Did you know that June 1 is Children’s Day? It’s a grand occasion for children here, who generally receive more parties, presents, and appreciation on this holiday than at any other time of year. I was honored to celebrate this Children’s Day at a Christian preschool in a village not far from where I live. My host was the director of the school, who is an employee of the organization with which I work, though the school itself is separate from that organization.
Before the festivities began, the director showed me the grounds and rudimentary structures that house the preschool and a church. I helped the teachers deck out the 27 well-behaved youngsters in party masks and colorful headpieces that read “Happy Birthday” in English. Then the eagerly-waiting parents were invited in to participate in the program. As usual, most of the mothers wore slings with babies or toddlers who took advantage of the opportunity to nurse whenever they grew hungry.
The head teacher enthusiastically led the children in praying, singing, reciting memorized phrases, and responding to questions. The students were obviously well-prepared, and the parents beamed with pride. When one boy started crying after his hat fell off, the leader kindly paused to speak tenderly to him and prompt his classmates to say in unison, “We’re sorry, little friend.” After their presentation, the children lined up and filed out as a “train”, with each one holding the shirt of the student in front of him.
When the teachers and children had left, the director spoke to the parents, many of whom are not Christians. He used the tribal language, which I have not yet studied, so the man beside me translated the message for me into the national language. The director read Bible verses about raising children, and encouraged the parents to take this responsibility seriously. He exhorted them to spend time with their children, play with them, teach them about life, and give them even the simplest of gifts as a token of their love. He also taught about physical care, such as the importance of bathing children, washing their clothes, brushing their teeth to prevent oral diseases, and cooking their food to a safe temperature to protect against worms. I had already noticed many swollen little bellies, which I suspected were the result of parasites rather than overeating.
When the director opened the floor for questions and comments from the parents, they expressed delight at what their children were learning at the preschool, and begged that the program be extended from one year to two years. They said their children are talking more at home, showing more courtesy, and learning the national language. They were also delighted at what their children had experienced on a recent field trip to the airport. The director introduced me, as well as several other guests, and asked each of us to give a few comments; I complimented the parents on their vision for their children’s education.
After the parents’ session, the students returned to sing the birthday song and to cut their simple but pretty Children’s Day cake. They crowded around the table where it was presented, and each received a bite-sized piece from the same fork. Then a volunteer distributed slightly larger pieces to the adults, without dishes or utensils. School staff presented a variety of candies to the children, and some of the parents gave them little gifts.
Finally, everyone went outside to enjoy the big meal that had been prepared in the kitchen shack on the premises. The director needed to leave soon, so those of us who came with him ate quickly and headed back to our vehicle, missing the games which the children were to play afterwards. However, I felt very satisfied with the Children’s Day experience I’d already had — yet another answer to my prayer for opportunities to interact with the locals.