There’s something about the touch of a child’s hand in your hand. The gentle embrace of a life so new and fragile.

We arrived on the riverbank of the Malombo village by boat and the faces of the children and grandchildren of the families in the village were the first we saw, alongside Edith in the shade of the trees.

A woman beside the river smiled over at us and then wrapped her baby up around her chest, the little one on her back peering out to one side with big round quizzical eyes. The mother lifted a bucket onto her head and then sashayed slowly along the sandy path to her house.

Beside me appeared two more big eyes, looking up from just above my knees. The young girl reached out her hand to me, her little palm slipped into mine and everything fell silent.

We followed Edith and the other children to the garden that supplies so many of our fresh vegetables. We felt the smiles and songs of the youth turn on a light in our hearts. The little girl, Josephine and I hand-in-hand, I let her lead, afraid to move a muscle wrong in case I disturbed the peace she had brought to me.

Edith took us through the village, to the craft centre, to her home, the cooking hearth, the chicken coop and water tanks. Through it all, though, my heart was with the little girl. I felt myself slip into a new role in her company, from outsider to insider, from visitor to friend to mother.

Perhaps that’s the feeling that comes over us in the presence of young ones – the natural human instinct to protect and care for something smaller than ourselves. The way an elephant elder in a herd will take to guarding a baby that isn’t her own, as a matter of social survival and family bonds. Because family transcends simple biology.

Josephine’s own mother was busy hanging up washing outside her home. The mother we had met on the riverbank was frying tiger fish in a pan on a low open fire. Grandmother Betina was lying in the shade with other children enjoying the weekend off from school. There was a strong family support system here, but Josephine slipping her hand into mine let me into the warmth of their guardianship. Nothing felt more important in that moment.

All of a sudden I understood the power of parenthood, the deep sense of purpose and need to protect that it gives you. That feeling that would do the world so much good if only we all took on the role of guardians – for not only our own children, but for all living things.

Thank you for the lesson and for the love, little Josephine.