I started blogging in 2006 to have somewhere to share my experiences reading with orphans and vulnerable children in Tembisa Township. We were living in near-by Kempton Park at the time. (To read some of those early blogs see Lindiwe's Friends.) We have since moved back to the United States. I return to South Africa once or twice a year and always make it a point to get to Tembisa. This has been one of those weeks, wedged between our retreat in George and teaching next week in Kenya.
Tuesday afternoon I went to Arebaokeng and read A Long Way to Baba to the little ones. Few of these children were here when I came regularly from 2006 to 2008, but AIDS devastates more homes every year. There is talk that the number of orphans in South Africa alone may soon reach 2 million. The children in this group know almost no English, but they love the pictures, pointing to the donkey and making donkey sounds, beeping like a taxi and chugging like a train as the characters travel from their village to the big city of Johannesburg. Two of the workers helped to stem the chaos of hands eager to pull on my jacket or touch my hair as much as point at the book. They translated the gist of the story although some of the English words were unfamiliar even to them.
Afterwards I gathered the older children. Many of these remember me from before. They greet me eagerly. We read Fly, Eagle, Fly! retold by Christopher Gregorowski with lively and inspiring pictures by South Africa’s own Niki Daly. In the story an eagle chick is found after a storm and raised with the chickens. When it is grown, the farmer’s friend insists it is an eagle.
“Look,” the farmer says, “it walks like a chicken, it talks like a chicken, it eats like a chicken. It thinks like a chicken. Of course it’s a chicken.”
But the friend is not convinced. He lifts the eagle over his head. “Fly, Eagle, fly!” He carries it to the roof and repeats his message, but both times the eagle spreads his wings... and returns to the dirt to scratch with the chickens. (My listeners enjoyed making chicken noises at this point and laughed as hard as the farmer in the story who still insists the eagle is a chicken.)
The next morning before dawn the friend takes the farmer and the eagle far up to a high mountain. “Look at the sun, Eagle,” the friend says. “And when it rises, rise with it. You belong to the sky, not to the earth.” As the sun’s first rays set the world ablaze with light, the eagle spreads its wings, leans forward, and rises on the wind, never to return to scratch among the chickens.
It is a powerful story. Two pages from the end some of the children were called to get the hot meal the center provides. “Pause,” Gregory said, thrusting a finger at me as if to pause a video. I reviewed the earlier parts of the story with those who remained until they came back.
“Which are you?” I asked when the story was over. “A chicken or an eagle?” English is not their first language, and although most were between twelve and seventeen, it took them a while to understand that when I said they could fly like the eagle, I was not suggesting they jump off the roof of the center. But once they grasped the metaphor, we talked about the unwholesome things the ‘chickens’ outside do and what they as ‘eagles’ could do to soar above the foolish chickens. Before long they were telling me about the ‘chickens’ on the next corner who try to get the girls to stop and go with them.
These kids live in a challenging world. Just staying in school is a victory, and this week the teachers are on strike! I am grateful for the workers who are there every day for them. I pray that many will follow their Creator and soar like eagles.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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