The universal language of play

13 10 2009

I wasn’t in the mood to be gawked at today. The cat calls finally got to me, and it was hard to tune out the comments as we passed. I just wanted to blend in – to walk through town and not be noticed – to simply be another face in the crowd.

But, instead, I felt like I was wearing a neon sign around my neck. It buzzed to life as soon as we left the Service Center, illuminating our faces and broadcasting our approach. “Look at us,” it blinked and flashed, “we’re different!”

I’ve been assured that mizungu is not a derogatory word, but on some people’s lips it certainly sounds like a slam.

So it was definitely worth sitting in line for over an hour at two different gas stations to procure less than half a tank of fuel. It was worth it because that meant we could go to Chongwe this afternoon.

We were stranded yesterday. The car battery was dead and the fuel shortage raged on. So today we were looking forward to finishing up some filming and getting to see the kids at the orphan homes again. We’re still not really sure what’s going on with the gas situation, but each station allowed us to put in 50,000 Kwacha (about $10 worth) which was sufficient to get us out of the city and back to the bush. We’re still a bit of a spectacle out there, but there are rarely any comments, and at least most people smile and wave when they stare.

It’s always so refreshing to be there, and the kids are really starting to warm up to us. While Steph was finishing a few interviews for the video we are making, I went and joined Sam, one of the youngest boys, in the shade. He was banging two rocks together, trying to fix a toy. As we played together, three of the other youngest children joined us. What a blessing to get to just stop and play in the dirt. I was so insanely happy to be able to share in their innocence and wonder for awhile.

I was reminded today how many things are universal – how many things transcend culture and race and background. For example:

  • Little boys will always think you are awesome if you build a tower out of something and let them knock it down. Also, the knocking down part is always hilarious – we’re talking grab your belly and roll on the ground funny. (Today our tower-building material of choice happened to be rocks. I can build a pretty mean rock tower, and the kids took turns knocking it down before entering into a state of blissful hysteria.)
  • Little girls love to dance and jump and twirl. And, when they notice you watching them, they’ll add to the extravagance in any way they can while periodically checking to make sure you’re still watching.
  • Tickling always works to get the shy kid to smile.
  • Older siblings usually win games, but it’s mostly because they know they are bigger than you and don’t have to play fair.
  • Parents love to brag about their kids. Each of the four orphan homes has a “momma” – often a widow from the community – for the eight children, but one of these houses has a couple. The dad told me over and over again, with a huge grin on his face, how bright his “kids” were.
Steph - filmmaker extraordinaire

Steph - filmmaker extraordinaire

Meet my new friend Sam

Meet my new friend Sam

Kauytay - we wrote words in the dirt (and with rocks)

Kauytay - we wrote words in the dirt (and with rocks)

taking turns knocking stuff down

taking turns knocking stuff down

All my new little buddies

All my new little buddies

beeming with pride

beaming with pride

And, of course, more jumping!

And, of course, more jumping!

As the sun started to sink in the sky, I didn’t want to leave. But with promises to return later this week we finally headed out.

Covered in red dirt from head to toe, I rolled down the window and just let the scenery rush by. We passed men and women on the road – some carrying water home on their heads, some peddling old rusty bikes loaded with bundles of sticks or charcoal, some just resting in the shade. And, other than the occasional goat darting in front of the car, the ride home felt normal. The universal language of play had helped switch off the sign. No more blinking, no more flashing, no more buzz. And I was able to feel, at least for a few minutes, like I was part of the backdrop, like I blended in, like I was just another face in the crowd.




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