Here’s a fortnight’s journey in one story…
Once upon a time – I’ve only started a story in that manner once, don’t be frowning – in the evening of 2015, I got an opportunity to be part of the team of adults to supervise a group of young people in a youth club; but really to share with them a few of my new ideas and activities, to widen their understanding of the world around them and to foster an intercultural learning. Sounds like a lot of clever stuff right? I thought so as well, haha.
In Denmark, (I later learnt that it is locally written as Danmark) the local authorities are obligated to offer leisure activities to children over 10 years old after their usual school program, and with that, they set up youth clubs in every community where kids will go to immediately after school at 2pm.
The youth club is a building set up like a home for the comfort of the kids. It will look like a typical house with couches for lounging, a kitchen to make snack and drinks, play areas all over the place for all kinds of indoor games that the particular youth club could afford. The youth clubs prioritise social activities like music, art and performing arts, sports, films, and various outdoor activities; they’re supervised by adults who are paid by the local authorities. I think it is an awesome government initiative.
The younger kids in what we’d call primary level will get off school and come in at 2pm until 5pm. While the older kids in high school will come in from 5pm until 10pm. These clubs serve as an alternative for otherwise reckless activities children might want to stealthily get into after school, but also as places where they can get extracurricular learning. The parents sign them up, and roll calls are done for accountability to parents.
Despite the freedom the youth have in there, it is a smoking and alcohol free zone. On a normal day, they’ll come in and play their favourite games, hang out with their friends from different schools while they have the best time of their lives and all that is going on in your mind is the memory of your childhood when you had to be back home immediately after school to go do the dishes, mop the house and do your homework with hardly any games to play until you reported back the next day and had that game of “bladder” (jumping the rubber rope) at break time that made you no more clever than you were in your school work. But cultures differ, right? A lot of us turned out alright after all.
So here I was, trying to make this intercultural thing work, but boy was it hard! The children mostly, were so shy. They’re not very familiar with their English, as all their lessons in school are taken in Danish except for the English class. On inquiring from the other facilitators, they said that the children were not confident enough to express themselves in the little English that they were just learning in class. But hey, work had to be done, right? I told my other colleague, Raphael that we had to mix it up with signs to help us get it done. So we did.
You’d find us trying to get into their space and get them to do stuff with us while waving our hands all over the place, hoping that we were making some sort of communication with signs that made sense. It worked most of the time, even though it was really exhausting. The high school kids that showed up in the evenings knew English alright, save for the fact that they were seeing strange African faces and they weren’t sure they had so much to let us in on. They eased into it a little later but honestly, English is not their cup of tea. It seemed like an exam you gave them if you were holding a conversation with them. I almost felt sorry for them and wished I could speak Danish to relieve them of the discomfort.
It was nice to know them. I made more friends with the younger children who came earlier in the day though. This particular boy was one heck of a rebel, he basically ran the whole place crazy and could not make friends with us until he realised we were going to be in his face all fortnight long, then he caved. He’d pronounce Raphael’s name as “Raphi-Lion.” We tried to help, but that’s the best he could come up with, and Raphael decided it was a cool twist to his name after all. My name, Karen, was pronounced Kayuhn, “Care-un” like you’d say the word care and un in one go. It sounds strange…but I found out it is an actual Danish name and is pronounced that way. How cool, right?
Then came this little girl one bright but yet chilly afternoon that warmed my heart and left me bewildered at the same time… you know how other continents still think we live in caves and trees? (True story) Yes. Even the children, somehow they either get it from the discovery channel, or they get to hear it from a friend who heard it from a friend whose mother watched the news about donating to a naked African child somewhere in the Sahara. Well, the children that need help really do exist, but even apart from that, Africa has made major steps of growth in civilization and economics and to know that is just a click away on Google. But that’s a story for another day.
The little girl about the age of 10 or so was burning with concerns and questions and because she couldn’t properly communicate in English, technology came to her rescue. Armed with her iPad, she came over to the kitchen where I was trying to help with their afternoon snack, and she was determined to use Google translate. She would type her questions in Danish on the translator and then I’d read the translations and respond accordingly.
“Do you have iPhones in Africa?”
