Educating Njira





Some days ago, at Lusaka, I met a child called Njira that, in the Chinyanja language, means road. A name that, obviously, the mother got from the job she is doing and gave to him as a life program. We were in the huge open market, and he was with a gang immediately recognizable as street children. They were clad in rags and hanging from their shoulders was a bag to put the food, either dumped by the stalls or pilfered here and there. He saw me from a distance and he headed immediately towards me while I pretended not to see him. He touched my elbow lightly and, when he was sure he already got my attention, told me firmly: “My name is Njira. I’d like to go and stay at Mthunzi, your home, like them” as he pointed to the two boys accompanying me.

I thought: “Who on earth has fed him with this idea, who told him about Mthunzi; maybe his mother or a relative who wants to get rid of him and dump him on us? And why only him among the whole gang?” But then Njira lifted up his eyes and looked at me in a direct and disarming way, with a shy smile at first, but then his face became more serious as he sensed my hesitation. Whatever was his reason for approaching me in that way, one thing was clear: he needed an alternative solution to his terrible street life.

I make a quick calculation: yes, it is true, together with the Mthunzi educators, we had decided to accept other guests only at the beginning of the next school year, but is it possible that we cannot add a place at table for this child who trustingly looks at me and who, possibly, will eat only like a bird? This evening there will be time to listen to his story, and tomorrow the social workers will try to contact his family, if ever he has one, and thus verify the truthfulness of his unsolicited introduction and, eventually, ask that he be legally entrusted to our home. But there is no time for all that now. 


He is my neighbor

Tomorrow or next week or next month, who will be able to find Njira in the confusion of the Lusaka market? He is my neighbor, whom God wants me to meet here and now, a neighbor whose smell obviously tells that he has not bathed for many days. There is no doubt that we will easily find dozens of street children for our home for the next school year. But Njira is here now with a definite request. Njira looks at me worriedly. But a nod is enough to make him understand that he has been accepted. He runs to take his place inside the van, among its colorful load: fragrant bananas, cabbages, carrots, “soya meat,” dry fish and half-a-ton of maize flower for porridge. And off we rush on the rough road to Mthunzi.

What story does this little one carry in his heart? Will he be able to socialize with the rest, to bend to the discipline the school requires, to look at the future as an opportunity and not as a threat? He is only one of the millions of African street children. But, all the same, a unique individual. On him, too, the whole of God’s plan focuses, the whole salvation history, the whole love that God has for us, the whole humanity’s longing for transcendence, with a unique and unhindered clarity and freshness. I glance at him through the side mirror; he notices and offers me a timid smile. He reads my thoughts and understands everything, better than I do myself.

We arrive at the compound of Mthunzi and as soon as I announce to the few children, who are not in school because they have already finished their exams, that a new friend has arrived, they offer him a cheerful welcome; they try to outdo one another so that Njira will choose to stay in their dormitory. Those in Crispin’s dormitory prevail because the cunning Crispin gives Njira one of the first ripe mangoes of the season.


A full and dignified life

How are we going to bring up Njira? A tremendous responsibility faces us every time we find ourselves in front of a new child God somehow sends us. Africa is mixing up tradition and modernity and we, as educators, have the difficult task of guiding these children along a path that will help them to overcome the limits of their African tradition without falling into the excesses of modernity. Understandably, they are attracted to modernity and all the easy things it offers. But the last thing I would like to do is to turn these children into little Europeans – children who imitate the worst aspects of modernity without a critical sense, the drive for unbridled wealth, a craze for career, the unlimited urge of appearing, the arrogance and the ignorant and vulgar individualism. I must, therefore, succeed to make the seed of solidarity, the taste for communitarian ties that they already have in their heart and the best part of their most genuine tradition, grow in them.

Ideally, I would like these boys to grow up as mature persons, capable of making their own choices. But to confer educational content to these words is far from easy. Which type of school education will fit them more? Which values should they cultivate? We need daily closeness, respect, attention, sharing of joys and pain with these boys to grow together.

I look at Njira, who has just come back from an inspection tour of the house and garden, and still answers me with a trusting smile. I wish the name Njira would not anymore mean an unavoidable destiny of poverty, begging, street petty crime, but would mean a starting point towards the future, a road where there are no limitations to the life adventure that awaits him. Like the road of return from exile in Egypt, the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, or the road towards Emmaus or Damascus… The road from Lusaka to Mthunzi – the road of a life not without suffering and drama, but full and dignified. 

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