Of Toddlers and Mango Trees

A smale grove of beautiful, green mango trees provide shade for West African children playing in front of a thatch-roofed building.

It’s hard being a toddler. You stumble and fall regularly, you are often misunderstood, and things out of your control can incite you to throw little “demonstrations” in order to get your point across.

God, in His compassionate wisdom, has graciously prevented us from accessing the memories of our time as toddlers, saving us much shame and embarrassment. The trouble is, however, that I’m living through that toddler stage all over again, but this time as an adult with the capacity for self-awareness and the ability to save memories. 

Culturally and linguistically, I’m a 2-year-old. I stumble over words on a regular basis. People rarely understand me the first time I say something. And as for the temper tantrums? I may not fall down kicking and screaming on the outside, but inside my determination and comprehension often crumple to the floor. 

I’m living through that toddler stage all over again, but this time as an adult with self-awareness and embarrassment.

It’s frustrating at times, but no one is too old to be a learner, and no one is too young to be a teacher. My favorite teacher by far, though, is a little girl named Christine. She’s about 3 years old, and she follows her older brother everywhere. He is 6, and he has been in school long enough to know a little bit of French, so we can exchange some vocabulary words and basic phrases. The animation that he puts into all of his stories more than fills in the gaps in our choppy conversation. But Christine is timid and hasn’t learned any French yet, and my knowledge of Kono is quite limited, so our conversations run their routine course rather quickly.

The Mango Tree

One evening while my daughter was at choir practice, I was sitting outside under a mango tree. Not just any mango tree — the mango tree. The one whose branches are strong enough to hold the huge bell that calls people to worship; the one whose leaves are large enough to shade the rough wooden benches; the one whose roots go deep into the red West African dirt. 

Pretty soon a small flock of kids wandered by, led by Christine’s brother. Being the only one of the bunch who knew me, he proudly marched over to say hi. Once he had greeted the strange white lady, the other children knew it was safe, so they hurried over to greet me as well. 

I had been writing some thoughts in a notebook, but the window of opportunity for quiet, reflective writing had just been closed. I offered a few extra pens and let the kids take turns drawing and writing. One of the girls began to play school and promptly wrote down the name of each child in the group so she could take attendance. 

I listened to the kids talking together, and sometimes I asked them to tell me their word for some nearby object. This, of course, was a fun game for them. Why just pretend to play school when you could actually be the teacher? 

A Small Lesson

I received many lessons that evening, but it was Christine’s small lesson that impressed me the most. She hadn’t said a word to me yet; she had just watched me shyly from behind her brother. I was looking around, trying to remember the words for things like grass, rock, and tree. 

Of the many lessons I learned that evening, Christine’s is the one I treasure most.

When I pointed up at the large mango tree, Christine’s eyes lit up. She understood what I was trying to do, and she suddenly realized that she could help me. I knew the generic word for tree, but she knew that this wasn’t just any tree — it was a mango tree. She stood up proudly, pointed at the tree, and told me the word for mango tree in her language. When I repeated it, a smile spread across her face, and she sat down, satisfied.

That was the only thing she said to me that evening, but her excitement at being able to teach me one small part of her language was a treasure to me, and her words brought joy to my heart. In that short moment, a seed of connection was planted under and through the mango tree, and I learned my sweetest lesson from a most unlikely teacher.

Alésha Hagemeyer
Alésha Hagemeyer serves our West Africa team in the areas of recruitment and member care. She, along with her husband Steve and their four children, first went to West Africa in 2014.
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