They came shouting and splashing water tinted rosy with setting rays, the whole lot of them. About ten little boys clad in nothing but their sopping wet, raggedy underwear and big smiles on their faces. I was sitting on the Mtwara beach, soaking in the view while Addie played in the sand in front of me. At first, I was slightly annoyed by the noisy intrusion into my silent wonderings and the blocked view, but when I looked into the faces, I could not help but grin at the jovial lot. Many of them had plastic water bottles tied to their bodies with random bits of rope or bags found beach side; I assumed they had rigged these contraptions to help them stay afloat. And then I realized that most of the little boys who ranged in age from about four to six probably did not know how to swim, and they were all totally unsupervised, who knows how far from their mothers.
And they were having a ball. I don’t think that I have seen a happier group of people since. They jumped and kicked and shouted with glee, drifting aimlessly as a pack down the beach in the shallows of the water where the waves touch the sand. Drifting as buddies without bills, responsibilities, rules, bosses, or any time constraints whatsoever save the setting sun. One sweet boy approached Addie with a driftwood stick as a sort of friendship offer. He tried to pick her up, but she was kind of big for him.
I came away from that scene with those happy faces burned into my brain. I’ve recalled them to mind since, in the difficult moments. They reminded me of a quote from Anthony Esolen about childhood games. He says that “those [childhood] memories of play…are almost the only things an old man can look back on with complete satisfaction.” As I remember, lots of children in America aren’t left alone long enough to really get lost in their games; their lives are scheduled with school, lessons, and practices. Of course, they will be entertained by movies, which play in the car on the way.
Perhaps many accustomed to movie screens implanted in their car head rests would glance at my little gangly pack of friends and see poverty—the trash tied to the bodies, the lack of supervision, the nakedness. But I heard shouts of freedom, saw satisfied faces, and shared in their joy which has no price tag. Poverty has many faces.