Changing Nursery Rhymes

A letter from Nancy Smith-Mather serving in South Sudan

April 2016

Write to Shelvis Smith-Mather
Write to Nancy Smith-Mather

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“This is a pencil,” one voice shouted.

“This is a pencil!!!” replied a large group of excited children.

“This is a ruler,” stated the teacher.

“This is a ruler!!!” The children’s voices carried a long distance, accompanying me as I walked to the office.

They were excited to be in school. Just over the fence next to our house, the church that meets under the mango tree opened a school. The enthusiasm of the children made me smile. For many of the children this was their first opportunity to go to school.

I planned to get to the office in time for morning devotions, but my body moved too slowly. With a recent diagnosis of typhoid, I cannot move as quickly as I would like. I am feeling much better than a few days ago.

“Who is preaching?” I wonder, as I stand outside the hall and listen to an unfamiliar voice. The man asks, “Who are you not forgiving?” The preacher’s mother was killed two months ago in a conflict in his home state, he explains. He acknowledges it is difficult to forgive people who harm your family.

“Put your heads down on the table,” the preacher instructs, “and think about the group that you have not forgiven.” My mind went quickly to the student who received news yesterday that his father was killed in a cattle raid from a rival ethnic group. How painful this devotional must be for him, how real and raw.

Jordan and Addie with the children of RPI participants and their teacher

Jordan and Addie with the children of RPI participants and their teacher

I left the door side to sit in my office. “This is a ball!!!”—the voices of the children burst through my window.

The young man’s recent loss of his father brought me to an emotionally heavy place. My wandering thoughts began pulling up pieces of the previous week, perhaps trying to make some sense of things.

“Politics is not the cause of the fighting in our area,” another young man passionately proclaimed to those gathered in our home for prayer this weekend. “The cause is illiteracy,” he stated. In his hometown, he explained, those who are illiterate are easily swayed by a few leaders with big titles and divisive ideas.

“If not for faith in God,” another visitor said, “a person would go mad.” The comment concluded his story of trying to study at the teacher training college, not knowing if his wife and children were alive or dead.

Peace Institute and Teacher Training College students gathered at our home to pray for their community

Peace Institute and Teacher Training College students gathered at our home to pray for their community

Circled in our living room, 12 young men and women shared a cup of tea and an experience of tragedy. Currently they living the role of students, either at the Yei Teacher Training College or at the RECONCILE Peace Institute, yet their roles as fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, friends and neighbors occupied their thoughts over the past two weeks as fighting claimed lives in their hometown. “There is no cellphone network there,” one student-teacher explained, “no way to communicate.” These young adults received bits and pieces of information on the fighting. They knew people were dying, but was it my wife? my child? my mother?

From Saturday tea my mind jumped to Monday, when my 3-year-old son, Jordan, came home from school and shared with me a nursery rhyme he learned in class:

Bullets, bullets, killed my parents,
bullets, bullets, killed my brother,
bullets, bullets, killed my sister,
bullets, bullets, stop killing us!

While I do not want my 3-year-old talking about killing and bullets, I should not have been so surprised by the words. Nursery rhymes often form from existing realities, which are not always “age appropriate” in their subject matter. A few days prior Jordan had come home repeating different lines:

Peace, peace, peace,
Where are you?
Peace, peace, peace, we need you.

We need you in our homes,
We need you in our schools,
We need you in our church,

Peace, peace, peace,
Come to us and stand.

What does it take to change the nature of nursery rhymes? Those who repeat them will one day have the power to make new ones for the next generation; it means changing the context. Children learn what exists and also what can exist, and then they form new realities, which create new words and a new world.

The heartbroken teachers and peace builders in our living room deeply believe in that possibility. They understand the responsibility and privilege of speaking into the lives of young ones. They understand that healing families and bringing reconciliation in communities shifts the environment. New realities form, composing new lines, passing from children to grandchildren. The old words are never erased; they are etched on the pages of history.

We thank God, as mission workers, we witness the pain and the struggle up close; we sit in those sacred moments of brokenness and sip tea together. Thank You, God, for an opportunity to share life. Thank You, Lord, for the inspiration that lifts these young adults from despair to determination. Thank You for the difference they are making in their nation and in our own lives. Thank you, Lord. Amen.

Nancy Smith-Mather

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