Every year, libraries around the country hold summer reading programs designed to spark kids' imaginations and encourage them to read. As you can see from the image on the left, this year's poster depicts the summer reading series as a colorful adventure--a journey full of chances to get plumb wide-eyed as you chase down the horizon. The stage for this path to discovery is grand: stories can come from all over the world, and libraries often reach out to speakers who can bring personal experience and encourage something hands-on for the kids to do, so that they learn a little about the life and culture of a place and its people in the process of getting a bit of entertainment and occupation on a summer's day.
Knowing about our Congo work and love of stories, the Fulton County librarian, Linda, invited us as speakers for the series, so my mom (Judy) and I trotted off to the library to whip up enthusiasm for Congo and for books in about 120 children with an age range of infant to 14. As Mary shows here, holding the Congo flag, one is never too young to give up a big grin for the DRC and I couldn't have asked for a better model to set the mood. Our presentation was about intrigue and good humor and maybe even a little mischief, all of which come across well in her expression. With an age range so broad, keeping them all on the same page had its technical challenges. So, we started simply, using the idea Linda innovated when she gave them all summer passports to fill with records of their virtual visits. You might say that we granted those in attendance a visa to the kid-friendly parts of Congo for an afternoon; in a benevolent mood or maybe because they were so well-connected, we didn't even hassle them at the border.
To visit a place you have to first know where on earth it is. Though my mom is vaguely pointing at the whole continent here, you can see a red string on a pin stuck into the heart of DRC, and we made sure they could see where it was and had one of them volunteer to poke at it in front of the crowd. In retrospect, maybe I should have also reminded the kids of where America was, too, since one of the boys bragged to me before the presentation that he'd traveled to several other countries, including the exotic territories of Maryland and Virginia. It's exciting to see children building awareness about geography, and we did our part to give a sense of how far away and how big the DRC is, and how we'd lived there happily once upon a time, when I was their age. We passed around a few artifacts of our life there to give them something to handle, particularly the VW bug, a car hand-made from wire with some clever engineering to make its hood and trunk fully workable. I used the opportunity of reflecting on material goods to remind the kids that having a library is a great privilege; to contrast, I explained that few Congolese children in the area I grew up had the chance to dive into a book whenever they like because of so few libraries and so much work to be done. "But they don't miss out on stories altogether. Many children hear oral stories instead of reading them, which is a very old way of passing them down through generations." To have them relate, I explained that this is a style of storytelling often done around campfires. Ah! Many noises of recognition rose in the sea of fidgeting. Then I said: "This story--the one I'm bringing you--you won't find in books. It's a story that's mostly spoken," but I promised them a few pictures to go along with it. I pointed to a couple of posters on an easel with their backs facing forward. I was going for a little suspense.
Instead of flipping them right away, I started by describing the scene and the main character of the story, Bwana Shida (Mr. Troubles). "So, Bwana Shida was going out to chop wood one day for a fire. Anybody do that in your family?" Again, lots of recognition from these rural PA kids. "My dad does that!!" one boy yelled, unable to control the strength of his identification, if the volume of his voice was a reliable indication. Then I described Bwana Shida's toil at the tree, working to fell it on a hot day and how he was almost finished when... "Suddenly he heard a roar behind him and scrambled up the tree lickety-split." I asked them: "What animals in Africa might roar?" There were a lot of guesses, many of them rightfully in the big cat category, and one hit bingo: lion. "Yes! He looked down and saw a lion... but just as he thought he had gotten to safety high up in the tree branches, he turned and saw a.... what dangerous animal do you think might be in the tree?" Again, somebody guessed it. "Yes, a poisonous snake! He thought to himself "I'll just jump in the river where the snake and lion won't follow me, but when he looked down, he saw another sharp row of teeth waiting for him. What do you think was down there in the water?" Crocodile!
At this point I revealed the image of Bwana Shida dangling in the breeze, threatened every which way by aggressive dangers. I asked the children to guess what would come next. A dissonant chorus arose of "he'll get away!" and "he'll die!" I asked them to raise their hands to indicate which fate they believed awaited him. The vote was a nearly 50/50 split with one kid hedging his bets by voting enthusiastically that the character would both die and escape. The youthful pessimists must have been glad, because I explained next that things only got worse for Bwana Shida as the wind began to pick up and make it difficult for him to keep his grip after he was already tired from working. Nonetheless, Bwana Shida said to himself, "I'm just going to hold on as long as I can and wait to see what happens."
