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Charlie

DR Congo, January 24, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    "So what can you do?" Charlie asked, looking me straight in the eye. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Yesterday afternoon in Buhimba Camp, after the firewood distribution had finished, I played soccer with a ball made out of plastic bags and twine. I sat on a log and made tiny cars and airplanes out of natural clay. But mostly, I just talked — and listened — to some of the children who'd followed our every move since we arrived at the camp hours earlier.

And that's one of the things I never forget about the time I spend in Africa: the curiosity of children here. They want to know everything about you, and about what you know. They want to walk hand-in-hand with you wherever you go. There's a such sense of anticipation from them — like everything you do is new and completely unexpected. The slightest silliness on your part — or clumsiness — elicits giggles that make you forget, for a moment, about the dire situation and surroundings.

I must have had an entourage of 60 children at one point at Buhimba Camp. But there was one young man, standing bolt-upright in a crisp white shirt and wearing a serious expression, who stood out from the crowd. His name is Charlie.

He boldly strode up to me and asked, in perfect French, what I was chewing. I told him it was mint gum. He asked if I had any more and I said, in all honesty, that I didn't. And so then he asked me if I could give him 50 cents to go buy some of his own.

Charlie had it figured out. Over the next few minutes he asked me for a cookie. A ballpoint pen. My notebook. But, mostly, he just wanted to talk. And the subjects he wanted to tackle were not kid's stuff.

First of all, he asked me why some people received firewood while others did not. I explained that the distribution was mostly for the elderly, physically disabled or young single mothers. Then he told me that he was too old to receive clothing from another distribution that was happening nearby.

I asked him how old he was. "Fourteen," Charlie said. I was surprised. From his appearance, I wouldn't have guessed more than 10 or 11 years old.

Charlie then launched into an incredibly articulate analysis of the situation here: Congo's capital, Kinshasa, is so far away from here. Everyone is divided. Things don't work, including food aid.

He said that food distributions don't come often enough. And, even though this area has a bounty of bananas and passionfruit, Charlie hasn't had a single piece of fruit in more than a month.

"So what can you do?" he asked, looking me straight in the eye. I told him I will do what I can. I will come back to Buhimba Camp another day. And with that, Mamy, our field assistant, signaled to me that it was time to return to Goma.

I won't forget Charlie. He is inquisitive. He is smart. He is brave enough to approach a complete stranger, and eloquent enough to engage them in conversation for as long as they have to talk. And he needs a chance.

So what can you do?