Stories

Michelle and Felix, Zambia

ChildFund Ambassador Michelle Pettigrove describes their African adventure to meet Felix …

I stare intently at a photo of an 18-month-old baby boy grimacing into the bright sunlight. His name is Felix and he lives in Zambia.

I remember seeing this image for the first time 15 years ago; I was excited to think that I might make a difference to his little life. Back then I filed the photo in an envelope labelled ‘FELIX’ and added to it each time I received a letter from his sole parent, the gentle Beatrice.

That envelope, now creased and bulging, sits heavily in my lap as I sift through 15 years of correspondence from one side of the world to the other. Today those words and photos will become real. We have one hour left of a gruelling six hour drive through the Zambian bush to meet Felix.

The journey for me started back in 1993 when I was working for Channel Seven on my third year of A Country Practice. I was earning good money and the phrase ‘putting something back’ was ringing true. I looked at all the sponsorship organisations and chose ChildFund Australia.

Over the years I received photos, school reports and letters detailing Felix’s growth and progress, and I developed an incredible bond with this little person. It was my responsibility to honour my commitment to him even when I sometimes struggled to pay my own bills. Despite the barriers of distance and language, Beatrice and I regularly exchanged news and tried to imagine each other’s worlds. Both born in 1966, our lives could not have been more different but I felt a real love for this single mother of four who was doing her best to support her young family. We dreamt of the day we might actually meet face-to-face.

That day would never come. In 2003, I received a letter from ChildFund stating that Beatrice had died of severe diarrhoea after first developing an eye infection that blinded her. Felix had lost his mother and I wept as I had lost a dear, dear friend. I felt that Beatrice had been robbed, but in fact she had simply conformed to the Zambian life expectancy of 37 short years.

Today, it’s hard to think of meeting Felix without Beatrice by his side. As we approach Felix’s village I see a few children waving and calling out. We creep slowly up the bumpy track and the crowd grows. We stretch out the windows to greet them, their faces glow as they shout and laugh. At the top of the hill our car is surrounded, mobbed by the entire population of Felix’s tiny village. The people are about 20 deep now and are singing a song of welcome and joy. It floods over us; we step out of the car into the throng of singing, swaying women. One after the other they shake my hand and their voices fill my head as their song swells.

Then I turn around and immediately I know this child with the shy smile. His face has stared at me from so many photos I’ve kept safe for years. I open my arms, Felix steps towards me and I do what I’ve wanted to do for so long: I wrap my arms around him and don’t let go for a long time. He is shaking, and I think something inside of me has burst because I can’t stop the tears. Eventually I pull back from him and he says: “I am so happy you are here. Thank you Mama.” My heart cracks as I stand there holding Felix’s hands in mine. He is beautiful; Beatrice would have been so proud.

All our dreaming and planning to get here have been worthwhile. It is one of the most rewarding moments of my life. Felix’s extended family loves him, and they do their best to fill the gap left by Beatrice. Felix has grown into a brave young 16-year-old who sings his national anthem proudly in a spontaneous village choir. I nearly split with pride as he introduces his teachers and shows us his small field and his goats.

We are real to each other now, not just a name in a far-off country, and it’s a privilege to be part of this big picture. Despite everything, Felix has a future and I know that I have made a difference.

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