When A Child Changes Your World
Two years ago I was afraid of babies. Yes, afraid. Someone would shove their newborn child toward me and I would refuse to open my arms. No thanks, that life is too fragile to take into my own hands. When my closest cousin had a baby boy I grew a little braver and for the sake of showing my maturity and love for her and her family I started to interact a little more physically, hugging and playing.
Now that Collin’s getting bigger, louder, stronger, faster and funner, he’s no longer the terrifying infant I once knew, I can’t wait to go home and bond with him. This longing for hugs and playtime is credit to some of the children in Malawi.
Enter Rojas. Rojas is a tiny young boy who has taken a fond liking to my friend Moses. He has a wonderful imagination, a cute coy grin and often wears a long sleeve t-shirt that says “video games stole my soul” (hilarious). Rojas has a younger brother and a very poor mother and no father figure but the men from the craft market. He travels across Lilongwe on his own via minibus for the attention and love of Moses. I have never seen a grown man reach out to a child the way Moses does with Rojas, even among all my great father-friends no one stacks up to Black Mo and this little boy.
Last weekend I was sitting with Gift and Moses on a wooden bench under the shade of a huge tree in the market. I spotted Rojas coming, but he didn’t come straight for us. He’s a lone soldier, not older than 7 or 8, who stopped to play with an out-of-order pay phone and then picked up some rocks (actually a spaceship and crew) before he skipped past me and Gift to snuggle his way into Moses arms.
They talked to each other in Chichewa and for a good half hour they had an uninterrupted session of Moses pulling on his ears, teasing him, kissing his cheeks, telling him stories and answering his questions.
A potential business opportunity arose as a few tourists came by and I suddenly found myself ‘alone’ with Rojas who was enthusiastically entertaining himself with the concrete and stone spaceship. He had found a piece of tinted beer bottle glass that became the shield of the spaceship and a few cigarette butts that became the ammo for a rubber tube bazooka. He flew his spaceship over and under the bench and when I made him a landing pad of cardboard and sticks and he zoomed in for to disembark. We unloaded the small rocks, the soldiers, and rushed them to the hideout (a hole we had made behind one of the bench legs).
Quickly the game changed. In the dirt around the carving displays we found the lid of a glass jar and a broken long forgotten stone hippo carving along with a wooden crocodile. Rojas took the crocodile for a swim through the flower petals and leaves that had fallen off the tree we were sitting under. He was fishing and the tin lid was our frying pan. Each little petal was a fish and my disfigured hippo was the chef. Once the animals had hunted and properly cooked their fish we were onto incorporating them into the space mission.
The crocodile could now fly and was the enemy of the concrete spaceship and rock soldiers. He could shoot bullets from his tail and if he ate a leaf he could travel at super unstoppable speeds. I was in charge of flying the spaceship but even my impressive manoeuvres between benches and rock forts were no match for Rojas’ flying croc.
After being shot down by the crocodile, there was a crash landing amongst the rubble of other rocks, I unloaded my soldiers and Rojas helped. We danced our rocks on to the top of the bench and together tag teamed the evil crocodile he left abandoned on the far side of the bench. Some soldiers stood guard facing the crocodile, while others scaled their way to the ground by way of a corn-husk rope. We took down the crocodile by surrounding it from all angles.
I’m not sure how long we played together, making universal sound effects and very little conversation but it was one of the best afternoons of my life. For the first time in a really long time I was living completely in the moment. I didn’t know what time it was, I didn’t dig out my phone or look around for someone who might be looking for him, I was just completely there heart and soul with Rojas and our spaceship, fish fry, crocodile games.
I bought Rojas a banana flavoured lollipop and we sat staring and smiling at each other for ten thousand patient licks. I wanted a picture but you can’t interrupt moments like that with a camera, they just seem too staged.
Sitting quietly among our carvings, cardboard and concrete I looked up into the tree canopy. I thought a lot about my childhood of playing in the woods with whatever was around, making potions out of berries and carving spears with pocket knives. I heard the cawing of a bird but couldn’t see it and while I was daydreaming about my own play forts made under the trees, Rojas cawed and cooed back to the bird, to which it responded.
Rojas made bird calls in between lollipop licks and when I looked over at him he put his small hand on top of mine and didn’t say a single thing. He looked up at the trees and called to the birds and I looked at the perfect little fingers that were resting between the creases of mine. He rhythmically sang to the bird and it faithfully responded in the same pattern. His skinny legs swung back and forth like a pendulum and the toes of his right foot grazed the dirt underneath us. I leaned back and looked up into the tree, the gentle touch of a child keeping me connected to nature and imagination.
I’m trying to describe what it feels like to have everything you could ever emotionally need in one small 3 meter radius but the words don’t serve the moment justice. It is an almost impossible thing to really lose yourself and leave behind your ideas of how it should be or what needs to be done to really just enjoy a moment with a small child. When you get there, the peace you feel in your heart is almost overwhelming but in an understated sense. I know that sounds contradictory but to feel 100% free is a surreal but calm place.
When the lollipop was finished we made up another game and when Moses and Gift came back Rojas did not seem the least bit concerned that they had returned or even that they had left. As if to transition from make-believe-land to reality, the winds picked up and the clouds rolled in. Suddenly Rojas and I were in the way of carvers closing up their shops for the storm and before I knew it we were saying goodbye.
Rojas is special and while I will never have the bond that he has with Moses, I do look forward to seeing him around. It’s hard to handle the way my brain instinctively tells me not to leave this small child behind when we head off with our own grown up agenda but the boys assure me he will find his way and we will see him again. It is a whole other world living in Malawi, living in the moment with a young boy and his imagination and allowing him to go off on his own in the same fashion he arrived.
I hope I will have more moments like this one but if not I hope I can learn how to bring myself to this state of calm and clarity when I need it most, and I hope you can too.