Monday, January 28, 2008

Jemima's new friends

As I write this Bella is asleep and Jemima is in the paddling pool with three Khmer children we met yesterday, begging outside our gates. They are washing each other's hair and chatting away despite not understanding each other's languages. It's great - I have three baby sitters and they all seem supremely happy. So I may as well take this time to tell you how it came about that, on the first day that James and I were home alone in three and a half years, we ended up entertaining three children we had never met before.

We had it all planned, the perfect Sunday morning. Our friends were coming to take the kids for a few hours so that we could stay in bed, read the paper, have baths and do all the usual blissfuly lazy stuff that childless couples do on Sunday mornings.

Then came the text Could you bring them over to our house rather than us picking them up? N.B. Never go out and drink too much with the people who are planning to look after your kids the next day. No problem though, we can come straight home and continue as planned.

Finally out of the house we were gently accosted by three dirty children begging at our gates. "Wait twenty minutes" I said. "We'll be back and I have some food in the house". They did and I packed them some bags with sandwiches, apples and bottles of water.

"Thank you! Do you have any clothes?" they asked sweetly.

"I'll have a look. Just come inside the yard and play while you wait, ok?"

Twenty minutes later and I had rid Jemima's cupboard of half her clothes, her book shelves were a little emptier and her toy baskets a little lighter. As the children looked gleefully at the huge bags I was giving them I wondered how on earth they would get them home and what would happen to it all.

"Are you going home now?"

"No, Can we stay and play?"

"Ok, just for half an hour"

Two hours later they were bathed, scrubbed, fed and dressed in Jemima's clothes. All the while I was lecturing them - "Not all westerners are good. If you are invited into a westerner's house do not go in - especially if it is a man". Talk about mixed messages.

At this point James and I collapsed on the sofa inside our peaceful house twiddling our thumbs, while the three siblings (two sisters and a younger brother) played happily outside.

"So this is what it will be like when the girls leave home!" James remarked a little gloomily. "It's very quiet isn't it?"

Then came the next text We'll bring the girls over in 20 minutes ok?. Only then did it slowly dawn on us that we needed to get the kids out of the house fast! Jemima can be a generous soul but there is only so much one can expect from a three-year-old girl who is packed off for the morning and comes home to find three children in her place wearing her clothes and cuddling her dolls!

So I piled them and the seven other children I found waiting in the street into a Tuk-Tuk, with a buggy, full of toys and books, stuffed in as well, and we raced off to the Wat (Buddhist temple, home to monks - this one has a tiny village in its ground as well) where they lived, hoping we would not pass Jemima en route. I dreaded seeing where the kids lived, but also wanted to know what their situation was and whether or not they would get to keep any of the things we had given them.

It could have been worse. I mean sharing a room no bigger than six square feet with both your parents and eleven siblings is pretty hellish I admit (Yes. Twelve kids and I met them all) but at least they had a roof, and a mother and father. By Cambodian standards that was not bad. The house was brick with tile floors (which they sleep on with no mats), very clean and had family photographs on the wall. Pa was out but Ma Liang was lovely and looked healthy. For all of her kids to still be alive - as she pointed out herself - was proof of a certain level of good health and fortune.

Ma Liang cooks and sells food in our local market. She did not ask me for anything and we sat and chatted for a while and I asked if she minded that I had taken her kids in for the afternoon. She did not. She told me they beg in the mornings for the money to go to school in the afternoons (not on Sundays). Then we hugged and I said I would come back to see them again soon to see if there was any small way I could help them.

I got home to find Jemima looking rather suspiciously at the mess in the garden.

"Who has been playing here?" James told me she had asked, the minute she arrived. We told her everything, minus the details about what we gave away, and she was perfectly happy.

Of course you can just imagine how many tiny pairs of feet were peeping underneath the gate this morning! The bell has been ringing all day and now, as I said, three of them are playing right now with Jemima. Despite missing out on our morning in bed it was worth it. They are such sweet kids and at least it keeps them off the streets and safe. Strangely enough, Jemima does not seem to have noticed that they are all wearing at least one item of her clothing. Or perhaps she does and just doesn't care.


maddy said...

Is there a stronger adjective to 'heartwarming'? Can't think of one - but would certainly use it to convey my feelings after reading this post - what a lovely start to the day as I, also childless for the day, prepare to go to Ruby's pre-school and work with kids who are so fortunate compared to those you are helping. I wonder how many of those kids would be so gracious as your Jemima is (simply can not wait to meet her in the (UK) summer) - I may endeavour to recount your story and see what reaction I get from 40 3-4 year olds growing up in the affluent Eastern suburbs of Sydney.....

Georgie said...

Well she obviously does not get it from me - check out what my mother said in next comment about us when we were kids! Ignorance is bliss... but yes, she is a sweetie. After the children went home yesterday I tried to explain why I'd rather her not invite them inside (a difficult one, I trust these kids but there are different ones each time and some of them are quite wild I don't know if their parents are telling them to check out where we keep things etc, and also that I don't want to upset them by showing them that Jemima's bedroom is larger than their whole house)

When I told her about the latter and that they had no beds she said "I can share my bed with them.!" "All 12?" I asked? "Yes look! One can go here, one here, one here" etc etc..

Melisa said...

From my mother... (!)

Hmmm ....... I seem to remember giving away a whole lot of toys, which you four never played with, to St Mary's Church jumble sale and having to BUY THEM BACK because you all went berserk!

Kat said...

Generosity must be one of the most lovely gifts to give your children.