Generally, I don’t like children. They annoy me because I don’t find them precious or cute. If you think about it, “cute” when used to describe the speech or actions of a child is really just another way of saying “weak or stupid, albeit in an endearing manner.” I know to many this makes me sound like a monster, or a curmudgeonly old grouch and I can’t really refute this claim. But at least my feelings are universal. I didn’t even really like myself all that much until I was about 17-18. I don’t like American children, I don’t like Irish children, I really don’t like French children. I do not like African children.
But rules are made to be broken and as I walked along the Eastern shore of Lake Malawi I found myself slowly but surely warming up to the phalanx of little fishermen in training that trailed behind me. When the mob of skinny little Africans ran up to me, I assumed they were swarming me to ask for money. This would not be out of the ordinary when traveling in Africa. Even the poorest backpacker probably has more wealth at their disposal than most poor Africans will see in a lifetime so you can forgive the locals for thinking that every Mzungu they see is a walking ATM. This had been happening a lot, but that didn’t make it any less irritating.
I barked curtly that I didn’t have anything for them and tried to be on my way, walking as swiftly as I could manage in the shifting sugary beach sand. They followed in a pack, about fifteen strong and about ten yards behind laughing and shouting in words I couldn’t understand. Initially, I was angry at their intrusion into my solitary walk. I was hoping to escape into myself, to think in peace. But it didn’t seem like these munchkins would let me. “Jambo!” they called out again and again, raising their voices in a boisterous greeting.
They were laughing and asking me questions with varying degree of English mastery. As we walked along, I began to realize that they weren’t just asking for my money. They were genuinely curious, which makes sense because while I’m certain they had seen white people before, it is a sure bet they had never laid eyes on one as funny looking as me. With my 6’1 height and thick frame, I must have seemed like some kind of ogre stomping among them and furrowing my sloping brow at their presence. Since they seemed to spend most of their time hanging around at the beach, I’m sure the novelty of a short-armed tourist was more than they could resist. Much like the fabled Grinch who feels his heart grow three sizes when he realizes the rue meaning of Christmas, I found my heart of ice melting before the wide-eyed curiosity of these Malawian youths. Its no wonder that Madonna was so eager to take one of them home within her, international adoption laws be damned.
It was gradual, but before long I was laughing right along with the little rapscallions, even tossing a rubber ball back and forth. I couldn’t help but be slightly amazed by how quickly I had shed my vestigial hatred of larval humans, at least in this case. One of the little girls kept running up and grabbing my hand, wanting to walk with me down the beach. I pulled away the first time or two, but relented in the end. She was jumping up and down as we walked, and I thought it would be fun to pick her up and swing her around a little bit, much as I used to do with my younger brothers back home in Florida. But as I was soon to learn, there is an inherent difference in bone density between a well-fed American boy and a young African girl who could clean pipes with her arms.
She was laughing at first as her feet left the ground, but it didn’t last long. Her laughter was cut short by the “pop” that seemed to echo like a gun shot against the tree-line and seemed to morph into tears rather than an abrupt transition. Tears were running down her cheeks and I didn’t really know what to do. The whole thing seemed to freak the other kids right the hell out and most of them disappeared within the first couple of seconds. I looked around frantically. As the weird slow motion crisis awareness came down over me, as it had so many times before, my mind drifted to The Best of the Best. That cinematic adventure taught me that the only way to treat a dislocated arm was to pop it back into the socket, but I doubt if this poor little girl could show the fortitude of Alex Grady, and why should she have to. I was scared and felt really bad. I hadn’t meant to hurt anybody, but like a big stupid oaf I had pulled a child’s arm out of its socket. Ogre indeed.
Clearly, I was not the best one to handle this little problem. There was a first aid station at the campground where I was staying, a little less than a mile away. I may be clumsy and destructive, but I vowed to do what I could to help make up for it. I scooped her up and started making my way back to camp where someone who knew what they were doing could take care of her. This was my second mistake. Apparently the kids that ran away had (rightly) reported the whole sorry mess to the girl’s mother, or some other matronly authority figure. The woman was now angrily staring me down and blocking the path down the shore with her expansive and brightly colored frame. Apparently the idea of me making off with the child I had just injured didn’t jibe with her.
She let forth stream of words, the vast majority of which were not in English and hence outside my comprehension. But there is a universal language that women speak when the time has come to protect their children, and I got her gist. I handed over the goods. The girl had stopped crying and she now looked back and forth from the Mumma who was holding her and me, her wide eyes trying to take it all in. I’ll never know exactly what the plump Malawian woman said to me, but it was angry and she punctuated it with a fat wad of spittle that landed at my feet. She then used her free hand to slap her own neck four times, and she spun on her heels to walk away from me.
I felt horrible and ashamed all through my march back to the camp site, where I told the manager what had happened down on the beach. He said not to worry about it, that they could take care of themselves but that I had to be more careful in the future. I had no further plans of swinging little Africans around. It was safer for everyone involved if I refrained my interactions with children to complaining about the noise they make in public places. But I bet they still the tell the story in that village. They tell of the day a great white monster pretended to have fun with them before revealing his true nature. And that little girl, I am sure, looks back long after she has healed. And if I’m lucky, maybe just for a second she remembers how loud she was laughing before the things went wrong.