Children of North West Africa

Children with bare legs and flip flops race through fields of white beans.

Skin so brown it’s almost ebony, under the heat of the blazing sun, and hair bleached all shades of glinting gold.

Shy smiles and giggles behind motherly skirts.

Yesterday one such child sat on my lap as I braided her hair. It was thick, and rough to touch, and her strands were coloured all the way from stark black to auburn to bright yellow at the tips. I let her hair run through my fingers as I wound it together and marvelled at such beauty. Her face was small and heart shaped, and so beautifully dark brown. Her mouth a small rosebud, her eyes large and doe-like, framed with magnificent lashes. Under the short sleeves of her top she had a completely different skin tone. Olive meeting dark brown. I thought it was beautiful.

At first she wouldn’t smile at me. She was trying to smooth her hair like another little girl opposite her, with a tidy braid. Her small chubby hands couldn’t make sense of it so finally I beckoned her over to me and undid her hair tie. She let me, happily snuggling into me as I plaited her curls.

When I finished she giggled shyly at me, her whole face brightening up, and sidled back to her mother, all dimples and bright eyes, glancing over at the pristine girl opposite and touching her own tidy hair.

I think children are the same everywhere. Children, after all, are children. They are all cute and sweet and some are devils, of course. But here they have a special charm. Something cultural certainly impacts how people bring up their children. Here there solid sturdiness about them. They cry, yes, and a lot, but they are hardy. A tiny three year old falls over and picks himself right up, brushing dirt and blood off his knees. A five year old in slippers chases massive cockroaches down the street and stamps on them hard, a triumphant glint in her dark eyes as her tiny chubby legs kick the squashed insect so it flies to the other end of the road, and she carries on running.

A six year old boy with the face of a much older child. I don’t know what it is about him. He has those soft baby cheeks but his eyes are hard, his small mouth set firmly. He knows what he wants, and gets it. I watched as he stared at several other children his age before getting up and walking amongst them, like a lion among his pride. They scattered around him, these tiny tots, as though he was their leader. I see him clamber up trees with the agility of a monkey, his face streaked with dirt and tan. He watches all below him with eyes like an eagle. He doesn’t say much, but still manages to convey volumes. When he came indoors crying for his mother after tumbling off a log, I was surprised. Yes, he might be a strong little king among his baby peers but he was still a child. I watched as his mother took him in her arms, wiped his tears away, kissed his face and then pushed him outdoors again.

They are different here, else I wouldn’t have noticed.

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