Twirling Amathi This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 31, 2013
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Amathi skipped and twirled down the dirt road toward the tire course that we had built three days earlier. When her bare toe stubbed a rock, she just kept dancing and skipping. To say this little girl impacted how I thought about my life is an understatement; she completely changed it.

The idea of the trip started with a desire to do something out of the ordinary the summer after freshman year. I wanted to do community service, however I wanted to go somewhere life-changing, and so I chose South Africa.

Months later, my seemingly endless ninth-grade year came to an end, and I was officially a sophomore. Next thing I knew, I was walking through security with 23 people I had just met and would be spending a month with in Africa.

I don't think any of us were prepared for what we would see. As we walked into the school, kids were dancing on either side of us. Most of them wore
T-shirts three sizes too big and no shoes at all. Our work that day consisted of gardening, playing soccer, and painting murals in some of the classrooms in an effort to brighten up the school. When we finished, instead of disposing oaf the extra paint, a few of the boys decorated the trashcans in bright pinks, oranges, and yellows.

It wasn't until a few weeks in that I truly connected with one of the locals. We traveled to a city on the coast called Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province. It has the highest rate of AIDS in all of South Africa – a 60 to 70 percent infection rate, we learned our first day. We all felt prepared after the first two weeks of community service, but we were still anxious. What if the kids seemed sick? What if they acted differently? What if one of them got a cut – could we contract AIDS?

It would have been hard to miss the church between the bright blue color and the 50 kids lined up behind the gate waiting for us. As we neared, I saw a small girl sitting with two others. She caught my eye because her body was just skin and bones. Still her skin sparkled in the intense African sunlight and she wore what looked like an old hand-me-down black and pink dress with polka dots. I soon learned that her name was Amathi, she was six, and her story is one that stays with everyone who hears it.

Amathi's mother contracted HIV as a teenager, and since she did not have access to the proper medicine, it eventually progressed into AIDS. When she was 17, Amathi's mother had Joseph, her older brother. Iza followed eight years after, and then Amathi two years later. They lived with their grandparents and their father, but he was often absent. Then Amathi's mother died giving birth to her younger brother. When her father returned and heard the news, he left – for the last time.

So Amathi and her three siblings were left with her grandparents. Unfortunately both were ill and passed away within a year. So Joseph became the head of the household at age 15. This story is heartbreaking, but it really resonates with me as a 15-year-old. I can't imagine being supporting a family at my age and having three younger siblings to care for.

As I sat at the face-painting station, I couldn't stop thinking about Amathi's story. Just then, she approached me with the huge smile that I looked forward to seeing as often as possible over the next three days. The second day we arrived earlier, but Amathi and her siblings were already waiting for the gates to open. When she saw me, her brown eyes lit up with excitement and she leaped up and ran to me at full speed. From then on, Amathi and I were ­inseparable.

The boys enjoyed playing soccer, and the idea that soccer is truly the one sport that you can play anywhere in the world really is the truth. The kids approach this sport with as much passion as they do the education that they work so hard for, all of them understanding the importance of education that our parents constantly try to instill in us. As the ball skipped across the dirt and rocks, the kids ran around laughing and trying to show off for us.

I was usually stationed at the face-painting area. Not only did Amathi like to have her face painted, she took it upon herself to decorate mine as well. Each day we repeated a routine where I would paint a South African flag on her face and then she would draw hearts and dots all over my arms and legs. Her favorite thing was to be lifted up in the air and twirled around. She told me that it made her feel like a princess and feel closer to God. This explanation touched my heart in a way I was not expecting.

When the third day drew to a close, I knew I would have to say good-bye to Amathi. Though we tried to explain to the kids that we weren't coming back, they didn't understand. Most groups only came for one day, so because we had been there for three days, they assumed we would keep returning.

One last time, I lifted Amathi as high as I could and twirled her until I felt like I was going to pass out. By then tears were rolling down my face. She tried to calm me by wiping them away. Yes, a six-year-old was wiping away my tears.

At that moment I could really understand how one child or experience can change your life forever. As Amathi walked out of the gate she mouthed a song that we had taught them about animals. She began the procession of twirling and dancing. Once she had gone halfway down the street, she turned and ran back to give me one last hug. This hug goes on and on in my mind. Then she skipped down the dirt road to join her brother and sister.

Over time, I learned that connection is measured in the strength of emotion, not the amount of time you spend with someone. Although I spent only a few hours a day with Amathi over just three days, she impacted my life like no one else has. I met her by mere chance – one person out of billions in the world – and I will probably never see her again. Yet I know that she impacted my life in a positive way, and she is someone I will never forget.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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emmatroughtonrox said...
Feb. 6, 2013 at 9:39 pm
This is amazing! Seriously the best essay I've ever read. You're very talented!
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