“Of course we do!” I’d say with a broad smile. “We also use technology back home; smart phones, tablets like the one you have now. Here. I also use a smartphone that I bought” I took out my shiny slim phone and showed it to her. She nodded. (But really I didn’t buy it, I borrowed it because I messed mine up and yet I had to take pictures and stay online and in touch with my people while in nchi za nje, Hahaha. But you get the point. We buy smartphones here too)
With a poor communication system with the children, I almost felt uninspired for what to do some days until one of the facilitators (who rarely ever spoke with us for the same reason), suggested through a translator that I should involve the kids in a new hands-on skill. I immediately thought about making paper beads. What’s funny is that the only way I knew about making paper beads was because I watched someone explaining the procedure about 3 or so years ago on Television. Television, people. How convenient. It was an easy process and so it stuck in my mind somehow but I trusted my memory, even as I explained and listed the materials we needed, all the while thinking that if I mess this up and can’t come up with a proper paper bead in at least two attempts so I can teach the kids, I am screwed.
You can’t blame me. I used to be an artist, but not very crafty with my hands. It is the girls that showed up obviously to make jewellery the next day. I had to quickly try out a couple of samples to make sure I knew what I was doing! Otherwise, I’d be a laughing stock. I desperately needed to get closer to these kids to find a point of interaction and if it meant forging a supposed skill, I had to do it. Ha! That was crazy, right? I know… but what is so hard about paper beads; I cracked the trick, and suddenly I was a pro. The satisfaction that filled my insides, even I could not contain. When the children would finally ease up to me (still with signs and a few English words) because they had no choice but to ask me for clarity, I felt that my job was as good as done. It was a major accomplishment.
While in our awesome paper bead making class, another set of questions came up;
“How come you know how to make these beads? Do you guys have papers like this in Africa?” – This was the kind of paper used to print magazines, brochures, flyers, you know that kind? Yes. Art paper.
For two seconds I wondered what to say. Bambi the children also imagine we have no kind of education, paper, pens or pencils that we use over here. But my job was to get them talking and eventually change those perceptions.
I smiled. “Sure. We have all kinds of paper and also old magazines, which we use to make these beads. We find all the other materials we are using in the supermarket as well.”
Another added, “I don’t want you to go back because you may not have food to eat.”
Now, it was our last week and we were just about to leave for home in a few days, and they knew it.
“We do have food at home, and we buy it in the market and at groceries just like you.” I assured her.
In this business, you can’t just be laughing fwaaa even as much as you are dying to. You have to remain as objective as possible and understand that these stories and perceptions are real and we have the opportunity to change the narrative.
The biggest memory for me is another one of the little girls. She was very slim, blonde, and quite taller than the others and reserved in big measure. I had never really had an interaction with her because she preferred her peace and quiet and hanging around her friends. So much so that on our last day, when all the girls, including her friends, came in to make paper beads with my final supervision, she had no choice but to come in as well only to watch them while she remained her usual silent self.
She knew how to play the guitar. She must have thought to herself prior that she needed it there for the distraction, and she plucked the strings now and then as everybody else was busy with glue, paper, toothpicks and all. I didn’t know what was running through her mind. What I would learn later would melt my heart. Somewhere towards the end of our exercise, she started to play a real song and eventually sing along to it. She was singing a song in English.
American hip-hop artiste, Wiz Khalifa’s “See you again” ft. Charlie Puth.
She kept going with the lines “It’s been a long day, without you my friend. And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.” She kept going and going, singing the whole song apart from the rap. I even caught myself singing along. She was very calm and almost sombre while she sung; I can remember the sadness in her voice as she sung the sorrowful tune like it was yesterday. I remember telling her that she had a beautiful voice, and she managed a smile. When she was done singing, she left the room.
It was way later after that episode that reality remembered to visit. It hit me. The little girl was singing for me, seated right in front of me while I bent all over the table trying to make sure the kids were getting their beads right and while I sung along to her serenade. She sung for me; that somehow, while she avoided me the whole time, it was because she was only a shy little girl who secretly loved my presence every day and was sad that I had to leave eventually. I must have developed a lump in my throat from that realization, because I hardly paid so much attention to her in that moment.
Moments such as those defined my stay, and every time I think about it, a smile plays on my lips.