I have a young daughter at home. We recently bought her a set of crayons. My wife thought it was important to start letting her express herself in different ways. All I could think about was the cost of repainting the walls after she indelibly marked them up. Truth of the matter is, I can't really tell what she is drawing, but sometimes my wife sees images of our dog, whom our daughter loves, or a favorite toy of hers.
Well, as I have been traveling through Africa, my daughter has been on my mind a lot. Oftentimes, I see young children smiling and waving from the streets as we walk by, and I almost want to cry. I am not sure why, exactly.
Perhaps, it is because I wish these children could have a nice, safe place to sleep tonight. I know, instead, that many of them will sleep outside, hungry and worried that bandits will take them or their parents away. Perhaps, it is because I see my own child in their eyes and I cannot wrap my mind around the injustice that allows such different lives for the incredibly young. Perhaps, selfishly, it is because I pray my child will never have to lead that sort of life.
This week, I visited Goz Amir refugee camp in Koukou, Chad. It is a UNICEF-funded camp for lost boys. The first thing I noticed was lots of boys sitting with paper and crayons. Of course, I immediately wondered what pictures they were drawing. What I found was really stunning.
These were young kids, yet they were drawing people with guns shooting at other people. There were pictures of people with blood squirting from their heads and other people who had flames coming from their bodies, after their homes had been set on fire. There were pictures of bombs falling and missiles rising. One boy simply drew a man hiding in a bush outside the boy's home. It was clear the boy was really scared of that man, but he wouldn't tell me why.
What these boys are doing is a sort of art therapy. I have seen it used before in Pakistan, after the earthquake, and in Sri Lanka, after the tsunami. The idea is that some form of expression is important in order to get past the atrocious events these children have suffered. Since many of them don't wish to talk about what happened, they turn to drawings instead.
Unlike with physical injuries, which may require a stitch or a pill, there are no rules when it comes to emotional trauma. And, even though many of these children have never seen a crayon in their lives, they do seem to take to it rather quickly and start an important process of discussing their fears.
I was also reminded of just how low a priority emotional health can be. Many of these boys have been refugees for three years now, after fleeing Sudan as orphans. Yet, it was just over the past few weeks that they have been encouraged to start this form of emotional healing. I asked one boy if it helped to draw. "It doesn't relieve all the pain," he told me. I can't imagine it would.
One day, I will tell my own daughter about the lost boys I met in Africa. Until then, I simply hope she will never have to draw those sorts of images.