At elementary school and summer camp, I could spend a whole recess or lunch period playing hand-clapping games — Miss Mary Mack, The Spades Go — and many others that I haven’t thought about in perhaps two decades. Until today.
We went to the Obim primary school to plant trees with our hosts in Lira, AJWS grantee Concerned Children & Youth Association. CCYA runs a number of innovative programs for children and young adults in the area who are vulnerable as a result of poverty, but also as a result of Joseph Kony’s brutal stronghold in Northern Uganda with his Lord’s Resistance Army.
We arrived at the school for a day of digging in the sun: wide-brimmed hats, work gloves, long-sleeved pants and shirts, sunscreen and snacks. The children were dressed in their school uniforms: royal blue dresses (the girls) or shirts and shorts (the boys). Most were barefoot.
There were more differences than just the things we wore — there were cultural, economic, educational, and religious contrasts as well. So too were there language obstacles, though many of the children — even as young as 6 — spoke English quite well. And yet these differences faded away when during a break we started asking the children how to say “tree” (yat) and about a hundred other nouns in their local dialect, Luo. The children found our attempts to pronounce the proper words hilarious, and this led to a round of us singing all kinds of American songs mixed with Luo words including a particularly animated rendition of “Old Macdonald.”
This was all fun and good, but it was the next game that marked the highlight for me: Two girls turned to each other, clasped their hands together, and started singing a Luo song while clapping out a sequence of familiar movements. Hands side to side, clap, hand to side, snap, clap, clap.
This, in a school without water or electricity, in a village populated by thatched roof huts, in a region thousands of miles away from home was the very same game I’d played growing up. Different tune, different language, different everything — and yet same claps, same smiles.
Marissa Miley Friedman is an author and science writer based in New York and a traveler on the Global Circle trip in Uganda.