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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dedicated to the street children of Angola

Paulito's Last Christmas
Daniela I. Norris

He rang my doorbell on a warm summer evening, as the heat of the day evaporated from the cracks in the dusty pavement like an omen rising from the cracked lips of an oracle.
When I opened the door he stared at me with his large, black eyes.

"Ajude-me por favor, please help me," he said quietly. He did not have to explain why he chose to knock on my door out of all those on the empty, desolate street. I was an adult; I was white; I lived in a nice house. All these things were enough to impress Paulito. But then again, ten-year-old Angolan boys who fend for themselves on the dusty alleys of Luanda are easily impressed.
   "My leg hurts," he said and pointed to his knee. It was dressed in several layers of filthy bandage. I tried to examine his leg, but the smell was so strong it made me wince.

   As I could not get the bandages off easily and doubted my own medical expertise, I offered to take him to a clinic. He shrugged with indifference. His eyes had no light in them.
   He sat next to me as we drove in silence through the abandoned, dark streets. We headed to the GOAL clinic, the clinic of an Irish non-governmental organization, whose director I knew. I was certain that they would not turn away a suffering child. The local hospital may, using the semi-justified excuse of lack of medicine, trained staff and equipment.

   Paulito said his parents sent him to Luanda from the southern town of Lubango, which had known endless battles between the government forces and the UNITA rebels.
   "You'll be better off in Luanda. Go and find our distant relatives. At least you'll be safe there," said his mother as she pushed him onto the rickety airplane that took a few families fleeing the conflict zone, to the relative calm of the Angolan capital. He had not seen or heard from his family in more than a year, and did not know what had become of them. He couldn't find his distant relatives and was alone in Luanda.
   How safe can a ten-year-old be on the sad streets of a struggling, crowded city? It used to be called "The Paris of Africa." Now it is the city of hunger and forgetfulness.
   Christmas time in Luanda is right in the middle of the rainy season. Nine degrees south of the equator, the air is as hot and humid as a Turkish bath. The temperatures soar to unbearable heights. On that mid-December summer evening they reached 90 degrees.
   The light in the small house was on. The night-nurse recognized Paulito immediately.
   "You again," she waved a finger in his face. "I told you that if you won't take care of this leg, you'd be in serious trouble."

   Paulito was silent as the nurse took the dirty bandages off, revealing a deep, oozing wound. He did not utter a sound when she cleaned and disinfected it. He had the look of an old man when she handed him half a painkiller and a blanket and suggested he spend the night at the clinic.

   I left feeling uneasy, returning home to my nice, clean bed. I knew that the shelter welcomed street children. They fed them well, as long as the children were willing to keep their end of the bargain: attend a class for each meal they were given. The Irish non-governmental organization was very strict about these house rules. It was their way to ensure education, as well as nourishment for the street children. They were trying to save them from a lifetime of misery and poverty.

   But children will be children, and many of them preferred to wash cars for some change and beg for bread at the doorways of bakeries, instead of attending these classes. I called to check on Paulito the next morning.
   "He is fine," I was told by a volunteer with a strong Irish accent. "He's in math class."

   Two sticky, humid evenings later, my doorbell rang again. This time with a shy smile on his face, Paulito came to thank me. He brought a Christmas gift he made at the centre - a drawing of himself, supported on a large, bandaged leg.   "Actually, I'm also hungry," he admitted with a half-smile.

   I brought out a bowl of soup, and then a of plate chicken with rice which I warmed up in the microwave. He ate in silence, sitting on the steps near my doorway like a stray puppy. He refused to come inside.
   Any further questions I attempted were met with a blank face; the kind of face one must put on in order to survive on the streets of a desperate city.

   The following week Paulito returned for another hot meal, looking much better. He wore clean clothes.
   "I have a Christmas gift for you, too," I said, and handed him a pair of sneakers. His dark eyes lit up as he tried them on. They were a couple of sizes too big, but he would not take them off again.
   "I ain't going back to the shelter," he said.  "I can earn real money on the streets, washing cars. I have friends who are taking care of me."
   I asked about these friends, who they were, what they did. He was reluctant to answer.
   "My friends are waiting, I can't hang around for long," he said. "But I'll be back."

   He did return, about once a week, for a plate of food, a glass of milk and some kind words. But after several weeks, just as he appeared one evening, he stopped coming. My prolonged search for him at the shelter, and on the dirty streets, was in vain.
   "These kids," sighed my friend, the Irish organization's country director. "They come and go as they please. They start street fights. Some of them even die, and nobody knows how and why. Of course the government gets rid of the bodies pretty quickly, otherwise questions of responsibility may be asked."

   I kept looking for Paulito. I could not give up, couldn't bear the thought that something bad had happened to him. Maybe something that I could have prevented, by being more fierce. More influential. More caring for him.

   The day came for me to leave the country, which was still in the midst of civil war. I could not find anyone who had seen Paulito or had heard from him.
   I had to convince myself that he had found a way to return to his family. I could not stand any other thought.

   Until this day, I can not help but trifle with the notion that if I return one day, I might recognize Paulito's childish face on a healthy, dignified looking youngster that will pass me on the street. I refuse to believe that it was Paulito's last Christmas.

'Paulito's Last Christmas', won the first prize in lDecember 2007 competition with the Chichester Observer Magazine.

Buy Daniela's book 'The Year Spring Turned into Winter' here

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