As the screensaver on my laptop computer cycled through my photo collection, the photograph suddenly popped up and the memories came flooding back.
I was walking along a well travelled dirt road in a built-up neighbourhood in Africa. The scene opened up in front of me: A small boy, grimy, streaked face, with tears welling in the corners of his eyes. One of his hands clutching some small rocks while he glared at a older boy a few meters away who had him in his sights. I only looked at the tableau for a few seconds before my maternal/teacher persona leapt into action. Though it should have been obvious to me that he only spoke Swahili, this did not prevent me from commencing to scold him in English. Something about the dangers of throwing rocks. I petered out after a few seconds as the tableau vanished. The older boy, with a glance at me, disappeared. The tearful child allowed the stones to slip from his fingers. My accompanying daughter looked disconcerted. What to do?
I started to grope in my purse for something to give him, something to stop the threatened tears. I had not thought to come to Africa with small toys for children. My hands grasped something at the bottom that I identified as the closest thing I had to something appropriate--a paper fan with thin bamboo sides. It had been a last minute addition from home to stave off the African heat. I showed it to the boy: how it cunningly opened to a bright mauve interior of stiff pleated paper and then closed again, disguising its purpose. He was enchanted. I gave it to him, nodding all the while, murmuring something in a softer tone.
The boy went into his mud and stick house with the corrugated iron roof, practising the opening and closing of the fan on his way. When we drove up that road for the final time a few days later on the way to the airport, he was there, at the open door to his house, a large smile on his face and demonstrating for me that he had mastered the knack of opening and closing the fan.
I think about him sometimes, perhaps now because it is three years ago this week our paths crossed. I speculate that it must be hard to be a small boy in Africa but then again, I just don't know. If I could reach out today, I would give him something besides the fan.