Balkissa is seven. She came to us swathed in a dark headscarf, tears running down her cheeks every time one of us so much as looked at her. I have rarely met a child so scared, and I can only imagine the kind of life she's experienced that's made her this way.
I might have stared, too, if I had met her before my time here. Before long familiarity with extremes in pathology bred this comfort I feel around the ones cast aside.
We don't really know what caused her problem, her history vague like so many others in West Africa, but she came to us with a tongue too big for her mouth, split down the middle like a snake's. Her lower lip protruded under its weight and she was unable to close her mouth.
On the morning of surgery, her doctor, Dr. Leo, said something so poignant. In the Western world, little children use their tongues to lick ice cream. I hope, when this is all finished, that Balkissa will be able to experience that part of life, too.
But it seemed that enjoying ice cream wasn't in Balkissa's future, at least not any time soon. She returned to us from the OR much as she left; shy and fearful, sleeping in her corner bed with her blankets pulled over her head to shield her from the world.
It's been days since her surgery, days in which we counted ourselves lucky if an interaction with Balkissa didn't result in those huge, silent tears. Days where the closest we'd get to playing was a little seven year-old girl, sitting on a chair, holding a rag in front of her mouth to catch the drool the still flowed freely. Honestly, it's been a little discouraging.
But in one moment this morning, everything changed.
Balkissa's mama was sitting on a stool next to another patient's bed, little Ali. Apart from sharing the best name ever, Ali is one of the cutest kids around. He's also a boy, a fact that has the translators hooting with laughter when I try to claim the same, very Muslim, very masculine name. Balkissa and Ali's mamas have bonded, and we often find them in one corner or another, chattering away in the fluid tones of their language.
As the mamas talked, I looked over to catch Ali's eye and make him laugh with a silly face (not hard to do, now that he's over his initial yovophobia). When he started shrieking, Balkissa's mama turned to look at me, and that small movement was enough to upend her stool. She crumpled to the ground in an undignified heap, and without thinking, Balkissa broke out laughing.
I hadn't ever seen her smile, and here she was, cracking up at the sight of her mama in a pile on the floor. When she saw us laughing along with her, breathless in our own joy, something seemed to click in Balkissa's little head. Somehow, we stopped being the enemy, the people who were going to make fun of her, the people who were going to hurt her. With one swift fall from a chair, we became conspirators, sharing a secret that finally made having fun okay.
We stood in our customary circle to pray at the end of day shift, raising our thanks to God for sparing the life of a woman whose nearly-forty pound tumour had just been successfully removed, and Balkissa ran over to join us, no trace of her former fear anywhere to be found in her racing steps. Absolutely confident in her place among us, she leaned up against a nurse's legs, squeezing her eyes shut tight and then peering between cracked lids to see whether I was watching, her face breaking into a perfect smile when she realized that I was, every single time.
This is my favourite thing about this place. Watching them finally realize that we're in this together, that there's nothing about them that will make us love them less. That they can have massive tumours or snake-like tongues and no one will stare. No one will mock.
Because we're in this together. You, me, Balkissa, all of them, each one who finds shelter with us. We are all image-bearers of a beautiful God, a God I saw so clearly today in Balkissa's bright eyes and ready smile.