Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer
I realized today what the thing is that I miss the most from my time in Africa. When I wanted to show the kids something I would tell them to come around me, close. They would crowd around me, in a compact group, pressing against me on all sides, eager to get as close as possible, to see everything. That is what I miss the most.
The most beautiful song in French is Les Feuilles Mortes … indisputable, really (Juliette Greco’s version here). One of the lines from it is Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment (but life separates those who love each other). In some of versions of the song I always hear Mais la vie sépare ceux qui se serrent (but life separates those who cling to each other). The alternate lyric makes sense and perhaps is even stronger than the first, opposing separation and clinging together. I think there are must be two versions, though I cannot dismiss that it might just be my faulty ear for French.
To love each other and to press together, though, seems to me to be the same thing. In love, bodies obey an irresistible force to press together, to touch, to embrace. Très serré, very squeezed together, it sounds so much better in French, where, somehow, s’aimer and se serrer sound like the same word even though they should be pronounced completely differently. In Africa, I taught, and the children learned, by love. They learned more by touching me than by my words (it would still be true even if my French were not so poor).
When I was a young father studying for my engineering degree, struggling with the rigors of a Berkeley education while trying also to be a good dad, I would often bring one of my daughter’s stuffed animals in my backpack when I had an exam. It was my love for my daughter that got me through this excruciatingly difficult period. Touching her stuffed animal and feeling that love would give me the strength, no matter how dead-tired I was, to get through another exam.
You can’t imagine the warmth of the Malian people, not if you come from my world where we have our personal space, our needs, our loneliness. I have never seen smiles and laughter that come so directly from the heart. Every time I was surrounded by kids, très serré, my own heart felt like it would burst, I had never been thanked for giving a gift, my gift of my knowledge and my fervent desire to give the kids something that could help them, as these children expressed their gratitude. But life has separated those who s’aiment / se serrent. I wish we could share that moment of crowding together forever.
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