A Token Plastic Elephant, my silent promise

The story of Rudi

A token plastic elephant, my silent promise

A few months back, I met an incredible woman. She was walking alongside a dusty, endless road, very slowly and noticeably too old to be carrying a small child on her back. I stopped and asked her where she was going and would she like a lift? She said ‘No, she is almost home.’ I asked if the child was her grandchild to which a brief story came tumbling out. And while she makes up one in millions of the same story, it wasn’t any less shocking.

I took a photo of her and gave the child a small plastic toy that my kids could quite frankly do without. She thanked me and continued walking. It seemed silly, silly to give her a little plastic made-in-China elephant after listening to her brief tragic story, like I had missed the point. But what she did not know is that I had quietly promised myself that I would find her and that I would help her.

A month or so later, after finally printing the photo of Rudi, I went in search of her. I found her house and 2 of her grandchildren, Toni (9) and Kapesi. (2) Rudi was out working in her rice shamba (paddy) and had left them at home for the day.

The following day I returned and found her lying on her little reed mat in the darkness of her mud hut, cuddled up to Kapesi. She emerged from the hut and saw that I had come with a photo. She immediately embraced me and kissed me on the cheek, repeatedly thanking me for the printed image.

Kapesi did not wake, he was in a deep sleep. She explained that he was feeling lethargic because he had not eaten that day. It was 3pm and she had no food to give him.

Toni sat quitely, observing the meeting from a distance. I learned that Rudi also had a 3rd grandchild living with them, Lourdes, who was 17 and who I did not meet that day. Rudi began to talk and tell me her incredible story of surving a war and how she got to where she is today.

She is a single grandmother and has been for many years. She had 6 children. 5 of them are dead. The 6th ‘child’ lives in another town and has not made contact with her for many years. She’s not completely sure where he is. Her first child who died, left her and her husband 9 grandchildren to bring up. Some of those children have died, the rest have grown up and left. During that time, her husband also left her and returned to his home village in a remote area on the the Zambezi River. She has had no contact with him since. I’m not sure why they separated.

In her final years, she has recently taken on yet another 3 grandchildren, belonging to 2 of her children, now dead. Lourde’s mother died of aids and Toni and Kapesi’s mother died of a tooth abscess when Kapesi was just one month old.

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but I still can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
Hellen Keller

UPDATE: To learn about Rudi’s life story, click on this link:  “She walked barefoot and semi-naked through lion territory. She hid in burrows of wild animals to avoid the bullets of ruthless soldiers. She sacrificed her marriage of many years. And now she lies helpless at the bottom of the pit of social rank, alienated. She struggles to survive and not only to survive, but to support and protect 3 grandchildren.”

48 replies »

    • Thank you Misifusa – I was thinking of Rudi just the other day and wondering how she is doing. I learned so much from this experience, made plenty of mistakes a long the way too! She is a phenomenal woman and her will to survive is quite extraordinary. But then again, if you speak to anyone of Rudi’s generation in Mozambique, most of them have an incredible and often tragic story to tell having survived the civil war. I still marvel how on the very last day of us living in Mozambique, everything came into place and we managed to find Rudi a long term, secure place to live! Thank you for getting in touch. Lianne

    • Oh Lianne, how wonderful! You made such a difference, just like Rudi did. Thank you for inspiring us all.

  1. I have tears and difficult to breath to read your blog about Rudi. How we can donate a little bit of $ to Rudi if she can’t get/don’t know anything from UN?

    • Thank you Anca for your response. Rudi’s story and situation has affected me deeply and I am so encouraged to hear this post is ‘reaching’ people like yourself. I’ll be writing a blog in the next couple weeks about Rudi, updating everyone on her life; the ongoing twists and turns. But in the meantime, I will reply to your email.

    • Thank you so much Gallory, the people here and my experience in Mozambique has really inspired me to write and to explore my new love for photography. As for Rudi – she’s an extraordinary woman and continues to amaze me with her will to survive.

  2. Lianne – you dont just talk – you do it!! Well done on your blog, your heart and your compassion – you will be blessed tenfold by all you give.

  3. A very moving post. Excellent com[positions. I am passing this one on to family & friends and I have added your blog link to my blog’s list of Photographers from Asia & Africa. 🙂

    • thank-you Bart. I’ve done some thinking about this. And this is the thing about living in Mozambique. You are truly exposed to the ‘poverty’ and the problems that come with it. Unlike many other countries, if you’re in a wealthier income bracket, you’d be nowhere near the slums. In our case, a little dusty dirt road separates us.It’s unique. So while I am helping, I want to believe that if other people had to be in the same situation, exposed to it so often – they too would do the same thing.

