I Am Not Forgotten

The other night the Watoto Children’s Choir (watoto.com) visited our rural town.  We went to the little library auditorium where it was standing room only for a group of a dozen scrubbed clean Ugandan 10-year olds in native dress.

I am not forgotten …

With a couple of African drums and a tika-tika music accompaniment, these kids sang and danced on the riser and in front of us, rolling their hips and weaving their arms, a bunch of Arethas and Stevie’s in the making, mixing African and gospel, as the two adults on each side laid on descants and bass harmonies to the kids’ enthusiastic but disciplined voices.

I am not forgotten …

Their Swahili intonations take me right back to East Africa, into the smell and dust of Nairobi of 1979, the cheery ‘Jambo’ and the wide smiles of the Kikuyu, the swatches of color in the kikois wrapped around everyone’s legs, the fruit on the head, a song on the lips.  I was a terribly ignorant American in those days, but something made it through besides the lions and elephants, the spiritual light that makes people’s smiles switch on, even in the midst of all that darkness and poverty.

Once, early on after my arrival in Nairobi, on a tip from a fellow traveler I went to a night spot – a hotel whose name I’ve forgotten – where girls were available on the dance floor.  I picked one out, probably not 20, heartbreakingly beautiful but for the obvious pain in her heart.  Unsure of my ground, I hurt her once by asking her availability and then her price – thus robbing her of any pretense that this was real dating – and then doubly dissing her by chickening out and disappearing from the place without her.  Thou shalt not commit pain – but we do anyway, despite our best intent.  I have never forgotten her face.

I am not forgotten …

Worldwide, more than 40,000 children are orphaned each day – in Uganda from AIDS, cholera, and civil war.  Child after child tells of going to live with their grandmother after their parents die, and things going from bad to worse until they are picked up by this Watoto community, where they are given three squares a day and an education: “I wand do be a school-tea’-cha.”  These children are very lucky by Ugandan standards, where more than 10% of the children are orphans, and many do not get past their 5th birthday.

Jesus knows my name.

OK, so it’s heavily Christian, something we didn’t know until partway into the concert, when the ‘Praise Jesus!’ became evident.  But so what?  These kids are the future leaders of Uganda, maybe, or at least informed citizens, and if they have to swallow a little Baptism with their rice and beans, it is better than the lawlessness of the civil war that turns children into murderous soldiers and cuts off the hands of the innocent.  These kids are lucky.

And so are we.  With all the hand-wringing and feeling sorry for ourselves going on this week as trillions of dollars are wiped off the imaginary value of financial markets across the world, we will all feel it in little ways, some in larger ways.  But the unfortunates of the world, these forgotten children, will feel it the most, as charities are the first places to be cut off from funds in the falling market.  We lose a little; those with no voice lose it all, what they never knew they could have.

So sing, little children, sing to Jesus in Swahili, whatever works to bring you up from the bottom, to help your benighted continent.

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