Testimony. A statement, a declaration that stands as evidence for who you are, what you believe, what has happened to you. Sharing these stories and bearing witness to them carries a power that can change hearts. For one year, it was my job to gather the testimonies of patients at a children’s hospital specializing in physical disabilities in Lusaka, Zambia. Stories and photos of each patient were used to promote the hospital’s work and gather funds through online sponsorships. I was dedicated to presenting as much truth as I could glean with the help of a translator.
During these necessarily brief interviews conducted under harsh florescent lights in loud clinics, I quickly learned what an impossible task I was trying to achieve. How could I even begin to grasp Zambian culture? How could I explain to a western audience that a child’s broken arm went untreated for months not because of neglect, but because of the lack of hospitals in villages, as well as the sometimes deplorable conditions of the government hospitals? How could I look at a group of girls sifting through a trash heap and know whether they were destitute, or simply at play, happy as any other child is in the company of their friends?
To see and to tell became increasingly difficult for me as I strained to share each story authentically, uncorrupted by my own previous assumptions. It was all too easy to look at the holes in a child’s shirt and their bowed legs, and feel sorry for them. But feeling sorry was the last thing I needed to do. What I needed was to have these children be seen beyond their knock knees, their club foot, their joined fingers. I needed them to be seen for who they were—for people on this earth with the same basic chemical makeup, the same reasons to laugh or learn. Every photo and story I gathered failed to satisfy me because they were only facts laying on the surface—how the injury was received, their favorite school subject, what the parents did for a living. I was failing to cross the impassable space that kept me from the true testament of who they were. I was at a loss to convey their essential character, or their very private struggles with the physical disabilities that brought them to our hospital. The camera lens in front of me took the brunt of each direct gaze—nothing made it through.
But then I met a boy named Testimony.
Once a year, a group of plastic surgeons came to serve for a week and treat patients with conditions such as cleft palates and burn contractures. Testimony’s mother caught wind of this and brought him by bus from a city a few hours away. He was two years old. Half of his body was covered in scars from severe burns he sustained upturning a pot of boiling water. He couldn’t extend his right arm because the scar tissue had welded too tight, forming a burn contracture. Those scars will forever be his, but he would be able to use his arm after surgery.
Those were the facts. But what did that say about his life, who he was? As a toddler who spoke only a few words in Nyanja, he could not tell me with his voice—so he showed me. First, that he was a survivor. A child who had experienced unthinkable trauma, but approached me, a pale stranger, with great kindness radiating from his eyes.
Far from being shy, he befriended other patients and confidently walked around the ward as a child who knows he is cared for and loved. The source of this was evident in his mother’s shining smile every time her eyes fell on him. We played without any language but that of our expressions. During his weeks at the hospital undergoing surgery, getting new casts, submitting to check-ups, I never saw him throw a tantrum. He spoke softly, walked slowly. He was his own testimony—a face that brought me so much joy to see.
Testimony showed me something vital—that I didn’t need to fully understand everything. Why he’ll have to live with scars all his life, why some deformities never really go away. I never had to be an expert on Zambian culture. What mattered was to see him, to be with him, to be a witness to his testimony. His face, and thus his photo, became a thumbprint of his life story, his eyes saying “Hello, I’m here too. I made it.” I was humbled to recognize that I was with my equals as children of God, not a group of ‘others’ I was sent to deliver.
There is power in looking into someone’s eyes. There is power in knowing not to turn away. After my time in Zambia was over, I began to sketch faces from the photos I took as a way to make up for the rift that will always remain. I learned to look at each child in the face and to see them without pity, without regard for their physical disabilities. I chose to trust that each child’s testimonies are there in the glint of their eyes and self-betraying smile. And, that the gift of starting to understand and live as witness to one another, may do far more to move the world than we know.
Emily Finke received her BA in English Literature and Writing from Bethel University in Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis where she looks after books and animals. Her travels to Europe, Africa and Asia have afforded her unique opportunities to see the shared beauty in all people and different features of God's face.