“We named her ‘Happy’,” said Niona. We stood looking out over the small yard of the orphanage where a teen girl was making some of her thirty brothers and sisters wash their clothes. It’s a hot day, but the kids don’t seem to mind as much as I do. It’s always hot, here in Masaka, Uganda. I asked Niona if she got the name because of her infectious smile. “No,” said Niona, “I wanted her to grow up to be happy.” “My mother died,” Happy told me, “Right after I was born. She had HIV and I do too, but I take medicine twice a day. And every month I go to the hospital and they check. I’d like to go to a private school. They said I can if I find a sponsor.” Happy wants to learn child care, though I don’t think she really needs any formal education. She’s a natural. She has to be because she helps Niona and her mother Florence take care of all the kids in the orphanage.
There’s 31 kids, but that can change at any moment. Another kid will join and become part of the family. A loving, caring family. A family where you look out for each other, explains Happy: “If I have three dresses and someone else has one and they ask to borrow a dress you say: ‘Which one do you want?’ Because if I had only one dress, then I’d like to borrow another as well.”
This family in the orphanage is the only one Happy has ever known. She’s never seen her father, who left after her mother died in childbirth. When Florence, of the orphanage, told people that she wanted to adopt Happy, they said she was crazy. A baby with HIV—what if she infects all the others? “But this child needs love just as much. A family that loves and cares for her.” Florence asked a social worker to come by and help her how to handle it. “She can’t share food or stuff like razor blades, if we’d stick to that, it would be fine.”
Now, some twelve years later, Happy is a big help for Florence and Niona. A natural caretaker. She brings all the kids to school and takes them back home. She helps them cook, clean, and care for themselves. One thing she’s strict about is that all the kids have to wash their clothes and scrub their shoes. “They need to look smart in class. Their outfit needs to be clean,” Niona says.
And maybe naming her the way they did helped—Happy is a happy kid and even though she has HIV, she’s never sick. Today, she’s taking care of her little sister Precious, who will turn out to have malaria. Everyone in the orphanage has had malaria at one point, but not Happy. Every kid has had to skip school because of an illness, except Happy.
Happy smiles and lives with her teeth and heart laid bare in circumstances that would make me hopeless. As I see that little girl, taking care of her brothers and sisters, all smiles, I take a mental picture. One that I’ll view whenever my life will start to feel hopeless and I’ll remember to be as happy as Happy.