Saturday, July 17, 2010

Four bottle caps, a milk carton, and a stick

There is an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. Here in Zambia, I have observed that scarcity--and creativity--also lead to invention. This is especially true with kids.

Play is universal, and children everywhere find, are given, or make playthings. What do four bottle caps, a milk carton, and a stick make? A truck, of course! Bottle caps are wheels, the milk carton is the body, and the stick, stuck in the middle of the body, is used to push it along. This is usually a toddler or little boy toy. Sometimes they cut out windows and add bottle cap headlghts to make it look more realistic.

Older boys want wheels that actually roll, so another version of a vehicle is made of coat hanger wire, two or four recycled wheels from an old wagon or a now-defunct plastic truck, and a stick or rod for the axle. If two kids both have vehicles, they will race them, running and pushing the "car" ahead of them.

Two sticks from bushes or trees can be bound together to make the frame for a home-made kite. The string comes from patiently unraveling a burlap maize sack and twisting the pieces of heavy thread together. A plastic bag, opened into a diamond shape, becomes the body of the kite. The windiest month is about to come, and I expect to see kids flying kites all over the grassy field where the education students were practicing traditional dancing all last month.

Of course, such universal pastimes as rolling tires, playing tag and climbing trees is always fun--especially if the tree has guavas in it. The most developed art I have observed, however, is the construction of a ball from discarded plastic bags. This involves stuffing as many crumpled or rolled up bags as possible into one bag, massaging it to make it round. Then it is wrapped in strings gotten from unraveling a burlap bag that maize meal came in. Once the plastic bag is completely covered with string, they take it to a charcoal cooking fire and hold it near the heat to bind it all together. A well made ball will actually bounce.

And what do they do with the ball? Play soccer, of course!

What about girls? Their play seems to imitate their mothers, using empty cans and sticks to play at mixing nshima (corn meal porridge), making dolls from scraps of fabric and carrying them on their backs, modeling dirt/clay figures, and holding tea parties. Girls don't seem to have as much time to play as boys, since they are often helping their mothers with household chores. They can be seen freely and happily singing and dancing whenever there is music.

I have enjoyed getting to know a group of children who come to show me their school work as they enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some homemade cookies. It makes me miss my grandchildren less to have some Zambian children in my life.

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