in effect. The bo’m’e and mekhooa cluster around, fawning over Mokete in a way wholly uncharacteristic of the normal Basotho treatment of children. Most of the kids I’ve seen end up rather skittish by the end of this, suspicious of the extra attention.
Each child gets to choose one toy to bring with them when they leave. Mokete, for whatever reason, emerges from the playroom with three. His favorite, a wooden puzzle, and two balls.
Unlike the babies we have seen leave the safehome, Mokete walks out on his own two feet. This seems all the more significant when I think back to how when he first arrived he was too weak to walk, or do much more than lay quietly on a blanket in the playroom.
In the car, Mokete sits on my lap and gazes raptly out the window at the passing countryside, his countryside. I wonder how much he remembered of this landscape, the mountains and maize fields that will now make up so much of his daily life, so far removed from the sterile brightness of TTL.
After a little while, though, Mokete falls asleep on my lap. He doesn’t even wake up when we go bumping off the road in Mapholoneng onto the narrow dirt track that leads to his mother’s home.
We arrive at the house, doors shut and windows shuttered. Clearly empty. Mantja clambers out of the car and starts calling to a neighbor in his field. I wake Mokete and stand him on the ground outside of the house. He seems tired, so I pick him back up after a minute. Soon I see a girl streaking across the field next door, her red skirt flashing. “Is that Mokete’s mother?” I ask Mantja. Mantja nods.
She arrives breathless and smiling. I hold Mokete out to her and she opens her arms. I wonder what she thinks being returned this healthy, chubby boy, having given up a skeletal, desperately ill child. If she is surprised, shocked, she doesn’t say.
We all enter the small house, which is neat and painted a cheerful green. As Mantja begins to explain Mokete’s ARV regimen and the supplies we have brought with us, Mokete grabs onto his puzzle. He focuses on it, bringing it over to me and leaning against my legs. Every now and then his mother interjects with, “’M’e u kae?”, which translates to, “Where is your mother?” Mokete continues to stare at his puzzle, though, and I think that it will be much easier for his mother to reach out to him once we are all gone.
The explanation finished, we say goodbye. Mokete stands by his mother’s legs and I ask to take a picture of them together. His mother smiles and waves, leaning down to make sure that Mokete is waving too.
(We are having some technical difficulties here in Mokhotlong, but I will post pictures as soon as I can!)