Relobohile puts everything into his mouth. Shoes, cell phones, my fingers. In his nine-month world, anything could be a treat.

Relobohile, also known as Relo, Charmer Boy, Charmie, is my host sister’s son but he stays with our family while she attends school and her husband works. It’s not uncommon for children to be raised by their grandparents during the first year in Lesotho and Relo will likely stay with his parents fulltime when school closes in December. They call me his aunt and I’ve come to love him the way any aunt would her nephew.

My interaction and relationship with my host family changed when Relo was born, the same way a new child alters families in the U.S. I spend more time in their house and the gap in language is more irrelevant when all attention is focused on a crawling infant.

Because I see him every day, I’ve been able to watch him grow and discover life. As a newborn, we carefully passed him around, making sure to prop his head. Then his eyes started to wander and facial expressions began to appear. Now, he crawls and can wobble from couches to chairs while holding on to a leg or table. And he laughs. He laughs when I dance with him, when I turn him upside down, when I clap my hands, when I cover his face to play peek-a-boo. There would be so much wonder and love in this world if we never outgrew the excitement and fun of a rousing game of peek-a-boo.

This morning I came into the house and Relo was off exploring anything he could get his hands on. He found Moroana’s phone on the couch but my mme moved it to the coffee table. So he climbed down and went straight for it, keeping his hands on the table as he shuffled. She moved it to the other side, so he wobbled around the table and right as he got there she moved it again. So he kept going, never letting his smile break. He went around that table for nearly 10 minutes without showing anything but sheer glee in anticipation of eventually getting that phone and putting it in his mouth. He didn’t anger at my mme or quit in frustration, but just kept going around and around as my mme and I giggled. It occurred to me that this situation, the admiration of an innocent child, is not one bound to any culture but one we can all share simply by being humans.

Relo doesn’t talk or do any real tricks other than shuffle. He smiles, which any human older than a few months can do, but his has the power to melt any awkwardness or uneasiness and bring us together. We don’t need to say anything but by watching him play – mind you, without many toys – and explore this unfamiliar world, we are more of a family than ever before. He completes us. After all, relobohile means “we are thankful.”

I sometimes pretend that I will spend the rest of Relo’s life watching him move into new stages and celebrate his growth from one phase to the other, but I know that isn’t true. I’ll occasionally see photos of him as grows, but never again will I get to experience the day-to-day changes and, on another continent, I’ll miss the big stuff.

What relieves some of that pain is that, come January, there will be a new infant for me to aunt. I will likely not spend every day with this child for his or hers first nine months, but he or she will always know me as Aunt Heather and I will be there for the big stuff.

And, just like Relo, Baby Mangan will reunite a family that hasn’t been whole for two years.


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