I’m good with kids and always have been. My mother had a day care while I was growing up, so my role as a caregiver started early. By 11, I was babysitting, although I had been watching my brothers while my parents were out for two years already. Four years later and I was teaching young’ins how to swim.
In many social situations, I gravitate toward kids. For me, it’s easier and more fun to make a silly face and giggle with a two-year-old than reach for topics to discuss awkwardly with the child’s parents.
I like to pretend that I understand kids better, and maybe I do. I tend to act like a kid with unrealistic optimism, endless curiosity and a goofy nature. Kids have more fun and I can to relate them easier.
So, it didn’t make sense when I was intimidated and nervous to approach of group of Nigerien students, ages 6-11. While sitting with teachers and drinking tea, I watched the children run around and play and Hausa conversations from the adults drifted through my easy.
It was their first day of school. Life moves slowly in Africa, so actual classes wouldn’t begin for at least another week, yet the students showed up as if to get in the habit of spending their days at the school.
One little girl, Marianna, was presented to the school direct by her brothers because it was her very first day. Her green dress was dirty and torn but she wore it as if it was her finest. Her hair looked newly braided and she stuck her fingers into her mouth to keep words from leaping out. I greeter her but she diverted hers like she was in trouble. I wanted to befriend her, but she wouldn’t have it.
She ran off to join a group of girls playing in the sand. Some had on nice clothes, others wearing what could’ve been yesterday’s attire.
When I was in school, my mother took us shopping before the big first day. We’d go to Sioux Falls, Aberdeen or Rapid City to pick out that first day back outfit. We didn’t always have a lot of money, but my mother worked very hard to make sure we reentered the education world looking neat and comfortable. We’d also spend hours at local super stores pouring over school shopping lists and buy the necessary items for our learning.
Kids here don’t do that. They barely have books and desks let along fancy protractors and backpacks. They are each issued a few notebooks and a pen. The elementary students get a nice UNICEF plastic bag while them middle students have to come up with their own means of carry their items to and from school.
Yet, what they lack doesn’t phase them because they don’t know anything different. They are happy and giggle. It is their first day.
I contemplate going over to say hello for an hour, but I make excuses. I should just watch for today. They won’t be able to talk to me nor I them.
I was afraid they’d reject me. “You had it so easy in America” I imagined they’d mock me. I was afraid these Nigerien children, because of their rough experience, were out of my league.
I’m not sure what convinced me to get up, but, while the men were praying, I found myself approaching a group of kids. I picked a seemingly less intimidating group of girls to approach and crouched near them to say hello.
They looked up in disbelief. “The white girl is talking to us?”
Instantly, all the kids in the school yard closed in on me. They swarmed me, a 120 eyes just staring. They didn’t speak French or understand my terrible Hausa, so we communicated through looks. Then we giggled. Stare some more. And again giggle.
This interaction lasted for a few minutes before I returned to the group of men for tea.
“Tomorrow, you’ll be the teacher because they pay attention to you,” the men joked.
I smiled. Maybe so, but I’m sure I’d learn more from them then they from me.
As I woke home. I felt accomplished. I made a breakthrough in my immersion into the community. If I could get in with the kids, the others would eventually come.