Orphanage in Brazil

By Maisa Leibovitz

Third World countries have an obsession with gates and walls. In Brazil, I lived in a gated house complex; high school was a camera monitored gated forest reserve. Even the mall was encircled by its own great wall.

I was 16 when I decided to step out onto the street and walk to school for the first time.

I had never taken public transportation. I saw only the right neighborhoods because I was inside the gates. My mother said they kept us safe, and I trusted her.

In Grade 10, along with classic academic curriculum expectations, volunteering became mandatory.

Old people depressed me, so I chose to play with kids at an orphanage, which was being threatened to be shut down.

We tried to get it into tip-top shape so government inspectors would keep it running.

Upon arrival, we were directed to the courtyard, the common area visitors were allowed in. The walls were cracked and muddy with small insects crawling and some dead in corners. My straightened hair was sticking to my forehead and I started to wish I hadn’t worn pants. I surveyed the area, taking careful steps not to touch anything that looked dirty, but dust covered everything.

When we reached the sandbox, my germophobia had kicked into high gear. I remembered the vacations in Rio, Copacabana beach, where the sands stretch far to reach the water, white and glistening in the sun.

This place was cat-litter-grey with bits of hard soil and rocks amidst, an eyeless doll head buried in a corner. The courtyard was a rectangle slab of pavement under the hot sun where 40 kids piled in to get sweaty, because running around wasn’t an option.

The first day was sweaty mayhem. The kids flooded in and all of a sudden 20 little hands were touching me, grabbing on my legs, arms, urging me to twirl them around, to come see a broken toy, to teach them some English. I made the mistake of teaching them a greeting and they mocked me screaming, “High-low!” every five minutes.

By the end of the day we all had favorites, mine being a little boy with an Afro in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, who could never keep his shoes on.

His name was Tio, Portuguese for uncle, a wise five-year-old boy.

He sat on my lap every now and then and, as I retied the laces, he picked at my mascara, asking me why I painted my face, why I had spider legs for eyelashes. He asked me if I worked in television.

The next time I went, I wore no foundation, no blush and hair straightening was as futile as ever. My mother put me on permanent ponytail quarantine because I got lice at the orphanage.

That day I got laundry duty.

Celia, the woman who washes clothes, was out back sitting on a crate, the walls around her unfinished brick and cement with wires for clotheslines zigzagging above her head. I asked her politely how I could help and she pointed towards a washbasin full of child-size underwear that needed to be pinned.

We hung up clothes all afternoon, pile after endless pile, and I started wondering, “How do they know which one belongs to who?”

She laughed at me and said, “It’s everybody’s!”

By the end of the day she brought me a glass of water and we chatted. I enjoyed a well deserved break with a new partner. Gossiping with my classmates began to slip my mind.

For those two years I was the burden of my mother’s life. I spread lice to all my sisters, and the parasites never left because I returned twice a month to play with the kids and got the bugs all over again.

I tried to teach Tio how to tie his shoes, but he conveniently seemed to forget and I didn’t mind. Months worth of stories about Power Rangers went by with us sitting under the sun, me listening and doodling with my nails on the dry skin of his shins.

When Christmas came my stocking was still empty. I decided to make the gates of our community work in my favor, sending out letters to my neighbours asking for presents.


When we showed up with 40 boxes for each child, it was 45 degrees, but Christmas festivities went on and it was as silent of a morning as ever.

Tio sat on my lap and we strapped on his new Velcro sneakers.

He told me a couple had come from Italy to adopt him. I wasn’t going to see him again. I tried to act happy, and I was, but I was nostalgic for all he taught me.

I was already nostalgic about not having to wear makeup, about being in a place where nothing mattered except being alive and healthy. The place where all my tricks were laid bare, cleanliness included. It was like going to confession.

Tio asked me, “Voce tera saudade?”

Saudade. That was the word. A word that exists only in the Portuguese language, a word that can sum up the feeling of being distant from a dear one, but not painfully.

Was I going to feel for us being apart?

I came clean, right out with it: yeah, I was. But it could’ve been worse, the gates could’ve kept us apart and we would’ve never met.

I told him a little bit of secret knowledge I had just learned, that Portuguese was our language and these moments wouldn’t exist anywhere else

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