Children lined up tightly in height order before me, some of them holding the child just in front of them by the shoulders. That’s South Africa: Children don’t seek their own spaces, nor do adults, for that matter. People think nothing of squeezing into bus seats, benches, or in this case, face-painting lines.
My fellowship colleagues and I were at a children’s birthday party in Langa, a township in Cape Town where infestation is rampant, and water and electricity are almost nonexistent. Yet there is no shortage of hope, as evidenced by these children’s sweet, anticipatory faces, as they waited their respective turns to have a national flag or other symbol painted on their cheeks.
“Bra-SIL!” exclaimed my first customer, a boy of maybe three years old, as he stepped toward me. He had rolled the “r” and used a hard “s,” so I knew this little man meant business. Having seen the South African flag everywhere over the past week, I was equipped for the symbol I thought I would be asked to paint on his expectant little cheek. But I had no clue how to draw the Brazilian flag.
“Um, just a minute,” I pleaded, even though we’d been told these little ones did not speak English. “Francis!”
My fellowship colleague Francis came to my rescue, explaining to me how a Brazilian flag looks. My colleagues cruised through multiple faces, as I painstakingly perfected each line I drew on this little person. I wanted him to have a flag worthy of his conviction to have me paint it, so I took my time. And again with the next Brazilian flag requested, and the next, and the next, and the next.
Later that night, Francis researched national flags online and said, “Sorry, Katie. The Brazilian flag isn’t a yellow triangle with a green circle on the inside bottom left corner, like I told you. It’s a green square with a yellow diamond inside, and a blue circle inside that, plus a bunch of stars in the circle, and a white line through that circle.”
I felt terrible for having detained so many children for so long, only to paint a ridiculous flag that does not exist on their faces – but, sweet as they are, not one of them corrected me, even though they could see the faux flag on each other, and must have deduced that their own faces bore the same insane image. Thankfully, I got in some good South African flags, Batman masks, and hearts; not everyone fell victim to my lack of flag savvy.
I feel such love for these children, who are thankful even when the wrong flag is painted on their faces. That generously given gratitude makes me feel protective. I want to return to Langa, arms full of Brazilian flags to distribute as gifts. It seems the least I could possibly do for this struggling but joyful community.
But more work to benefit this community remains – so I will trudge forward, doing my best to leave the darling birthday party guests behind me.