(This story took place in the village, in mid-October)
There was some serious cuteness going on that afternoon as we watched the soccer match, village competing against village. The little girl was slightly chubby, with a huge smile, top front teeth missing with little stubs of her adult teeth coming in already. My Neno conversational skills allowed me to ask her mother the child’s name and age. Francielle was four, of course. I’ve got this thing for three and four-year-olds. No matter what culture, they are the cutest and most engaging human beings ever, and they seem to jump out at me, right from the midst of any crowd.
Francielle looked at me with a winning smile and then buried her little head in my side. My heart almost melted at such an affectionate gesture. But she hadn’t quite figured me out, it seems. She started rubbing my arm, up and down, her eyes wide with curiousity. Her fingers stopped on some of my freckles and moles, then she started pinching and pulling my arm hair. The Neno people don’t have much body hair, so apparently mine, although quite blond, was a striking novelty to this child. The mother commented something about seeing a white person. Maybe I am the first one this four-year-old had seen up close.
Then, before I could stop her, with one quick movement Francielle had grabbed my t-shirt and yanked it up, with the hushed comment, “Kit tere mena.” Thanks to my great Neno teachers and the words already learned, I actually understood this phrase.
“It’s very very white.”
Even an adult couldn’t state the facts more accurately and concisely. True story. If even my arms and face are still shockingly white after living in the tropics for 10 months, it’s better not to even imagine the color of body parts that are never exposed to the sun.
The curious little girl probably wanted to check to make sure all of me really was white, and not painted. The Neno paint their skin sometimes, after all, especially arms and faces. Maybe other people use white paint, instead of red and black. It reminded me of how in Head Start, we teachers and home visitors encouraged children to explore and discover, trying to find answers to questions on their own. This little girl needed no encouragement. I can just imagine her thought process.
“Is this lady a real human being?
Why is she furry?
Can I pull the fur out?
What are the little brown spots from?
Is she really all white, or did she just paint her arms and legs?
I know; I’ll check under her shirt!”
So this Neno four-year-old definitely gets points for taking initiative in learning, independently finding the answers to the questions in her curious brain, and accurate observation of her environment (including the unusual creatures it contains). But hopefully not too many other people saw what was under my shirt before I reacted by quickly pulling it back down. The little girl had gotten her question answered, after all. The whiteness is authentic, permanent and definitely not painted on. “Kit tere un mena.” (I am very, very white). No further comment. Maybe I should try an Amy Carmichael (19th-century Irish missionary to India) trick and dye my skin brown to blend in with the crowd. Pretty sure she used coffee grounds, which are easy to come by around here.