Mrs Osakwe’s ‘office’ was a small space carved out in the common room area, with wooden boards demarcating it from the rest of the room and giving a false sense of privacy.
Her desk was a scratchy dark-blue plastic table with piles of paper crowding it. Our Daily Manna devotional sat atop the hill of papers, and a small pile of Gideon New Testament bibles.
“Please sit,” Mrs Osakwe gestured towards the plastic chair opposite hers.
Imade squeezed into the chair as much as the space allowed and took a cursory look around the office. Her eyes snagged on the wooden display board that hung behind Mrs Osakwe. It was peppered with yellow post-it notes and photos. She recognized Mrs Osakwe in some of the photos, looking matronly.
“Sometimes we have special events and we take photos for the memories,” Mrs Osakwe explained, following Imade’s gaze. “It helps when some of the children leave us.”
“What kind of events?” Imade asked.
“Birthdays, outreaches. You know how it is. We are charity and everyone wants a slice. I won’t complain because it makes the children here happy and they get new clothes, new food. But sometimes, it is irritating. The way they come here and look at us as if we are exhibits at the museum,” Mrs Osakwe hissed. “I know I should be grateful, especially for the sake of these little ones. Don’t mind me.”
Imade nodded, “I understand you.”
“It’s worse these days. Everyone on social media wants to look like a philanthropist so when they come here, they keep snapping pictures up and down, not even caring to ask about the children or even about those who work here.”
“Sounds like a thankless job,” Imade replied. She was thinking of Mena’s birthday three years ago and how Mena had gone on a one-month campaign asking for donations for an orphanage she wanted to visit on her birthday. She recalled overhearing Mena planning for photography, videography and even matching shirts for her and her guests. The donations had come in, yes, but Imade couldn’t help feeling like the whole thing was just for show. There was something clinical about it, especially when a few days later Mena launched her events business.
“How…um…how did you end up here?” Imade asked.
“I’m sorry if that came out wrong. It’s just…I’m curious. It’s not every day I meet people…like you.”
Mrs Osakwe sighed, her features hardening. “Twelve years ago, I lost my husband and two children in a fatal car crash. They were on their way to see me in Lagos where I was completing my degree. Losing them was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“Oh my God,” Imade couldn’t find the words to commemorate such tragedy. What hell she must have gone through.
“No, don’t apologize. It is not a story I tell often, but perhaps since we are going to be working together, you need to hear this. We all have our stories. Sometimes our stories are here to educate others. The question is, can you take it?”
Imade nodded, leaning forward.
Mrs Osakwe gave a sad smile: “You’re not what I expected at all.”
“You actually care. We don’t get much of that around here.”
Imade searched for the right words to say, found none, and opted for silence.
“Anyway, back to my story. Losing my family was…like losing me. I became lost. Couldn’t complete my degree, blamed myself for their death, stopped going to church or seeing people. It was like I was dead inside.” Mrs Osakwe closed her eyes. “This place…saved me. I think it was two years after their deaths that someone told me about this place. She wanted to get me out of my depression, so she said they were looking for volunteers. I wasn’t interested at first, because I had lost interest in everything. But she convinced me to pay them a visit and see what I think. I did, and that’s when I met Joy.”
“Yes. Joy was special. She was born without her sight and abandoned here. She was four when I met her. From the first day I saw her, something drew us to each other, and for the first time in years, I felt something other than pain. She is the reason I started working here.”
“Wow. So, where is she now?”
“I adopted her. She is currently finishing up secondary school. You will meet her one of these days. Even though she doesn’t know it, she was the one that made me regain my faith in God. She pulled me out of the fog that was my life and gave me a reason to live. That’s how I realized that every child that passes through us has a purpose and a story. My mission is to be part of that story in the little way I can. For the sake of my departed children.”
Without thinking, Imade reached out and clasped Mrs Osakwe’s hand that rested on the table.
“Thank you so much for sharing your story with me,” she said. “I can’t wait to meet Joy.”
“You’ll like her,” Mrs Osakwe responded, patting Imade’s hand.
At that moment, there was a small tap on the wooden barricade.
“Come in,” Mrs Osakwe called.
A tall dark woman dressed put her head through, letting her eyes drift from Imade to Mrs Osakwe.
“I didn’t know you had company ma,” she said. “Hello…?”
“This is Imade. She is from Abuja,” Mrs Osakwe said. “Imade, that is Eugenia. She just finished her Masters in Child Psychology and started volunteering with us recently.”
“Nice to meet you, Imade,” Eugena slipped fully into the office.
She was tall and slim, with high cheekbones perfect for modelling. She was dressed in comfortable clothes – jeans, t-shirt and sandals. Her hair was in an afro bun and she had the kind of fresh eagerness Imade recognized in herself ten years ago.
“She comes in three times a week,” Mrs Osakwe continued.
“Nice to meet you, Eugenia.” Imade replied, clasping Eugenia’s outstretched palm.
“Mrs Osakwe, I wanted to let you know that Pastor Dapo and his team are here,” Eugenia said, a slight blush crossing her face.
“Oh, that’s good,” Mrs Osakwe stood. “I forgot that today is Friday. Come and meet some of the people that actually care, Imade.”
Imade stood and followed the two women out of the office.
There were five of them standing and talking outside and Imade was grateful for the fresh air. She hung at the back, waiting as Mrs Osakwe went towards the visitors – two women and three men.
She watched them exchange pleasantries, joking and laughing, and she felt the urge to call Yvonne. Mrs Osakwe’s story had hit something deep in her that made her want to reach out to her loved ones.
“Imade, come, come,” Mrs Osakwe waved at her.
One of the men turned to look as she approached and Imade suddenly felt self-conscious as she walked up to their little group.
Mrs Osakwe pulled her arm, drawing her close.
“This is Imade, from Abuja. She is representing the people I told you about, Pastor.” Mrs Osakwe said. “Imade, these are some of the angels behind this place. This is Pastor Dapo, this is Helen, that is Oviasuyi, Efe and Idahosa. You will see them around a lot.”
“Imade? As in Imadeyunuagbon?”
Imade’s eyes widened. She brought her eyes to the person who had called her full name.
“You don’t remember me,” the tall man stated. “Smallie.”
Imade’s eyes widened in recognition. “Wait. Wait. Wait. Smallie? As in Dapo the smallie? You?”
Pastor Dapo shrugged, a small smile on his lips.