“Do you know what lying is, Carmel?” Christopher asked our daughter one day when she was intentionally being allusive. “Rooooaaar!” was her response. We had to hide our laughs behind our hands, before beginning the proper explanation of this strain of sin. It comes so naturally to us as parents to teach our children about animals and the sounds they make. She can point out a penguin, toucan, lion, zebra, elephant, tiger, giraffe, bear even though she has never (or only at the zoo) seen these animals in person. Every time we read a book, she is asked to point out something from the story. It is a way of interacting, entertaining and teaching. Therefore, I was surprised to find out one day that one of my language teachers did not know the Karimojong word for leopard and confused a crocodile with a monitor lizard, and called a rhino a hippo. She confessed to me that she had recently learned the animals’ names while teaching at KEO, the mission-run preschool. She, like us, was trying to remember her lessons.
Although surprising, this fact was not astonishing. With such a low literacy rate, there are few to no children’s books in Karimojong. Many of the animals that are iconic African, have been hunted to extinction or driven far from the local villages. With few pictures to show and no real life experience, we find ourselves in the odd position of teaching them their own language.
I remember when we first came to visit Karamoja in 2010, I was able to participate in a VBS program in the local schools. We taught bible stories, sang songs and taught about the moon and stars. I remember the children’s awe and disbelief at learning how far away the moon is and that it orbits the earth. They giggle and squirm and shake their heads as if trying to dust off these strange ideas.
In contrast, of course, they set their traps under sausage trees because they know dik-diks are attracted to the fruit. They know which tree has the bark perfect for fastening a thatched roof, the mud for hut walls, the greens that are bitter or sweet, the plant that can be cut easily into a broom and that should you ever have the misfortune to actually see a leopard you should not point it out or it will consume you completely beginning with the offending finger. There are endless facts every Karimojong child understands that I am still attempting to grasp.
Carmel was recently given a few 24-piece puzzles. She has amazed me with her ability to put them together all by herself, not to mention taking them apart. One day, a friend of ours saw Carmel’s puzzles and became fascinated. She took over the enterprise entirely and did not get up until she had finished all four of them. Carmel delighted in handing her pieces and generally confusing her progress. As I watched, I realized that this was another foreign way that we teach our children to interact. We give them blocks and Legos, encouraging them to build. The pieces are intended to and do fit perfectly together. Puzzles teach children to recognize pieces of a whole, shapes, and colors. And also fit perfectly together. Here the children puncture holes in old peanut butter jar tops to make wheels for their wire cars. They shape their universe, through force and creativity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the perfect tool or part, you make do with what you have. Need is its own creative engine.
In the same morning that Carmel puts together her puzzle of a pink octopus and plays the roaring lion, we go outside leaving the formal, the clean, the precise methods of learning behind. We search for the treasures that common grace provides. We end the morning with an old teapot full of sand and neem seeds, all the equipment we need for hours of entertainment.