Dr. Richard Bodkin, Principal Research Scientist at Element Six Group shares the story of what inspired him to start an annual fundraising initiative on Campus, a grueling 8-hour run which has seen close to 150 people joining him in previous years, and total of 520 miles covered. This year’s charity run takes place on Friday 10th May and Richard welcomes walkers and runners to join him along the route.
I do not know his name. I met him early one cold winter’s morning in 2014. It was just after sunrise. I was competing in my 4th Comrades marathon, an annual ultra-marathon event, and presently I was on a remote road in an equally remote location out on the east coast of southern Africa. It’s a fresh morning. Breath condenses to water vapour as it exits the body. Sunlight catches the mist and disperses the light leaving an opaque vapour cloud hanging in the air about you. My body has suffered to qualify for this year’s event. Stress fractures in my left foot slow me down considerably. I slow down to place less strain on my foot. A group of children have gathered on the side of the road. The scenery is spectacular on this remote road.
The kids are not here to enjoy the scenery. It is one of the most rural and financially impoverished areas of South Africa. Their lives are a perpetual wrestle with malaise, malnutrition and the effects of financial destitution. They are lively and energetic and approach me with great enthusiasm. They scream loudly as they approach me.
“Sweets, sweets, sweets…”
Their joy and enthusiasm is inspirational. It is enough to lift anyone’s spirits out of the darkest hours of night. There are nine of them and it is difficult to ascertain the age of the kids. Six boys and three girls standing as little as three to four foot from the ground in height but from their infectious enthusiasm they stand 10 feet tall in stature. Towering giants in life that teach you how simple it can be to be joyful. That in every instance happiness is a choice that is entirely our own to make. You alone choose to be happy or choose not to be. The rest is usually a cocktail of reasons varying from failed careers, financial decisions, life partners, substance abuse, health afflictions, personal well-being and unforgiving parents or authority figures as children. None of these are the reason for unhappiness.
I can see this fact in the eyes of these children.
Where most people that I know (myself included) will complain that they are cold and uncomfortable, afflicted with disease and starving from hunger with no future plans and no prospect of immediate improvement, these kids are laughing and filled with a reckless joy to see what they can find, and what exciting experience awaits them in the cold mists of the early morning sunrise as thousands of new faces run past their remote village.
“Sweets, sweets, sweets…”
The children have gathered around me. Their hands outstretched and their eyes full of radiant light and smiles brighter than the risen sun, and an endless energy to persist with their request for sweets. Ages range between four and 12 is my guess.
He was about seven years old. Face as dirty as the muddy red earth on which I was running. Hair a tight black bush of curls. Eyes, a deep brown mahogany set in a resplendent white. A big bright smile decorated with a perfect set of white teeth. He is unable to contain his smile. I don’t know his name. I don’t ask him his name. He looks through me. He knows me or at least it feels as if he does. I have never met him, yet he seems so familiar. Like the presence of an old friend is simply reassuring despite years of not seeing each other. I know that I am in the process of learning something. I don’t know what exactly it is that I am learning but I know that this is a significant lesson.
His face is a constant source of inspiration and light. He asks me for food. His smile disappears for a moment and as the light fades a little it’s impossible for me not to notice the lesions on his face and his lips. I don’t know the truth but I do know the reality of HIV in Southern Africa. I also know the devastating impact it has had in these remote locations. Mothers, Fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents and grandchildren alike… This disease knows no boundary and acts indiscriminately. An insidious disease that dehumanises and ultimately strips people of almost everything that defines them.
“Food, please food”
I don’t hear the other children. Just this mass of curly black hair, this dusty little boy before me and a request for food.
My foot aches, the irony isn’t last on me and I reflect on how trivial the aches and pains I have in this race are in comparison to the life race that this boy could have ahead of him.
He asks me for food. I didn’t have any food at the time, so I gave him a pair of gloves. His face lit up from within. It is due to him and his beaming smile upon receipt of the gloves, that I have promised to make sure that there are resources available so that at least one additional child living with HIV receives a warm meal every day. This is what drives the eight-hour fundraising run on Harwell Campus. It would be my hope that if we can feed one then someday, we can feed all.
It is likely that he is no longer with us. He possibly had HIV and has possibly lost his fight against AIDS. He was asking for food, but I believe he was also teaching me a very valuable lesson.
By supporting the Starfish charity money gets directly to children like the child I met on that dusty road one early morning just after sunrise in 2014.
To donate, connect to Richard’s Just Giving page