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A boy in the crowd

It happened in the first hour of 2005, right after a fireworks display that three million people watched on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The crowd was in awe. Locals and tourists, families and friends, children and adults, rich and poor. Some were drunk, some not; all were dressed in white, in accordance with
a beautiful old African religious tradition. In the midst of the happy chaos, some carried open bottles of champagne, others glasses of beer, as they left the shore to fetch their cars, to walk home or if they were lucky, find a cab. That is when I sawthe boy: a barefoot black five-year-old, all by himself, wearing nothing but an old pair of shorts. From one moment to the next, that little gentleman reminded me of something unusual: that I was a grown-up. Not because I was 30 yeas older than him, but because he made me realize that I was responsible for a world that allows
kids like him, along with their invisibility, to exist. The party, for me, was over.

He was invisible to the crowd, as he is every day to Brazilian society. No one seemed to care about that lost child on one of the liveliest nights of the year in Rio. He was not crying. He was not asking for money. He was just there, standing in one corner,
while people passed by, laughing and drinking. However, he was not invisible to me. I approached him and asked his name: André. I asked where his mother was. He did not know. So I took him by the hand and led him to the closest juice bar, where people were lining up by the dozen for sandwiches. The two friends with whom I had spent New Year’s Eve raised their eyebrows. So did the rest of the locals at the
snack place.

I ordered white cheese on whole wheat bread and a mango juice for him. In addition, I asked for a glass of water and some napkins. This way, I could clean him up, not after the meal, but before it. Apparently, no one had given that boy a shower for days. As I cleaned his face, belly and arms, the onlookers were mute, staring at me as if I were an alien from outer space. One of my friends, a judge that works on
issues of children’s rights immediately told me to give up on helping him. She was immune to scenes like that. That did not stop me. Once André was clean and fed, it was time to find him a place to sleep.

My desire? To take him home. But I don’t live in Rio, and I could not take a child to the apartment where I was staying as a guest; however, it did cross my mind. So,instead of ending the night partying, I walked through the crowd, holding André by the hand, looking for law enforcement. Sadly, handing kids to policemen in Brazil could put them in an even worse situation – in most cases, the lack of structure,
lack of knowledge and even lack of education don’t prepare policemen for their job description. I had no choice. My friend insisted that,as an adult who was not related to the child, any action I took could be interpreted as kidnap. For me, on the other hand, when you save a child, you save the world.

I finally found three policemen who told me that a child assistance center was set up for the event five miles down the road and three million people away. The best solution, according to them, was to leave André in their hands; they would take care of him after they left work, which could have been at three, four or five in the morning. I made them promise the child would be safe under their guard. Then I bought André an extra sandwich, provided him with a bit of money and left him, as tired as he was, sitting on the curb next to the policemen. As I watched other people’s happiness, hugs and celebrations, I wondered how that night would end for André – and how life has been treating him so far. I left him sitting on a curb in Copacabana. Little does he know, he has never left me.


[ copyright © 2005 by Tania Menai ]