I had no idea I had a namesake town in Liberia. Well, to be honest, Clara Town has nothing to do with me. Apparently it’s named after a woman named Mrs. Clara who was a good woman and did a lot for her community. That’s all I could get out of the locals we met yesterday afternoon. I’m working on living up to the ideals of Mrs. Clara. In fact, that’s the exact reason I’m here.
The entire latter portion of the day was spent in what you might imagine to be a delightful little village here in Liberia. The reality is that Clara Town is a slum. By our standards at least. A part of Monrovia packed in with bodies of all ages. Garbage everywhere, kids peeing while washing simultaneously in a small basin in front of their homes. Multi generations of families packed into shacks small but sturdy: concrete blocks covered with corregated tin.
Picture Slumdog Millionaire here in West Africa and the opening scene. Remember the kittle boy desperate to see his cricket hero locked in the shit shack on stilts? A version was there in Clara Town set up above the water on the edge of town. Multiple versions of this made for the outhouses. The same water a mother washed the clothes in twenty feet away. The water that’s shore was piled with garbage; shredded plastic instead of white sand.
But that didn’t damper the spirits in Clara Town. It’s just my outsiders view of what the reality is. For the people we met it is home and what they have. And what really stood out was the spirit that injected each of us with a warmth after the Play Day in the cramped school play area.
Stepping out of the van kids raced around singing and laughing. Playing a game in and out of the ditch that appeared to one day host a sidewalk but for now just some iron pegs set to one day hold the boards that would one day hold the cement to mold a sidewalk. One day that would most likely never come.
They raced around us as we walked through the narrow alley leading us to the school. Different uniforms designated the level of school they were in. They had no idea who we were or our distinction. No idea that Rosie MacLennan had won the Olympics half a year before in London on the trampoline. Nor that I had done and won in a few Olympics myself. None of that mattered but what did matter was we were strangers from far, far away. Strange looking people who came to play.
And play we did. So many kids crammed that space we were like a bunch of sardines too big for the container. The lid being the hot, humid sun scorching our winter skin well above 30c. Winter in Liberia, the dry season, made me glad I am not here for what summer would offer. I was glad to see we weren’t the only ones sweating like pigs. The local coaches were smarter though, they had little rags to wipe their faces of salty drip every few minutes. Jet lag seemed to only amplify the heat and I wanted to faint or barf. Or both. But there was no stepping away from the circles of play. No way. Not with the kids so excited and engaged.
Not with the kids sweating and jumping and wanting to play more and more. Circles went wider and closer, side to side jumping, warming up the body that’s core temperature felt like an inferno. The name game, the three foot ball game, the discussions after each of these games and more. The lessons learned from play that differentiates RTP programming from any other I’ve seen. Using play to teach kids lessons of health, safety and protection, breaking down the barriers of discrimination and bringing kids and strangers together to laugh and play.
The child protection club activities that saw a serious debate as to what the terms stereotype, discrimination and tolerance are. The heated discussion that ensued between the kids as to if ‘boys should or should not play with dolls’ was fascinating. The point not being yes or no, the purpose being that stereotypes for things that may seem small or even ridiculous, when applied, can lead to stereotyping at much higher and more devastating levels. The kids listened to each other then responded with passion and intelligence, each side arguing gracefully their stand. The lively debate left us all friends. Left us all with things to consider.
And then more play and more laughter, learning and joy in a place that should really be exempt of such things. That could be left out of such things. Which is exactly the point of Right To Play. If you ask any kids, any of the now hundreds even thousands that I’ve met over the trips to the field, ask them if they have the right to play and they respond with a determination letting you know indeed, nobody is going to take this right away.
“I have the RIGHT to PLAY!” is what they say.
So a place like Clara Town has this outlets for their kids. Has a place for young adults and members of the community to take leadership roles in. To educate themselves in. Be examples for the kids in the community in. Volunteer in the most unlikely of places in. All because of the determination to never give up on these kids from adults who know dearly the cost of war and conflict.
And we come away inspired again. Come away feeling we’ve taken more than we’ve given. Come away humbled because we have so much and need to get a grip on what more we are conditioned to want because of this wealth. All of this enforces my own response to ‘do I have the right to play?’. My response? I will do everything in my power to give as many kids on earth the chance to learn the answer for themselves. Learn it through engagement and opportunity.
“THEY have the RIGHT to PLAY!!”. In Clara Town and everywhere else. Yes, they do.