Yebo - Joey and the Deltones

In a way, this song kind of represents me at my best. It is a snapshot of me at my most idealistic, dreamy, and hopeful.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kids... and Me... and sometimes their moms.

"Yes, it's true. I am signing up for an online dating service. Thousands of people have done it, and I am going to do it. I need a user name. And... Ah. I have a great one. "LittleKidLover". That way, people will know exactly where my priorities are at."


No. Not seriously.

People barely use the internet here. It wouldn't be worth my time.

Kudos to you "Office" fans who caught the first paragraph above. That show always makes me laugh.

I am not signing up for a dating service, and even if I did, the baggage that comes with a name like "LittleKidLover" is, I think, pretty obvious. However, clueless as Michael Scott may be to the duality of such a username, one can understand his true intentions are not pedophilic of any sort. Kids are just great company to be around. Ask anyone who has volunteered at camps, who has little cousins running around or anyone who has spent any time in the company of a few curious young souls exploring the world around them.

They're like adorable 3 month old puppies, but with a more expansive vocabulary.

Myself, I've always loved working and playing with kids. They seem to react very positively to me (most of the time - especially I'm not their older cousin) and I get along with them extremely well. I could speculate on the reasons for this, but I won't.

No, I lied, I will speculate. It's probably because, not only am I pretty awesome in general, but I don't think I ever truly grew up or grew out of that "kid" mindset. The things that make them laugh, make me laugh. The things that make them sad, make me sad. (Even if it is something as seemingly insignificant as someone putting the wrong type of jelly on your PB 'n' J sandwich)

Since growing older (but not up), I've tried to surround myself with people of a similar nature.

During my now 14 months in South Africa, I've had numerous encounters with those of a tinier stature who are age-ly challenged. Each time I spend time with kids here, whether they speak anything from Zulu, to Afrikaans or English, I'm reminded quite forcefully of why I enjoy being around them so much, and most of the reason why I got involved in this line of work in the first place.

Take my time at the farm (my first site) with Cassandra and Amanda. Both are now 5 years old. One is the third child from an Afrikaans family, the other is a Swati orphan. They have grown up together, and have been inseparable for as long as anyone can remember. They speak both Afrikaans and Swati. They have learned the languages from each other, piecing bits together here and there as the months move on. They do everything together every day. They even end their todays and begin their tomorrows together by sharing the same bed.

Cassandra and Amanda with the teddy bears I gave them

Their friendship is something truly remarkable and special.

One otherwise typically uneventful day at the farm, I was sitting against a wall, wondering with frustration how the days could possibly pass by as slowly as they were, when I overheard someone ask young Cassandra a question.

"Cassandra, what colour is Amanda?"

Despite the fact that apartheid has been officially ended since 1994, the concept of peoples' race and colour is still quite prominent. Conclusions are made immediately upon sight of another person based on whether they are "black, white, indian or coloured". Though it may frequently be the case, is is not always meant to carry negative connotations. It seems so ingrained into people's minds in this society that it is accepted as normal. I find myself falling into that mindset at times as well. If someone's telling a story about an encounter with another person, in order to get some immediate background information, I want to interrupt and ask, "Are they black or white?"

I catch myself all the time doing this, and I can't stand it. I imagine this tendency of mine partly existed before I came over to South Africa due to the racial issues that still exist in the US, but they are not nearly as prominent in every day life as they are here. Being here has exacerbated those tendencies of mine, and I've only been here a little over a year. I can only imagine what it's like to have grown up in this type of environment.

To bring all this back to the story, in response to the question "What colour is Amanda?", one could be forgiven for expecting Cassandra to simply answer, "Black". But she didn't respond with that.

After some though and a brief pause, Cassandra answered, "Pink."

I could tell the person asking the question was about as shocked as I was, if not more so.

"Why do you say she is pink?"

"Because she is pink. Everything about her is pink. That's her favourite colour."

I want to be clear that Cassandra did in fact understand the question. She knew she wasn't being asked what Amanda's favourite colour was. The question that was posed to her was simply perceived differently than we many, if not all of us may have interpreted it.

The whole rest of the day, I wore a huge smile on my face. It was amazing to me to have a glimpse into the way Cassandra viewed her best friend in the world. She didn't see Amanda as being of a specific race or colour. She was simply her best friend. As close as a sister.

One could quite possibly write a book about the brilliance of the friendship between Cassandra and Amanda, about how perplexingly strange and entirely normal it is at the same time. What made it so amazing for me to be with them, was to remember again how care free, honest, and non-judgmental kids are. They don't see the world in black and white, and they don't settle for seeing it with shades of grey. They view their world in an explosion of bright and beautiful colours, without ever being constrained by the symbolic uses the adult world has put them to. Kids aren't bothered by trivial issues like race or class. They view each other and everyone else as human, above and beyond anything else.

I wonder when that outlook is lost amongst so many?

I have made very close connections with so many kids in South Africa. As it turns out, I also have frightened many kids to the point of tears.

Some say it's my appearance. I say it's talent.

This was particularly true when I had my beard growing in full force on my face. I found that some kids didn't mind my beard - some actually really liked it and wanted to touch it and run their fingers thru it. But many kids viewed me as (what I imagine in their minds to be) some sort of mountain Yeti, unkempt, insane, and ready to bite their fingers and toes off at the drop of a hat.

To be fair, I have been known to bite, but I would never remove any bodily appendages with my teeth.

I think it wasn't only the beard that frightened the kids, but it was also the fact that I was the first and only white person that some of them had ever seen. I know I just said that I don't believe that kids see things like race, but I view this situation as a bit different.

