Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Malaika - A Children's Story

I’m ten years old, my name is Malaika, and I am an artist. Great word, huh? Ar-tist. Wow! I didn’t know what that means until Marian explained it to me. Marian knows everything, and more; she knows every everything. She’s — what do they call them?— a know-it-all, or something. Probably something. What was I saying? Oh yeah, about the artist. An artist is the boy or the girl who creates art. And I do. I paint all day, when I don’t have to study that is. I would paint all night too if I could but I can’t because we don’t have electricity here and the candles are precious, like the ring in that story, that became a movie, which I’ve never watched. Oh, never mind, painting all day is good enough for me.

I’m not perfect at what I’m doing yet and I know it, but my mama and Marian say that one day I’m gonna be great; and that’s another great word. I like it! Gre-eat I play with words, I do that often. I say, it’s great to be great or things like that. And I’m a fast learner. I can learn anything. Just like that. Very soon I’ll even start speaking Marian’s language, American. My mama says that she speaks English, but that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Since she’s American she has to speak American, right? Anyways…

As I’ve already said my name is Malaika, which in my language, the Swahili, means Angel. I speak Swahili, not African. African is not a language, it’s… I don’t know what it is. Let’s say that African is, or maybe are products. Yes, that’s it. The things that are made up in Africa are African. But, back to my name. My mama gave it to me because she likes a traditional song that became famous because of a fat old lady, and which, she says, makes her soul feel like full of joy —Miriam Makeba, that’s her name; the singer’s, not the soul’s— and I wonder: How can a song do that? Can a song fill something we can’t see with something we only hear? And what is the soul anyway? Is it a tank or something?

I ask Marian and she laughs, so I guess it’s not a tank. Marian laughs a lot, but sometimes I see her cry too. I don’t know if she cries because she’s stupid; she’s been here for so long but she can’t speak Swahili well yet. Yes, maybe that’s it. Or maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my fault, since I’m not like the other children. Not that I’m too different; I have the same face, the same brown skin but, it’s just that, you know, I have no hands.

I remember that I used to have them, but I can’t really say when I did and how I felt back then. Strange, right? Mama says that some bad people had cut them off so I couldn’t go to war when I grew up, and then she starts crying, and then she pretends that she’s laughing because she doesn’t want me to be sad. Angels are never sad, she says, and I agree, even though here almost everyone is sad; in Rwanda.

Oops, I forgot to tell you that Rwanda is the name of my country and as you understand it’s in Africa. Everyone knows Africa, right? But do they know Rwanda? Anyways (I really love using this word, but anyways) I’m a Rwandan or a Rwandaneze or something. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I have here, right next to me, my mama and this kind-hearted white lady, my teacher, Marian.

She told me that she came here from far away, from the USA, when we first met. She showed me the USA on the map and they were big. I wondered why they had such a small name though, and I still do. Anyways (I told you I love this word), I’ve asked her if she misses something from her country and she said, no, because she had nothing left there. Where did everything go? I didn’t ask.

But again, how can someone have nothing? I mean, I’m poor-poor and I live in a shack but I still have my blanket, and some clothes, and the books that some people brought me, whose pages I turn every now and then with my chin or my toes, while I try to see the pictures and read the words. And I have my mama, and my brushes and paints, and my can-va-ses.

The can-va-ses look like white paper but they are not. I don’t know exactly what they are. Marian tells me all the time but I forget. Maybe I’m a little bit stupid too; just a little. I think that I am but I never say it because everybody thinks I’m clever.

Whatever, I don’t care. I only care about painting, a lot. And I paint, a lot. I use all the things that Marian brings me to do it; made in China she says; the things not her. She showed me China on the map. It’s another big-big country. USA is at the left, China is at the right, and Africa is in the center. That means we are the center of the world, right? Wrong? Huh!

It doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is to have food and water, mama says. We have, so we are lucky.  Some others don’t. They have nothing. And they are hungry, and they are thirsty, and they get sick all the time. What a shame! I’m not saying that we have plenty, but we have something; everyone should have something, even if it’s just a mudhouse, (is this a real world?), somewhere to sleep. Now that I think of it maybe we are rich after all, because we also have a school.

I loooove school, I love it. I can’t write yet because I can only use my legs to paint, but it’s okay. I do know how to read and I have a good memory and I remember it all and I learn a lot and… no more ands. At the school, apart from Marian, of course, there are some other whities, as the old men call them, teaching; two women from Europe and a girl from Asia who’s not Chinese. Oh, there's also a black woman from South Africa.

