When a little kid is walking along alone, hitting anything in his path with a stick, it’s safe to say something is bothering him. In fact, I’d say that is a fairly universal sign for “I am having emotions and I have no idea how to deal with them.” Although hitting random objects with a long, dead piece of tree is not the most constructive, I can think of many more harmful coping mechanisms.
When the scene is accentuated by swells of red dust, a dirty school uniform, and goats by the side of the road, the pathetic nature of his distress ends up outweighing any anger he may exude. The disgruntled look on his little brown face made me think about what problems could be weighing down on his sweat-covered head. Maybe the girl he likes held another boy’s hand at recess. Maybe he is scared to tell his dad about a bad grade he got on a spelling quiz. Maybe he dropped his PB&J on the floor at lunch time, or a bully stole his chocolate milk.
But I realize, while watching him pass one goat, then another, that these are not his problems. I am projecting my American elementary school storybook problems on a little boy who has never even seen a skyscraper, let alone ridden in an elevator. He has never seen a movie on a big screen or flown in an airplane. And yes, while the angst of puppy love and bullies and parental disappointment are the same in every language and true in every country, a place like The Gambia provides you, quite frankly, with a much more abundant selection of problems. When poverty, sickness, lack of resources and an overwhelming national obligation to succeed are placed on every student, it’s a miracle this kid, with his Power Rangers backpack and too-big green shorts, isn’t doubled over under the weight.
When the national goal is to “get out,” to leave and find refuge in a place like the UK or US, it’s hard to understand the immense pressure on each member of society. Being here, it is more than clear that each and every young person is encouraged to use their home as a stepping stone. The Gambia isn’t somewhere you stay, it’s somewhere you start. Taxis have American flags in them, stores advertise “genuine American food products,” and the US and UK Embassies are basically forts, reminding passerby’s of the countries’ inaccessibility. The best schools here are all the “international” schools, more respected than the normal private schools. Because at these, you can find further education, advanced learning, in a country viewed as entirely superior to your own.
But by viewing your country as a trap, as something to escape for something that is better, what does that mean? I recognize that many countries feel this way, but here it is publicized, encouraged. This is not a country with rebel groups, not a country where the leader is feared or viewed as oppressive. They enjoy freedom of religion and safety is recognized as a national point of pride. The leader is revered and his methods appreciated. This desire for movement, the desire to seek refuge in Europe or America, has nothing to do with politics or discrimination. Instead, it lies in the view of success. Success is leaving The Gambia for school, success is getting a Visa to another country, through the long, grueling, usually impossible process. Success is realizing that where you are has no influence on where you should be going.
So keep hitting the rocks, the fence, the stump with that stick…because you know, some kid in America is probably doing the exact same thing. And if you ask me you have a little bit more of a right. Just don’t hit the goat, he didn’t do anything to you.