Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Skin

Skin color seems a ridiculous way to mark any human being as worthwhile or not.


By JOELLEN COLLINS

When asked about my most enduring impression from volunteering in an orphanage in Tanzania, I had to stop and really think. Everything sounded clichéd, so I am not sure I can express my thoughts here either, except to say that the time was a profound reminder of certain universal truths: The ability of children to survive unspeakable tragedies is amazing (my stories of their backgrounds are moving in the extreme), the passion of some to help others is one of the most affirmative qualities of many people I met there, and skin color seems a ridiculous way to mark any human being as worthwhile or not.

The children in the orphanage, Kilimanjaro Kids Care, range from 6 to 16 years old. Three full-time caregivers live with them, called dadas (sisters), though one is probably a bibi (grandmother). I was called "Madame" or "Bibi," terms of respect, and always treated affectionately by these tiny survivors. One day we took them on a mini safari to Arusha National Park where they saw wildlife for the first time: African children who had never seen a giraffe (the national animal of Tanzania) or a zebra got close to both. How fortunate I was to share this with them! I had some projects I did with the kids (they love reading) and spent time at their local school, where they are required to speak English. I was inspired by their polite behavior, by their undying spirit and by the bonds they have developed with each other. They are, in spite of past horrors, lucky in comparison with tens of thousands of other African orphans who will not have the chances they do.

The last thing on my mind was the color of their skin, and when they touched my wrinkled, aging white skin, it was only a matter of curiosity to them, not of judgment or of fear. They loved me for what my soul is, and I loved them in return.

So I hope that as this election time comes around, none of us vote on the basis of gender or skin color or even on personal family backgrounds. We must look at the universality of our connections with other members of the human race and evaluate candidates on their qualifications, how they reflect our own individual moral compass and what we think they can do to revitalize the image of America as a place of opportunity, perhaps less materialistic, and more open to joining the community of the world.

I hope to return next year; I have fallen in love in quite a profound way with these kids and their protectors. Theresa Grant, a local woman, oversees the orphanage in a very hands-on way, guiding the lives of these orphans. I admire her and now know through personal witness that she is truly doing an amazing job of helping these children while also involved with orphanages in Zambia and India as well. I only wish I had found this place sooner. Perhaps, though, I was meant to wait until this time in my life to quench my thirst for an African adventure with something more profound—a chance to help, as I didn't even find in the Peace Corps, some little people who deserve a chance. In some way, whatever talents I think I may possess have blended here. I really see the effects of my time spent with these eager minds—that they may indeed have more opportunities than they would have if I and others ignored them. (If you want to find out more about this endeavor, you can visit www.makeadiffferencenow.org.)

Who in his or her right mind could ever look at these kids as something less because they have dark skins? It still amazes me that I grew up in a time where I drank from a different water fountain than did another college friend, part of a group of volunteer students who built playground equipment in Ecuadorian villages in the Andes. He used the "colored-only" fountains at the Florida university where we stayed in transit. I never heard from him after we all parted, and he returned to Alabama to study at Tuskegee , an all-black college.

I wonder if he thinks the presence of an African American running for president of our country is hopeful, or if many of us still harbor irrational fears and prejudices about color. I hope he feels proud, and I hope we have truly progressed.




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