I equate them seeing me, this funny-looking, bearded, skinny white guy speaking a strange language in their presence, with any of us coming across a massive, green-skinned Flordic speaking individual with long teeth sprouting up and down his arms, legs and chest. It's something we've never seen before, but if we knew they existed, and had even met a few ourselves, we wouldn't be quite as wary of them.

What the hell was my point?

I'm not asking rhetorically, I actually forgot.

Ah right. Me scaring kids.

Back in May, I had gotten used to the idea that I was a scary sight to some youngins. However, I always did my best to make a good first impression whenever kids were around I didn't know.

In this type of scenario, a little magic goes a long way. :-)

In May, I was at the backpackers in Pretoria awaiting my sight change. The second day I was there, I was writing in my journal, when I saw three young girls com running out to the lawn near where I was sitting, and they started talking to each other in an Afrikaans/English mix, and started doing splits, hand-stands, and back handsprings.

I didn't know the circus was in town, but if it was, I was sure they were worried sick about the whereabouts of their acrobatic midgets.

One of the girls - a short haired blonde with an excess of energy - saw me observing them doing their... well, whatever it was they were doing, and skipped over to where I was lounging. She began to speak to me in a sort of, out of breath, South African-English accent, and unable to keep her small self still, she put her hands on my knee and began hopping up and down.

"What are you writing?"

"Umm... I'm writing in my journal."

"A journal? ...Is that like a diary?"

"It is like a diary. What are you girls doing?"

"We're just practicing for... our, um... gymnastics camp."

And with that she was gone.

Story of my life.

Anyway, later that evening, I saw the girls sitting down at the outside table, playing Uno. I sat just down the bench from them, half doing brain teasers from a book and half laughing hysterically to myself at the conversation the girls were having.

Girl 1: "You can't put that card there!"
Girl 2: "Yes I can, we switched directions!"
Girl 3: "We did change directions."
Girl 1: "Oh... where's my juice?"
Girl 3 to Girl 2: "She's out to lunch..."

When their game was done, I asked them if they wanted to see a card trick. They answered in a sort of explosive jumble of words - a manner usually reserved for the floor of the NY stock exchange.

"You do magic??"
"Let me see! Let me see!"
"I loooooove magic!"

I sat across the table from them and they immediately stuck their heads as close to the cards and my hands as possible, causing two of them to bump their heads.

"Owww! Sam!"
"It's not my fault!"

I asked the girls some basic questions while I shuffled the cards.

Turns out the three of them were only part of a larger group of school age gymnasts from Namibia who had come to South Africa to attend a training camp.

There was Samantha, age 9, Manuela, age 12, and Tanita, age 9. They said to call them Sam, Manu, and T. So I did.

I showed the girls a few magic tricks, and they invited me to keep playing Uno with them. We played Uno for 2 hours until they had to go to bed. Before they left, they made me promise to show them more magic the next day, and they wanted to be sure I would play more card games with them. That was a really nice thing to hear.

Sam and T


For the next few days, when I was around the backpackers, the girls would actively seek me out to talk and play cards and board games. They loved the magic tricks I did for them, they always offered me bits and pieces of their dinners (a sure way to win my heart), and they kept me entertained for hours with the things they would say.

I asked them what some of their fears are, or what they're afraid of. T was quick to point out that Sam was afraid of sleeping alone, so she sleeps with her mom. To which Sam took a pause, made a slight face, and said gravely:

"Too much information..."

Another time, after they had gotten back from gymnastics practice, Sam came run-skipping over to where I was hanging out and said:

"Hi Joey... My mom thinks you're cute."

Oh moms.

It seems to be a strange running theme in my life... Throughout my young adult life, mostly as a busboy or innocent bystander, I've had a lot of middle aged women pull me aside and tell me I'm cute and ask me if I had a girlfriend. This would often alarm me until they made it clear that they had a daughter they wanted to hook me up with. None of them ever did follow thru unfortunately. Still I can't help but wonder if I wasn't born 20 - 30 years late. If I was born earlier on in the 1960s, I feel like during my young adult life, I would have a whole bus load of young women (now middle aged, married and with single daughters) around who thought I was a catch. I'm gonna have to bring this up with the big man upstairs in due time.

Middle-aged crushes aside, one of the nicest exchanges I had with the girls was during their second to last day in Pretoria. I was curious to know why they hadn't been frightened of me when they first saw me and met me.

Me: "Weren't you even just a little bit frightened of me because of my giant beard?"

The girls, in unison: "Nooooo."

Me: "No? I think I scare a lot of people away."

T: "Not for us."

Me: "Why not? Why weren't you scared?"

Sam: "Because you were nice."

Me: "I was nice?"

T: "You were nice to us the first time and then we know you're a good guy."

Me: "How did you know I was nice?"

Sam: "Because.... you were nice."

T: "We just saw you... and we asked you to play with, and..... you were nice!"

Sam: "I wouldn't know because I was in the shower."

T: "And then you did the magic!"

So, the exchange may have been lacking in details, but I think they may be unnecessary. Regardless, it felt good to know that kids can often see past another's (read: my own) appearance and look to find out who that person really is.

My favourite exchange was with Sam, only a few minutes after the above conversation took place. We had moved on from playing Uno to a game called "Donkey", which I have no recollection of whatsoever.

There was a slight lull in the conversation, and Sam says to me:

Sam: "Where's your toothbrush?"

An odd question, I thought.

Me: "In my tent... why? Are my teeth dirty?"

Sam: "No. Your breath stinks."

Damn kids.

I was actually pretty sad to see them have to leave after a few days. They gave me some great laughs though, and I'm happier to have been able to spend time with them.

I hope they don't grow up too much as they get older.