They teach us how to count, and to read, and geography, and they also like playing with us. They also love it when we sing. The best singer is Christina, the girl I love and whom I’m going to marry one day, but shhhh, tell no one. Marian says that she sings better than Shakira, whoever that is. Probably she’s someone great, but I don’t think she’s as great as I am, because if she was Marian would be with her and not with me, which is great.

Did I tell you how much I like Marian? No? Are you stupid or what? Do I have to tell you that I like her? I talk about her all the time. I say Marian this and Marian that and Marian… Why do I like her? Because she smiles a lot, and she sings, because her hair look a little bit African, and she sounds funny when she speaks in Swahili, and because as mama says she’s a gentle spirit that god sent or cent to us, I’m not sure, to help us out.

I guess god knows too that one day I’m gonna be great and that’s why he sent her. What I cannot understand is why she loves me so much. There are so many children here, and they are all good and beautiful, prettier even than me, so why did she choose me?

When I ask her (and I do that often hihihi) she says that she likes me because I’m an artist. And then when I ask her if she’s going to marry me, in case Christina doesn’t like me, she starts laughing. She’s laughing all the time. And then she cries. All of a sudden, she starts crying; while she’s teaching the glass; as she lies to sleep; when she walks around; while we play, and when she helps me with my painting and sometimes while she talks with the other teachers. I know what’s wrong with her. She told my mama. Her best friend, Andy, died and she’s in pain. I understand that, but why does she have to cry so much? That’s not good for her, I know, because she’s more beautiful when she’s laughing.

We cry too, but not as much as her, and for different reasons. We cry because we watch our best friends, our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and our fathers, die all the time. My papa died the same day they cut off my legs. The Hutus did that. I don’t know who these people are but if I ever meet them I’ll kick them a couple of times on the bum with my good foot, the left one, and then I’ll ask them why they did it. And then I’ll go to the USA and kick the bums of the bums that killed Marian’s friend. And then I’ll start kicking the ball because there are no other bums I want to kick.

Anyways, right now I’m lying under an Acacia tree, I look at the sunset and I’m trying to paint it on the can-vas. This is a very very beautiful sunset, like a fairytale, but I’m not sure if I can make it; paint it I mean. My teacher mixes the paint on the pa-lette and she shows me how to create different colors. And every now and then she messes with my hair and I smile.

As I’m lying in the dirt, using a rock as my pillow, and having the brush between my toes, I create. What a beautiful word! I create, that’s what I do, and she says that I’m a big talent, and if I keep working hard I’ll become somebody one day. What does she mean? That I’m nobody now? I ask her and she starts laughing again and her eyes shine like a green sun.

When I finish this painting it will be my twelfth; that means I’ve painted a dozen, in case you don’t know how to count. But I’m secretly painting number 13. Marian takes pictures of them and whenever she goes into town she sends them, through the internet she says, to a big big city in England called London. If the people there like them they’ll turn them into postcards or get-well cards or posters or whatever, and they’ll start selling them everywhere. That’s how I’ll become famous. Fe-y-mous; another great word. Don’t get angry because I misspell it. Remember that I write in my head.

Anyways, again, when I become famous all our troubles will go away. We’ll have lots and lots of money, we’ll move to the city, mama and I, and our life will be beautiful. But… But I’m ashamed to say that I prefer to stay here, with my mama and my good friends, with my can-va-ses and my sunsets. And with Marian and Christina of course.

If we move to the city I will lose it all, I will miss them all, apart from mama, and I don’t want that to happen. Or maybe I’ll lose her as well, because I’ve heard an old woman say that cities swallow the souls of people. If that happens I’ll be left alone, with no one to sing to me, Malaika, my son, Malaika; I’ll become a lonely angel and a very sad one too.

Now that I think of it I want to cry but I can’t, because if I do Marian will start crying too and I don’t like it when she’s sad. Sadness doesn’t suit her. I want to think of her as the moon and a lake in a picture she showed me once; a little bit dark but smiling. And that’s exactly how I paint her in secret. Please don’t tell anyone. The painting I’ll make for her will be my best. I’ll give to her as a gift for her birthday, and I will ask her again, if Christina is not around, to marry me. I know she’ll say no but I don’t mind. I know that she’ll laugh and she’ll tell me that I’m a little bit stupid but a great artist, and that’s good enough for me.

My name is Malaika, which in my language means Angel.

The image depicts the Greek edition of the picture book. It was painted by an elementary school student. The book was published in Cyprus in 2014.

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