Africa is a continent sadly lacking written languages and dominated by oral societies where storytellers are pre-eminent. The most telling phrase I have ever brought home from Africa is that when an elder of an oral society dies, it is "Like a library burning." These boys were itinerants, but they had cursive writing. The older boys taught lessons every day and were strict taskmasters. They covered basic math and science, and threw in English lessons, as my native tongue has invaded most of the world. There was never any opposition to these classes as each one of them realized them to be their ticket to a better life. I have never before seen students so eager to learn.
The boys crowded around, each showing me their day's lessons. Whenever they stop for a break, the older boys will ask questions of the younger ones who must write down their answers, making their education a non-stop endeavor.
What struck me most was their happiness. They were full of joy and quick to laugh and I could sense a camaraderie that had already been bonded by communal living on the road. They had the kind of spirit and drive I have always wanted but have only achieved in short bursts. Even though I was wealthy by their standards and an obvious money source, not one of them asked for any. They approached begging as any other profession, and since I had stopped to ask them about what they do, I was no longer a faceless donor; I was treated more as their guest.
I needed more time to talk with them, so Noah inquired about the village they were heading for that evening, and we left, saying we would meet them there. My fatherly emotions had been awakened and I felt a need to do something to help them, so being driven by an irrational attack of philanthropy, I asked Noah to stop at every little store along the way. By doing so I managed to scrounge a half dozen ink pens, even buying one from a traffic police officer who gouged me. Being a writer, I always have notepads and four or five extra pens. I tore up my note pads, which gave me several sets of five paper pages each.
Returning to the village, as the boys arrived, I covertly handed each of them a pad of paper and a pen, and told each not to let Nelson know I had done this. I was not looking for any credit, and more importantly, I really wanted to see his surprise when he found his pupils to be suddenly technically advanced. Feeling rather full of myself, I retired early at the same time as Noah, falling asleep watching the cheery glow of a large campfire outside after a few celebratory bottles of Tusker beer.
In the morning I was awakened by a very irate Nelson, who had to calm himself before we could speak. It seems that the paper I had given the boys was more than just a surprise. It was such a rare commodity that it never occurred to them to use it for school. Instead, it had all gone to start and feed the evening's fire and was apparently a blaze to be remembered. With that came the realization that they had written on their tablets with ink and so could not wash them clean, and I suddenly felt very stupid. With one ill-conceived act, although done with good intent, I had destroyed over a century of learning traditions for that tribal clan.
I spent the better part of that morning sitting on the river bank with large chunks of pumice, scrubbing wooden tablets free of ink while Nelson conducted class nearby, stopping periodically to glare at me, to make sure I knew how upset he was.
So, I was the one that received an education that day, learning that it is not always a good thing to introduce modern convenience to an ancient society. That single lesson has been paramount in my writing career as I went that day from being a participant to an observer, forever after.
About two weeks after I returned home I got a Facebook message from Nelson, asking if I had ruined any students work recently and followed by "LOL!!!" so I knew I was forgiven. We talk with frequency now.
The boys returned home as a group for a visit and two had left for schools being sponsored by World Vision. Nelson was waiting for word on a scholarship to the University of Ouagadougou of all places, where he wants to study marine biology, an ambitious choice for one who has yet to see an ocean. That is where things now stand.
Those boys have since entered my thoughts with frequency and I wonder how my life would be different had I been born one of them; after all, either providence, or perhaps even chance could have switched us while still in the womb.
I plan to continue this saga in the future with tales of how a group of itinerant beggars in Africa carved out successful lives for themselves while enlightening one or two others along the way.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
The Medicine Man in Benin - James Michael Dorsey
Searching for Music in Rural Rwanda - Ian Brennan
Dancing With the Dead in Benin - James Michael Dorsey
The Kidnapping of Edward the Maasai - Claudia B. Flisi
See other Africa travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author:
Buy Baboons for Lunch: And Other Sordid Adventures at your local bookstore, or get it online here: