Dancing with a Limp



My heart is breaking.

Oscar was abandoned here not long after birth, a premature baby thrown away on to  this  rubbish tip, amongst rats and foul trash birds ( the giant marabou stork)

Found, we think by the Oscar he was named for, and taken to first the police station and then the hospital where he spent a month being fed and but left alone lying on a bed.

By the time he got to the baby home, they thought he couldn’t see or hear as he was so unresponsive, locked in to his own little world away from the horror outside.

I met him when he was 5 months old, asked to go and check his skin as he had eczema, like my son Luke used to, except that in black babies, the affected itchy skin goes pale. Oscar was a very pale, itchy brown , with a black bottom! Still locked in his own world, hiding from the pain and confusion of outside, he wouldn’t make eye contact and, when able to move himself, would pull the blue bucket they used to keep the bottles of milk in over his head and rock. To be fair, it did look funny but he would sit under there for as long as it took someone to bring him out. At the time, I just thought this is so unfair, to be abandoned in such a horrible way, to be ‘locked in’ unable to respond to the world around and to have burning, itching eczema on top of all that!

One morning he was lying so still and quiet in his cot, with his hands clasped in front of him. He had bad conjunctivitis in both eyes  and couldn’t open them. Instead of protesting in any way or crying out for help, he was just lying there like ‘of course another shit thing has happened to me’!


In a busy tiny baby house , babies were fed in multiples , stacked facing away from the mama feeding them. I started working with him daily, encouraging the mamas to feed him as if breastfeeding so he at least had the option to look at them – he never took it but started holding my hair to keep contact.

As a big baby, he still wouldn’t make eye contact or look where he was going. So he’d check where you were and put his head down and crawl towards there, not noticing you’d moved until he got there, then set off again. There were no buckets but he rocked vigorously a lot of the time. I’d started him on a programme of games with the SEN mamas, playing peek a boo using a mirror; interacting with puppets and the Lucy Moonbeam doll for less threatening contact than with real people; hiding and revealing toys to show that things do come back; sensory activities with water and foam to encourage him to form attachments.

But if a cloth fell on his head, he would still just freeze and lie still, not try to fight his way out of it like a ‘normal’ child.

Christmas Day he looked me directly in the eye for 5 long seconds – the longest ever gaze he’d managed – it took a while before he managed it again but, that was it, I loved him!

I tried to work out whether it would be unethical to drug him and hide him inside a stuffed toy to take home!

Late walking but, when he mastered it, he never stopped moving – fidgeting, climbing, biting and punching everywhere he went, like a firework going off constantly.  He slowly started talking and just after 2 years old he was consistently keeping eye contact with people. A  visiting Special Needs teacher said it was the clearest case of ADHD she’d seen, possibly with a little autism thrown in. Possibly caused by a mother on drugs during pregnancy but we will never know. Not always my favourite on a daily basis as he was hard work, but always the one I loved completely whatever he was doing.

So by 3, I’d found a range of  calming mechanisms for the SEN mamas to use with him – sipping hard through a straw, chewing, playing with playdough, colouring, drumming, repetitive card recognition – and if he stopped looking at people, they’d take him off to the sensory room to bring him back to earth.

With each white family that came to look, I hoped he’d win their hearts because they would have some understanding of his needs and at some point he would be in an education system that would support him. ADHD (and in fact most behavioural or autistic spectrum disorders) don’t exist out here and, any children that exhibit those behaviours are seen as naughty and beaten more.

By the middle of this year, we were giving up hope a bit and, at the end of August, I had just secured him a place at Mavuno village, an orphanage community out near the Serengeti, comprising houses  near the lake with a young foster  mum and dad and up to 8 children, with a farm plot to keep busy on and 200 acres to roam on, a small school on site and staff experienced with hyperactivity and a sponsorship programme so I could continue to follow his progress from a distance. They agreed to take him early so that he could settle in more easily than a later transfer. An orphanage is not a great option but, as they go, this was a good one for Oscar.

And then it all got turned on its head. He was chosen. Any family choosing him was going to be hard. But the one that did was a a typical Tanzanian pick – a bored looking quick appraisal of 6 of the boys  and a ‘yeh, we’ll have that one – I’ll pick him up in a couple of weeks – i need to check when I cana get a day off work’ ,an older childless couple, both working so he’ll be raised by a housegirl, sure he’ll ‘grow out of’ any hyperactive  behaviour he ‘picked up in the babyhome’ once he’s away from there and no interest in finding out more,  a schooling where he’ll be beaten….and ….. the kicker….. I will never, ever see him again!

I packed him a little bag  containing things from the sensory room used to calm him down that he might be able to use himself and a couple of his favourite books.

His mum has come today to take him. Very Tanzanian but at least asking questions about his favourite food and what he likes to play with.

It’s hard to explain the level of grief I feel – about half for him that, after such a hard start in life, his life will continue to be harder than it ever needed to be, and all the rest for me, for  losing this funny, clever, beautiful little boy from my life. What are you supposed to do with all the love you have for somebody if that person is no longer there?

                                                                                    (with one of the babyhome mamas)

I’ve heard loss  described as something living forever in your broken heart that doesn’t fully seal back up.   It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.

I’m currently dancing with a limp.



3 thoughts on “Dancing with a Limp

  1. My heart is breaking for you Lizzie. I can fully understand why you love Oscar. He’s a funny, clever and a very caring little boy. A very sad day for you but hopefully a new chapter for Oscar, we can only wish that all will be well and happy for him. Big loves Xxxxx

  2. Liz – there was a memorial gathering for Angela last weekend (the fourth anniversary of her death) – she is always in our hearts, especially when we sing – Oscar will always be in your heart – bless you – Louis x

    • Thank you Louis. Struggling today.
      But so lovely to hear you all sang for Angela – I can’t believe it’s been 4 years . Take care – I hope all is good with you xx

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