It’s a scene that could take place in any household around the world.
A pot is boiling for dinner. Two young sisters sit watching it, waiting for their father’s return. The older sister, impatient and feeling grown up, decides to check on dinner herself. They are both too young to know about oven mitts. She lifts the lid – and throws it by reflex as it burns her unprotected hands. Screaming and looking for relief from the searing pain, she doesn’t notice her younger sister, who is also screaming and trying to get to her feet – scalding water from the lid has splashed all over her arms. The younger sister tries to gets up, and stumbling in her panic, grabs the nearest thing to steady herself – the dinner pot – they fall together, the boiling contents flowing out and covering her small body. She convulses on the ground, laying in the searing puddle, screaming her throat raw and unable to get up as her flesh bubbles and bursts. Their father hears and runs in to see a scene from his nightmares. Scooping up his youngest daughter he begins to run without hesitation to the nearest hospital, her prone, smoking body cradled in his arms. Luckily it’s not far and he hands her off to the doctor, praying desperately. As the doctor takes her away he notices a mark on her arm, a perfect handprint melted into her young flesh, where her father’s strong hand held her to his chest.
Yes, it’s a scene that could take place in any household around the world, but this particular story belongs to Fitahiana, a five year old girl from Madagascar.
If you were to meet Fitahiana, now seven years old, you would never guess she is the girl from the story. Her smile is as big as her hair, which shoots out from her head as if it is trying to escape. Her giggle is so natural that trying to imagine screams is near impossible. She’s clever, learning english faster than a tape recorder and the range of faces she can invent seem endless. She is the perfect little girl – the African Annie, yet having spent a sixth of her life in hospitals her road has been anything but perfect.
She ends up staying in the hospital for six months after the accident. Despite the extensive recovery time her burns have only healed superficially. Covering the entire front of her body, the skin is now tight and leathery. As she grows the skin will only tighten more, resulting in her becoming hunched and malformed. Her breasts will not grow in correctly, she will walk with a limp, and due to extensive scarring on her groin it’s unlikely she will be able to have children.
It is easy to picture her growing resentful, the princess trapped in the dark tower of her body. Yet this isn’t so; she plays and laughs like a normal kid despite her many tragedies.
The reason? The real hero of this story – Fitahiana’s father.
Her father has the same toothy grin as Fitahiana. His eyes have that dancing spark that lets you know he is truly happy to see you. And truly he has a reason to be happy; Mercy Ships is giving his daughter free surgery, loosening the burned joints so that she will grow up tall, straight-backed and beautiful, like all the other little girls.
But when asked about Fitahiana’s life he tells a tale that seems contrary to his ever-present smile. He begins by travelling along her timeline, each year marking some sort of traumatic event.
“When Fitiahiana was born, there was problems – she was born feet first, the cord around her neck and she almost died. When she was two she fell down some stairs. At three I saved her from a truck in the street… at four…” he thinks for a moment, concentration on his face, “four was actually okay. At five her mother died… my wife…” his smile droops, the corners heavy with sadness, “and then at six she was burned…” He looks down at her playing at his feet. “Today she turns seven and we are having another birthday in a hospital.” But then he looks up, his grin back, the spark dancing in his eyes. “Her name means Blessed in Malagasy. I know that this has helped her.” He grabs her shoulder and she smiles up at him. “She will continue to face difficult situations, but she will be okay. Fitahiana is a blessed child.”
How can he remain smiling in the face of such horrible experiences? “You must always try to be happy.” He ruffles Fitahiana’s crazy hair and she giggles from behind her hands. “There will always be difficulties and you will have to face them. If you are sad… it just makes you sick. I prefer to be happy. This is what I teach Fitahiana – always be happy.” This seems to be working for them; hundreds of miles from home on a ship full of foreigners in yet another hospital and she is still rarely seen without her smile.
Soon Fitahiana will go home, returning to her older sister and family, but this time she’ll be able to grow up normally, living her life like every other little girl. Thanks to her father, she’ll be doing it with a smile, happy despite the difficulties of life.
Fitahiana’s dad holds out her right arm, showing us a discoloured scar below her shoulder. “Do you see?” He rotates her arm towards us and then the mark is clear – a perfect hand print pressed into her skin – the mark of a father’s love forever visible for the world to see.