By Laila Enarson
While living in Gambia, West Africa, my five-year-old son Chris and I went on a trip to the village of Sintet, where our group of volunteers from the Family International was helping to build a school.
I had enjoyed the thrilling tales told by co-workers who had returned from there, so when I heard that a team needed to make a one-and-a-half-day trip to the village I jumped at the chance to go.
For most of the trip, all I could hear was Chris’s excited voice saying things like, “What’s this? Oh, Mommy—look! Can you take a photo of me on the termite hill?”
The rainy season was just beginning to transform the dry West African bush into gorgeous green. The country around us was full of enchanting beauty—a mix of low rolling hills, rice paddies, coconut trees, and ponds. Farmers peacefully tilled the land.
Along the way, we enjoyed delicious local food, explored a thick swamp full of towering termite hills and giant baobab trees with trunks often thicker than our car.
As we drove up the dirt road lined with cashew trees that led to Sintet, we could see a large crowd gathered at the school site straight ahead. Two of our volunteers, Joe and Richard, had arrived ahead of us and were already at work directing the construction. Village children crowded around our jeep and flashed gorgeous, white-toothed smiles. As soon as Chris got down from his seat, the village kids surrounded him and helped him get acquainted with everything.
The other kids had been pushing around toy cars made of cut-up plastic bottles, the rubber soles of broken flip-flops, and sticks. With the children’s help, Chris soon had his very own car and was pushing it over anthills and through puddles. A crowd of boys ran after him.
With no electricity in the village, most people go to bed when darkness falls, and so did we, in our small tent under the star-filled sky.
Day two at Sintet was just as much fun. I prepared my materials for the morning class I would be teaching the village’s younger children, and Dad helped me find a nice quiet spot in front of a baobab tree to give the class. We sang some songs, and then I told the story of Creation, using movable flannel figures on a flannel-covered board. This was high-tech to these children. Finally I reviewed some basic scholastics. Chris did a great job as my assistant teacher.
Then the children led us to fields where they showed us several large monkeys at play and a huge snake that hung from a tree branch high above us.
They also treated us to a yellow and red moon-shaped fruit we had never seen before, which they called tao. To “pick” the fruit, the children climbed the large tao tree and swung from its highest branches. As they were about to begin, one of the boys who had stayed earthbound said, “We must go! The fruit will hit us!” And he was so right! Fruit began raining down all around us.
A few of the kids stuck with Chris and me until the very end of our visit. Many of these dear children had at first seemed quite tough because of the hardships they face every day. As we got to know them, we saw that inside their tough exteriors were tender hearts, like sponges just waiting to soak up love. Chris and I gave them as much attention as we could. Some even began to call me “Mom,” which said in their own special way how much they appreciated the love and attention we were giving them. To me, this was just as fulfilling as seeing the progress that was being made on the school construction.
All too soon, it seemed, we were home again. My visit to Sintet with Chris had been an extraordinary cultural experience. What made this trip so special is that I shared the experience with my son. We learned a lot together and lived what many people only read about in schoolbooks or see on TV.
You don’t have to visit a village in the African bush to have a bona fide cultural experience or to reach out to those in need, of course. Today they’re everywhere! Most modern cities are melting pots of various races, each with something special to offer. All it takes to make new friends is a little initiative. Add a little love and concern, and you truly bring your worlds together.
Courtesy of Activated magazine. Used with permission. Photo © 123rf.com