desert flower

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There are many tiny flowers poking up through the parched cracks in deserts all around the world.

I meet one while in a rural village in the tiny, overlooked country of Swaziland, Africa.

She has a small frame with delicate features and a big smile. Her hair, like all of the other children, is swirls of coarse curls trimmed to her head. My guess is she is about five years old.

We are leaving to visit the many rock and stick huts that hunch along dirt trails in this area, called Matsetsa. She is standing next to several other children who are coaxing water out of the ground via a pump. She reaches for my hand as almost an afterthought. As we start out, I ask the pastor, “Can I keep her?”

A native Swazi, the pastor doesn’t sense my jest and tells me it will be too far for her to walk. So I say goodbye and tell her I will find her later.

I do, playing with other children near a swing set made of stripped trees and pieces of rope, the kind that would be ripe for law suit potential in America. As it is, each wild sway has me a little breathless on behalf do the children, who breeze by each other pumping their stick-thin legs energetically. I sit down on the ground near it, the grass pickling my legs through my skirt, and she gravitates to my lap.

We don’t speak the same language, but I am learning that in countries like this, where love is the only ready currency, it doesn’t matter. Children just want to be held, and love needs no translation.

That afternoon we sit by the soccer field as other children kick a ball across the expansive field. The bloated sun sinks into the ragged horizon and the winter air cools. She leans over my shoulder to watch me sort through my camera’s photos, as I look for ones to delete to make space on a disc packed with faces and smiles. Another child notices too and climbs in my lap. Then another. Then another, till my lap is full of little black heads tucked in a circle. They watched a video of children singing, then sing their own songs between chest-deep coughs and sneezes that shake their little bodies. Their colds don’t slow them down. They cycle through the ABCs. Ba Ba Black sheep. A song about a black mambo that creeps up while the singer is doing laundry, complete with mimes of them washing imaginary clothes between their wrists.

That night at a church service I find her again, in a puffy blue jacket, its hood circling her face in perfect symmetry. She sits on my lap as our team member, a pastor, speaks to a warm and gregarious crowd. I marvel at how still and quietly she sits for the hour. A team member leans toward and me and explains softly, “She’s asleep.” I peek around her hood and see her eye lashes laying on her cheeks. I feel the quiet draw of her breath and the warmth seeming through her jacket.

An unexplainable tenderness wells in my heart for this child, who I only met that day.

The next morning, as I paint her nails pink, I ask the pastor’s wife about her. Her name is Mela. She is one of 13 children in a household run by a single mother. Her father left awhile ago.

My farewell comes as I hold her in my lap awhile she eats a porridge of rice and meal the pastor’s wife has spooned out of a large metal pot. Meala scoops each bite into her mouth with pink-tipped fingers. I wonder if it will be her only meal that day. I wonder if I will ever see her again. I wonder if she will be OK.

But, like those many tiny flowers, I believe she will flourish in the desert against all odds too.