The boy on the swing has tiny legs—much smaller than most. They are two spindly black sticks, dangling awkwardly as he hangs on the swing set, unmoving.
I offer to push him, and he only smiles as I put a hand on the back of his tiny body and push forward, again and again, until he is swinging through the air, up and down, the swing set creaking and rocking in the red mud.
Only his fingers move, tightening his hold on the chains of the swing. Most kids would be pumping their legs by now, but not him. His legs still dangle from the swing, moving only with the wind around him.
“This boy, he can’t walk,” explains his teacher. His name is Chikondi and he is handicapped—he has never walked and will never walk but he is still here along with all the other children.
When it’s time to paint, his teacher picks him up and sets him down in a dry spot of dirt, then hands him a giant piece of blank white cotton paper. Chikondi grips a paint brush with his left hand and stares at the page with all the deep concentration of a highly-reflective five-year-old.
After maybe five whole minutes, the boy dips the tip of his brush into a dab of green acrylic paint, then puts brush to paper and makes a circle. He has painted before and it shows—here’s a kid who knows what he’s doing. Slowly but with confidence, Chikondi paints a picture with green and orange shapes: loops, squiggles, boxes and a few colorful splashes. It’s good—I’ve seen far less convincing artwork at MoMA.
“That’s great!” I tell him in English, then add in Chichewa, “Ndimakonda”—I like it!
“Tell me what you painted,” I ask him through a translator. From the looks of it, his picture could be anything: a basket of limes and oranges, or a green and orange map of Manhattan. At HEART (Healing and Education Through the Arts), what children paint is less important than what they say they are painting and why.
The whole point of painting is to get them to talk—to say things that they are not saying otherwise. The day before I watched another five-year-old boy who painted a single red “B” on his paper. I had visited his home that morning—he showed me the dirt-floor hut that he lived in with his grandmother and the bare corner of the room where he slept—in the dirt without any blanket. His simple art was a vocalized wish—a kind of paintbrush prayer for something he did not have: B is for blanket. When asked to explain his painting he said, “I do not have a blanket to sleep on but I want one, so I painted a B.”
Chikondi’s painting is more complex and when I ask him to talk to me about it, he tells me about his toys. Like so many young boys in rural Malawi, Chikondi makes his own toys. His favorite is a toy car that he crafted from grass, sticks and bottle caps. This is what he paints for me.
That a child paints his favorite toy is comforting to me. That a five-year-old boy who is undernourished, impoverished and handicapped can sit back and paint one of his favorite toys is a reminder to me that life’s real problems live only in the eye of the beholder. Chikondi knows he is different than the other children, less able, but he is right there with them, painting and smiling with confidence.
Chikondi has a twin brother, healthy and running around with the other children. His mother is there, too—everyday she carries Chikondi to and from school on her shoulders.
“He needs to have an education,” she tells me through a translator. “With his situation, education is the only way will help him get out of this village.”
“If he stayed at home he would only become idle, and that’s not what I want for him.” And so Chikondi’s mother carries him to this place where he can paint pictures and keep his mind alive. I think of children in America, plugged in to their computers and video games and phones, tapping, texting, and cyber-existing. There is none of that in Malawi—only the nature underfoot and then today, there is paint and paper.
When it is time to go, I shake Chikondi’s fragile hand, clenched and cold. I thank him and he smiles back at me, perched now on his mother’s shoulders, ready for the long walk home. Our interaction has been too brief—an hour maximum—one hour of our lives that intersected on a patch of dirt, the two of us armed with paintbrushes.
“What does his name mean?” I ask his mother, “Chikondi?” Almost every African name I encounter holds a very specific meaning.
“Chikondi?” She asks back at me.
“Chikondi.” I repeat, and then listen to her answer.
“It means Love,” his mother says.
And just then, Chikondi smiles at me, then waves goodbye.