Then I revealed what my nerdy literary books call the "deus ex machina"--the surprise ending that fixes everything in one miraculous go just when fortune seems most impossible to turn for the better: the wind makes the tree fall, which pins the lion and snake, and the sound of the mighty tree cracking sends the crocodile into a watery skedaddle that takes him out of predatory reach. To his astonishment, Bwana Shida walks away unharmed. An uproar of "I told you so!"s and "He got away"s and "look at that!"s ricocheted around the room. Then I told them what Bwana Shida learned: that when things are tough you have to hold on, and that when things are tougher you have to hold on tighter, because you never know what the wind may blow your way. The parents who had been holding their breath ever since I took my casual poll about whether or not the man would die a terrible death seemed visibly relieved and also very pleased with a moral encouraging basic stick-to-it-iveness. Perseverence is hardly a contraversial topic, and the resolution was happy. In the end, I got to convey a little Congolese ingenuity and cleverness and good sense through this story that I like so much, and to a group that would never otherwise hear it. It's worth noting that, while I took poster print outs for this event, Jeff and I had the paintings above commissioned so we can use them for educational purposes like this, and the original canvases are currently sailing over the seas to meet us (paintings are copyright: Mkumba Steven www.tingatinga.org). You will see these images again on this site, I assure you. There's a little something for everyone in this story. When asked what he liked most, one boy told me "I liked when the tree squished the snake," which his mother interpreted as a matter of strong personal taste. "He really hates snakes," she told me. Whether you are a person who likes perseverence or a slither-o-phobe, the story has its various charms.
After the reading and the recommendation of a few books about Swahili in the library, we began with the "hands on" portion of our visit. I explained to the audience that children often have serious work to do in the family, including carrying water and caring for younger siblings. So, those were our activities--work recast as fun; because it takes some skill, the children were up for challenging themselves. Boys and girls lined up by the dozens to balance a bucket full of tiny wiffle balls from one end of the room to the other, cheering each other on, admiring loudly, and roaring with glee when the whole thing slipped to the ground in an instant, sending the balls bouncing in all directions. Though we also had a coloring activity for the kids, nearly all of them who could walk wanted to see if they were up for the task of being a Congolese country kid for a time. If it weren't a dry run, I assure you 80% of them would have been soaked straight through by the end of it. With a little practice, though, some of them were getting quite good! Next on the agenda was caring for siblings, and I explained the special way that babies are strapped onto the caretaker's back. Mom handed me a Congolese doll we had brought along and we pointed to the model. You can see me below with Jimmy on my back, and this is standard issue for carrying children small enough. It surprised me a little when I asked for volunteers and adults eagerly asked to have their little ones strapped on their backs. The kiddos seemed pretty contented, too, to serve as guinea pigs.
After the adults, the kids came up to have me strap on a baby doll, as you can see. One boy said it was his favorite part of the whole presentation to learn about how mothers carry their children on their backs. It's hard to see the extent of his expression at this size, but the boy with the Steelers' jersey looks mighty pleased with himself, and should. He's a bonafide African big brother, in this imaginative exercise.
As I explained a little about what their life might look like as a child in Congo, I stressed the responsibility of older sibings, and mentioned that many children just 6 years of age may carry infants and toddlers, sparking a new trend in experimentation at the behest of parents. Here we see my flag model, Mary, on the back of her brother, who is doing his best to keep her balanced by a combination of sheer will, face-making, and bending over to distribute the weight. Not surprising, as he's really not that much older or bigger than she is.
He brought his turn and our visit to finish with this flourish: "My pants and underwear are starting to come down." That, folks, might be the universal sign to bring things to a dignified finish while it's still possible. So it was that we all finished up our chatting and experimenting and imagining ourselves in Congo and came back, without a hitch or delay, to the good old USA.
Bless children and their verve, curiosity, and candor. I couldn't have asked for better traveling companions, even the ones that announced immanent depantsing. It still makes me grin to think of the one kid who stopped me mid-introduction to say "Wait. Isn't a story a lie?" And when I tried to explain fiction to him he gave a knowing smirk and said to his buddy next to him "I told you so." I fear to know exactly what I confirmed for him, but I know that, if rumors about fiction are alive and worthy of buzz in the existence of modern eight-year-olds, I have hope for the future of books. A girl of 13 signed up after our visit for her first library card, which tells me something good, too. Travel, away, love. Travel far. Maybe you will meet me in the Congo one day, face to face. I promise I'll try to get you over the border smoothly that time, too, but one knows that Congo is full of Bwana Shida adventures. Still, you never know what the wind may blow your way.
A big thanks to Linda and the Fulton County Library for inviting us.
For more photos of our visit, click here.