Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5764

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Despite grip of poverty, joy of life shakes free | Wherever we go, a parade follows.

It strings out behind us, a march of gangly 10-year-old boys, dusty toddlers clad only in panties, shy girls with watchful eyes, all laughing and reaching and chattering at once. Makes it harder for us to work, for photographer Sarah Glover to frame her pictures, for me to conduct my interviews.

But neither of us complains. There are worse things than being followed about by children.

They trail us, I suppose, because with our cameras and camcorder and strange language, we represent something intriguing and new. Sarah and I are traveling in Sierra Leone and Niger as part of a two-week assignment for The Miami Herald, and wherever we go the children are not far behind. They gather around us on a ferry crossing the Niger River, trail us to the doors of a hospital in a village of the Mende people, walk with us down the broken sidewalks of Kroo Bay, a Freetown slum.

At one point, a group of the slum kids clusters around Sarah as she instructs them in the finer points of the soul handshake that used to be popular in this country back in the '60s and '70s. Many Africans still seem to get a big kick out of it. "This, this, this, this," says Sarah as she demonstrates each step of the multipart handclasp.

"This, this, this, this," they chant in response, each stretching toward her as flowers stretch to the sun, each wanting his or her hand to be the one she takes next, each having a life expectancy of less than 45 years.

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Around us, Kroo Bay goes about its business. A mangy dog with open sores sleeps on a sidewalk. Gray water trickles in a stream filled with garbage. The air is pungent with the smoke from cook fires. An old man sits in front of his home smoking his pipe. He lives in a shanty with a roof made from corrugated metal. There are rocks on it to keep it from blowing away in a high wind.

It occurs to me that this is the worst place I have ever been.

"This, this, this, this!" Sarah is still teaching the soul shake to the eager hands reaching toward her. Laughter fills the air.

The incongruity of it rushes in on me, but I've grown used to that. I don't know when it happened. Maybe it was watching the proprietor of an Internet cafe scuttle across the floor with shoes on her hands, dragging polio-withered legs behind as she went to use a computer. Maybe it was meeting a woman who sat on a cot in a mud hut with a dirt floor laughing and slapping her thigh, delighting in the sheer joy of being alive.

Whenever it happened, I am no longer surprised to find life going on in the midst of circumstances we would call extraordinary. So I am not taken aback by the happiness of children here in the slums of Freetown, capital city of what an American diplomat tells me is the poorest nation of the poorest continent on Earth.

It occurs to me, though, that I would really like to bring my own kids back here someday. There is the obvious reason, of course. I'd like them to realize that they are blessed.

But there's also something less obvious I'd like them to learn. Namely, that human existence is more stubborn and resilient than we know. That there is a toughness in our kind, an adaptability and tenaciousness that keep us scrabbling up toward sunshine against all odds.

Sarah's lesson done, a half dozen children take custody of my left hand and lead us back the way we came. We pass a trader whose table is piled high with candy and Sarah impulsively buys a mound of it and starts passing it to me to hand out.

The children rush us, the adults watch with tolerant smiles. Somewhere, the smoke from cook fires still smudges the air, as evening meals are prepared.

Life going on.

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