One of the best things anyone can do for the education of the children at the Kazembe Orphanage is to read to them. Reading to them helps hone their English-speaking skills, teaches them abstract concepts like sequencing and cause and effect, and will ideally instill a desire to learn to read on their own as well.
As a bookworm and a voracious reader myself, I am always more than happy to oblige.
But when I opened the pages of the next book I had picked up in our little library, I grimaced. I knew I’d made a mistake.
I was sitting with the kinders collected around me on a reed mat in the courtyard. It was late afternoon, and what a beautiful afternoon it was. The mango tree in the middle of the courtyard shielded us from the African sun with its long shadow, and a light breeze turned the pages of the picture books for me. If I could choose the weather in heaven, I would like it to be exactly like a Zambian winter’s day. Dorcas, a local woman who is in charge of the kinders’ care, was braiding the girl’s hair into the tight, intricate cornrows many Zambians wear proudly. My fellow American, Emily, was painting the girl’s nails with purple polish. We knew it would all chip off by the end of the evening, but the girls were thrilled to be pampered. Henry did not seem to notice his exclusion from this spa day. Instead, he was listening intently as I read story after story.
Thinking the children would enjoy a story involving gorillas, I had thoughtlessly brought out a book about Tarzan with me. I assumed the kids had seen the movie (they hadn’t) and so would understand the plot (they didn’t) and expected the pages to feature only one or two sentences each (nopes.) Each page featured several long paragraphs, including direct quotes from the film. The pictures rarely coordinated with all that was read on each page, so I knew the kids would have a difficult time grasping the story line. On this one count, my predictions were correct.
(All of you reading this may enjoy knowing that at this point in the narration, I was disturbed from my writing by the appearance of a very large baboon spider about the size of my hand. Although massive and frightening to look at, they are harmless – I think – so I suppose I’ll let him stay and become my new roommate. Taking suggestions for names.)
(Never mind. I turned around for a moment and when I turned back my new friend has disappeared. He moves like lightening. While I like spiders and am not concerned, I will note that it is always far more comforting to know where my large friend is residing, rather than wondering where he might have hidden himself so as to best surprise me later. I suspect he may have scurried under the jeans I was going to wear in the morning. Africa is not for the faint of heart, dear reader.)
On each page, the children – most notably Henry – asked question after question, frequently repeating the same query twice. Sabor was never pictured so they didn’t understand what was suggested in Kala’s discovery of baby Tarzan. They didn’t comprehend how Tarzan could be raised by gorillas. The word “ape,” used interchangeably with gorilla, befuddled them. They couldn’t discern who the bad guy was – an ambiguous concept in the movie as well – and they were confused by the minor characters’ names, as they all began with either T or K. But they didn’t want to read another book; they insisted on reading this one. So with a sigh, we continued.
We arrived at the page that follows Tarzan’s rescue of Jane. The picture featured the two characters on a tree branch, palms pressed together. A look of wonder was on each face. I read their conversation aloud, and then I put the book down. Immediately shouts of protest went up, but I stayed them with a hand.
“I want to talk to you guys about something,” I said gently. “Tarzan and Jane are very different, aren’t they? They have different families. They have different homes. They eat different foods and they play different games. They even look and dress different. But really, they are the same.”
“Same?” repeated Henry, ever my echo.
“The same,” I said firmly. “They are people, just like you and me. They both have two ears – everyone point to your ears.” Giggles ensued as they obeyed. “They both have two eyes. Point to your eyes! They both have two hands. And they both have one heart. Can you show me where your heart is?”
Six little brown hands rested reverently on five tiny chests. Moriah’s heart is apparently located in her neck.
“Henry, give me your hand.” He offered his tiny hand and I pressed it against mine, just like in the movie. “See? I am different from you, but our hands are the same.”
Henry shook his head and pointed at my arm. “No, I am brown. You are…” He couldn’t find a word to describe my skin color. (Probably because it is colorless. If there is a white that is whiter than white, that’s me.)
“I am different,” I said gently. I made sure not to describe my skin color or his. “I look different from you. I have a different family, come from a different home, eat different foods, play different games, and wear different clothes. But look. You and I both have two ears.” I wiggled his little ears, making him giggle. “We both have two eyes, and we both have two hands. And Henry, how many hearts do we have?”
Henry thought for a moment, and then said firmly, “One.”
I glanced at Dorcas, the nanny, to see if she was listening. I wanted desperately for her to hear my words. Last week, she offered me a place on the nannies’ bed in the nursery during a Bible study we were holding while she moved to sit on the floor. When I declined and offered it to her, she laughed and shook her head, saying, “No, no, I am black.”
The one heart I have broke when she said that.
“That’s right, Henry.” I put my hand over my heart. “We both have one heart. God made us the exact same on the inside, and he loves us the same. And I love you, even though we are different. Everyone is the same on the inside, even if we all look different, and we should love everyone the same, no matter what they look like or where they come from.”
The children nodded in solemn agreement. We continued the story. I’m not sure they understood the ending of the book, but I hope with all of my heart that they heard that one vital part. In a country that has spent a century or so bowing to the will of the white man and has developed racial resentment, there aren’t many things I could teach them that would be more important. On a continent where cultural, political, economic, medical, and religious barriers divide entire nations, there aren’t many lessons they could learn that would be truer. In a world where sin permeates the human heart and teaches us to hate one another because of our differences, there are few facts that would be more crucial to understand.
I knew there was a reason I loved books.