Umoja Writing Competition 2015 winner, Kirsten Leggett
The Tiny Teacher
It was her hair that caught my attention, carelessly tossed about in the wind, locks and tendrils whipping her face. Her eyes were the colour of mine, like the turquoise waters surrounding my island home. They were not cold like these waters but glistened with the warmth of the sun that turns the sand a bleachy white, much like the colour of her hair. She reminded me of the ocean, free spirited and full to the brim with an inner knowing, as though the tides themselves ebbed and flowed within her being. I am caught in this image until a gentle tugging brings me back to the hustle and bustle of the village market. I am standing in it, amongst it. She pulls me by the hand.
“Come, come quickly,” she urges me in a desperate small voice. “There is a place I need to show you.”
How did she spot me in this busy crowd, bustling with colour and noise? I must stand out, as she does too, my blonde hair shining in the sun within a sea of raven haired souls. Yet I do not feel so different from those around me. Was it the way I held myself in the crowd, the way I sheltered my eyes just so from the blazing sun, or perhaps it was the light in my eyes as I smiled and laughed at the antics of the market crowd. Yet she spotted me, as I did her, and came to me with such purpose that I was not surprised and could not say no to her gentle plea.
This child, she captured my heart in a moment, with a voice like a bird and a tiny hand with a claw-like grip sinking into the rhythm of my soul. She felt part of me, yet not. Perhaps she was from another world this ghost child? Yet she felt real, the skin on her hand so soft, the telling of a life yet to be lived. Mine felt rough in hers in comparison, weathered and worn from a life of work, the planting of things, harvest time and the raising of children. A story itself etched in the palms of my
hand. So I follow her lead, keeping in time with small yet determined steps, for I am compelled to know more. Her grip on my hand loosens as we enter a dark alleyway. Her steps slow and she glances briefly behind her to see that I am still there. I smile as an acknowledgement that I am open to this journey. There is a sense of trust that I cannot explain. She will show me great things this child.
There is a little sun here and the smell of damp rises from the cobbled streets, the noise of the markets all but a distant hum. Soon, all that can be heard are our footsteps, the markers of our journey. We come to a sudden halt outside a red door, so bright it looks out of place in the greyness I find myself in. A gentle push and we are in. She looks at me knowingly and I catch the spirit in her eyes, the purpose in her mission. The door closes softly behind me, a candlelit hall extends before us and there is the smell of something maternal in the air. Is it perfume? Or is it the smell of something familiar cooking in the oven? I cannot place it, yet something stirs deep inside me, a chord of familiarity and warmth.
I step slowly down the hall, one foot with caution, the other with readiness. A zigzag of emotion. The door at the end of the corridor looms. I sense love oozing from these walls, a certain childlike playfulness, and as I draw closer to the end I see the light coming from a gap beneath the door. It grows brighter as I draw nearer, the child still one pace in front of me. We reach the end and her small hand reaches up to turn the knob, seemingly too big for her small hands. She turns to look at me but I can barely see her eyes in this low light.
“Wait,” I cry out. “What if I’m not ready?”
“I have waited and waited for you,” she tells me, her voice soft and tinkering on the edge of tears. “You did not come, and so I came for you.”
Her eyes glisten with emotion and as the door swings open I step through, without further thought, guided only by instinct, for at last I am here, in the home of the inner child.
Umoja Writing Competition 2014 is Lauren Dionysius
Upon the sudden, disturbing realisation that my dream job was no longer my dream, I resigned, packed my bags and went to Africa. Sitting next to me on the plane was Gina, a wise South-African woman. She told me that Africa was about people, about community, and in her words it’s about “becoming more certainly human by connecting with and experiencing the humanity of others”. She scribbled the word “ubuntu” on a piece of newspaper, handed it to me, and told me to remember this during my time in Africa. In the months that followed I learned that ubuntu was simply what you experienced on African soil. It was what clawed its way deep into your bones and into the depths of your spirit. Once you have been there, you never forget. You never forget the people you met in the countries you saw, but until you can experience ubuntu for yourself, the phenomenon is difficult to recognise.
I saw ubuntu in the face of the elderly woman whose deep, leathery wrinkles captured a timeless wisdom acquired through decades of hardship. I heard it in her words as we swapped stories of contrasting, even colliding cultures. I saw it flicker through the dark unknown of her pupils as they reflected the fire’s flame before it flashed brightly through her glowing, white smile between missing front teeth. I felt her unconditional generosity as it flowed into the food she so proudly cooked in the simplest of kitchens and tasted it in the bean stew she served me in a little enamel bowl. I heard it in the joyful laughter of the village children as they ran around outside, playing bare-footed in the dirt. I loved that they could make such long-lasting fun out of whatever they could find, limited only by their collective imaginations. I reveled in their innocent curiosity. They wanted nothing more than to simply talk to me, touch my skin and my long, straight hair and to hold my hand or leap into my lap. I soon realised that no glass screens of any technological type had ever dulled their inquisitive minds. And for that I was incredibly grateful.
I felt ubuntu in this tiny village in rural Malawi where community life thrived on an intricate thread of hope that weaved a connection through every man, woman and child. As I helped the children collect water from the bore pump, I felt it in the vulnerability of the modest infrastructure with which they all lived, a harsh reality of Africa’s simple life.
The longer I spent in Africa, the more I learned that it was ubuntu that remained within me after leaving behind the stressful distractions of my life back in Australia. As a career-driven yet burned out city girl, I was so humble
d by this poverty-stricken nation and its absolute belief in survival against all odds. By first world standards these people had “nothing” yet they had the warmest of hearts and the most generously grateful souls I’d ever met. There was no sense of stress or the pressure that accompanied daily life back home. I found myself surrounded by humans just being human, by living their lives in the best way they knew how. And for the first time ever, I was able to just take the time to truly listen to, learn from and connect with those around me. This is because in Africa, humanity, not wealth, defined people. Gina was right. Africa was all about people.
Ubuntu is what the developed world is missing. While we continue to chase bigger, stronger, faster, newer and more expensive, we will never be satisfied. We live in a country of excess. We have too much food, too much money, too many choices and too many “things”. Nothing will ever be good enough while we are always looking for “more”. While Australia tries to create strength through wealth and materialism, Africa creates strength of the heart through connections with other people. Possessions and “things” are simply irrelevant. It is for these reasons that Africa has so much to teach the rest of the world.
Ubuntu has been etched under my skin like a tattoo, a constant reminder of Africa’s beating heart. This is what beckons me every day to return to its shores and will therefore continue to be a part of me. For it’s the heart that is intertwined so deeply with that of ubuntu, that innate humanness that is within every one of us that craves connection with the people around us. Everyone can take a leaf or two out of Africa’s book. And these are the pages that I will hold close to my heart for the rest of my life.