  4. This is so moving…your post brought tears to my eyes. For those of us who do not live there, it is so easy to block out the pain, horror and tragedy of what is happening in so many places in Africa. Thank you for doing what you are doing for Rudi and for your readers. Steph

  5. Excellent post, and the pictures are really good. I met all sorts of people in Africa when I visited recently. One really needs to find out their stories, as you did, before assuming anything. We see some people as very poor and they turn out to be happy and well fed. Then there are others who might not show it but who have lived very hard lives and are real survivors.

    • Absolutely – it’s easy to assume and you are less accountable. When you ask, you are left with a choice. To do something or not to do something.

      And helping dosnt always mean digging in your pocket for money or starting up a large foundation to save Aids orphans. Very often the best way to help is simply by listening and giving them information that will help them move forward or improve their situation.

      thanks for reading 🙂

  6. So poignant and sad, well done, you described a living scene and way of life which is normal for this country of extremes. I get so sad when I see how they treat animals and yet if you think about it, these people are treated this way by their own friends, relatives and societal peers so how can they treat something any different to how they are treated. Death, poverty and illness is their way of life and the struggle for survival is one step at a time. I have become known and often now recognised amongst the beggars, the sick and children on the streets of Beira as they have realised I am such a soft touch. I get into a lot of trouble for constantly handing out money or pao or whatever I have around me to the people who come to my gate or who wait at my vehicle. I just dont have it in my heart to turn such suffering away and I feel one small drop from me may ease the life of a hard working mother, or a starving grandmother or a confused, hurting and ill-treated child. It has to change from the top down and I wish a lot of the people who donated money etc from everywhere else in the world realised that unless they follow the donation through to its fruition it, very quickly and mysteriously, disappears at the first level of entry into the country.

  7. Such a moving experience, Lianne, it brings tears to my eyes. You are so right about the magnitude of the problem but having to only focus on what you can do yourself. One doesn’t need to look far in Africa to find someone close at hand where you can make a diffference in their lives. So often a small thing to us who have so much means the world to them! Keep it up – you are like a voice calling out in the wilderness!

  8. Reblogged this on Eccentric and Bent and commented:
    You often hear folks lamenting the ills of the world. Yet when you tell them to do something about the injustices, you get that old worn chestnut about how one person can’t change the world. I have always felt that those people were shortsighted; you don’t need to change the world, just change your part in it. As a non-religious person who believes in tithing, I give money, food, or just a smile whenever I can. Here is another blogger who is making a difference in the lives they are encountering. This is a beautiful, poignant, and self aware post. Enjoy!

  9. Beautiful, poignant, and moving. I look forward to your future “encounter” posts. I applaud your initiative in sharing and offering kindness. May the sun continue to shine upon you for many years to come.

  10. That is an incredibly moving story, thank you for sharing it. I think a real face on a story is such a necessity in this world of ours where donor fatigue in the developed world is a chilling reality to the incredible hardships many millions of people face. It is difficuilt not to feel overwhelmed when the scale can seem insurrmountable, but you have made a real difference to one person. What unsettles me the most is nothing separates us but the dumb luck of being born in one country, or even one family, over another. I look forward to your new category. Thanks again.

    • Thank-you. I’m sure you experience much the same over there in Ghana. The scale of problems and people in desperate need is overwhelming and I’m sure you’ll agree that being out in places like these takes a diciplined mind. To focus on taking just the ‘next’ step and not to focus on ‘all the steps that still need to be taken!’ Tunnel vision is pretty good sometimes! Saving one life is better than none.

  11. Wow. You are so right. Putting a face to things like malaria and malnutrition makes a difference. And to think of how many millions there are like her… I still cannot comprehend how good some people have it while others suffer so much…. Or that some of the people who have it so good (physically, anyway) are still so miserable. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I guess…. Thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to your new page. Hopefully someday I too can help in a very real way. Blessings!

    • Thank-you Jessica – she truly is an amazing woman, so humble and not once did she ask for help even though she was clearly desperate. We can learn so much from people like her – we just need to know their story. So I hope my new post category does just that. Thanks for reading 🙂

    • I love reading your stuff! And you’re right—every one has a story from which we can learn and to which we can relate…