It was 5 P.M. and I had just exited a leather workshop, where I designed and helped make a small leather necklace that I was currently wearing. I walked from the workshop to the edge of a dusty road. I had two options: I could go to the left to lie down and relax, maybe read a book or journal, or I could go to the right and wander into the landscape. I chose to go right.
I passed a baobab tree, bizarrely shaped, its massive trunk knitted with woody tendrils like roots. Then I crossed the main road. I went into open land, following a thin strip of exposed sand that served as a path. I passed farm fields, some gnarled with weeds, others bare and tilled. I passed a bissap (hibiscus) plantation where young children were gathered in a circle speaking in whispered tones and occasionally peeking out through the stalks to scope their surroundings and maintain their privacy. After I had passed they shouted something to me. I shouted back a greeting and they all laughed. That sums up the majority of my interactions with kids in this country.
I walked through the desert noticing the twisty trees that scattered the landscape. Some had thin, smooth trunks with drooping canopies of leaves above. Others were a mass of bush, rising 30 feet into the air. I walked a while, until I eventually reached a small village. First I saw one hut, and then another. Soon I was walking down a trafficked tract of sand surrounded by high fencing and round thatched huts. I walked until I reached what seemed to be the town center. It was a large polygon of sand, surrounded by fence and centered around a medium sized tree. I saw a couple older men chatting under the shade of a fence, wearing robes and traditional muslim hats. Their beards were stringy and white, and as I greeted them they smiled, displaying their aged and weathered faces.
I stood there, surveying the village from its fulcrum and as I swiveled, all faces seemed to swivel back, turning my way. Some people conversed with neighbours, others smiled and nodded, and some stopped all action and stared. Within a minute of standing purely as an observer at the center of this town, a hoard of kids had gathered, maybe twenty or twenty-five, and they huddled in a group locking their gaze with mine. I waved and smiled, “Salaam alaikum!” No one responded. I stepped forward, offering my hand, and each of them, as if one amoeba-like entity, shifted back an equal distance. I took another step, this time offering my fist (kids here in my experience are thrilled to give you a fist pound), but again they moved back, keeping a good five yards between us. Without much else to do, I decided to make a game out of it. I’d look away and then suddenly lunge forward and watch them skitter away, emitting small shrieks and giggles. The more I did it, the more they and the audience of adults laughed. Then a woman decided to take a photo with her flip phone after I had finally gained their trust, at least enough so they could come within striking distance. Even as the photo was taken, all eyes were locked on me. I felt like a museum piece, or a cursed gravestone; they wanted to come closer to read the inscription but they were far too afraid. As I waved goodbye, I felt this choking feeling. I wanted to reach out and hold their cracked hands and tell them stories until sunrise, but I felt unable to. Something made the possibility to connect with these kids feel like an impossible feat. As if when I entered, I became monolithic; intriguing, unnatural and unrelatable.
As I exited the village, I looked back to see the smiling faces of little kids as they shyly followed far behind, watching my figure as I retreated into the landscape. On the way, I passed a woman collecting bissap fruits and stopped to say hello. Then I decided to join her, pulling the red morsels and peeling them down the stalk until the strand broke off. Then I tossed the fruit in the bucket. Her kids came, not to help, but watch from the path, their gaze fixed in my direction. I helped her fill the bucket and then said goodbye, noticing the sun hovering above the tree-line, now partially masked by haze.
I walked back to my village in the dusky light, greeting passing locals along the way. I thought for a minute. Who was I to give the people of that village 30 minutes of my time, when I could’ve given them a thousand? Who was I to help that woman harvest 10 or so plants when I could’ve harvested the whole plantation? Suddenly all I felt was guilt. Generally, this sort of pessimism is carried over into debates about climate change, politics, world peace, etc. What good is recycling a soda can if a billion compose an island in the pacific ocean? What good is solving a family dispute if religious disputes in the Middle East are causing civilians to be bombed out of their homes daily? It’s bad to think that way, and it’s worse to really believe that change is only important when it’s large scale.
So, I steered my mind another way. I remembered a quote by Eduardo Galeano we had tacked up on our wall at the Dragons program house. “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.” It’s not about picking a bucket-full of bissap, painting a school, or donating a chunk of your paycheck every month to red cross. It’s about being melded; mind and soul.
On the beach of Western Madagascar, a group of us spoke with a Malagasy man about climate change and we exchanged philosophies, agreeing on the scale of the problem, and the cruciality of starting local, as the sun set serenely on the green-blue serf. That is solidarity. When I talked with a Senegalese woman about education systems, agreeing on their faults and drumming up solutions — that is solidarity. And when those moments happen, when I really connect with someone like that, and unify in beliefs, in my experience, that is when I feel most at peace. As the common Wolof saying goes, I feel jamm rekk.