His name is Stone. And he’s as tough as one too.
He is the leader of the pack, no questions asked. He walks down the beach, his friends follow. He does headstands, his friends do too. He swims to the pontoon in the middle of the lake, his crew dives in right behind him. No hesitation.
He even gleams more than his brother, who is older and about a foot taller than this little guy.
He is ten, looks about six, and has a personality of a 30-year-old well-to-do man.
But, he does it because he has to.
He’s the leader of two businesses along the shoreline of Cape MacLear. This is arguably the most beautiful place I have seen in Malawi to date. Maybe even in the whole world. It is paradise.
Or at least mine.
For his first business, Stone and his friends collect bottles. Just like in Canada and elsewhere, there is a deposit on bottles in Malawi. With their return comes a nice paycheque of 20 kwacha, which is about five cents Canadian.
But when Stone isn’t scoping the shoreline for empty beer or Coke bottles, he is performing.
He is the lead singer and dancer of Westlife. A band of boys about his age that perform for the people visiting and staying in the lodges along the beachfront. The very beachfront that lies just steps away from the village girls and boys like Stone call home.
“Jess! Jess! Bottles?” Stone would shout to me my weekend visit in Cape Mac. And if I didn’t have any to pass off he would say, “Okay, music?”
Stone and his friends race to their instruments when people agree to a performance.
They have two types of drums. One type you can play standing. It has two hand drums attached to a stand that is a neck of a small tree. The other is nothing more than a large yellow jerry can that you sit on and beat with your hands below your waste.
Doesn’t sound like much, but what these kids can do with their resources is absolutely spectacular. No written description can even begin to give their music the credit it deserves.
But here’s the catch.
What is even more astonishing about their music is not how they play, but what they play.
On a beach in the mountainous range of Malawi you hear 10-year-old boys singing African remixes of K’naan and…wait for it…Justin Bieber.
Being Canadian, I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. Not to say I am a fan of Justin Bieber, but the fact that these kids in the middle of Africa know the music of a young Canadian pop star is extraordinary!
Even my Canadian roommates in Lilongwe are behind on Bieber’s biggest hits. And they have only been here six months.
The other night we were eating dinner while watching MTV music videos on the television. Yes, we have a TV in our kitchen in Africa and yes I know that might seem absolutely absurd. I know I thought it was at first! Especially because of how our kitchen looks. It is a concrete hut, partially enclosed, and has lizards that scurry about on the walls and floors. I never imagined eating let alone watching TV in such a setting. It rules.
Anyway, Bieber’s “Boyfriend” song came on the TV. I got up and started jumping up and down in sheer excitement. Truly. But remember, I am not a fan, ha! Des and Paula literally stared at me confused. Not only had they not heard “Boyfriend” before, but they had no idea Bieber was still a big deal.
While Des and Paula have lost (or avoided) their Bieber-fever in six months of North American disconnect, these 10-year-old Malawian kids…haven’t. Wow, right?
Well, not really.
My initial sense of amazement of this changed after I really stopped to think about Stone and his friends.
Cape MacLear is surreal. It is right on Lake Malawi. The lake is surrounded by a mountain range and yet the water still manages to appear endless. The beaches are like those you see advertised on the cover of magazines for all-inclusive resorts in Cuba.
Men walk the beach selling bracelets, paintings and even, “happy pants.” Happy pants are squares of coloured fabric sown together. The pants really do make you, well, happy. And yes I bought two pairs. They are a perfect symbol of Cape MacLear’s atmosphere.
It is captivating. All of it.
So much so you begin to think you do not want to leave. You start to think the people would never want to leave. You go as far to think Stone and his friends must not even care to know about any other world.
But wait, they do.
The very name of their band indicates the boys’ knowledge and potential admiration of the UK boy band also named Westlife.
And they wouldn’t know of Justin Bieber’s existence if they weren’t connected to life beyond Cape MacLear.
When I realized this, Stone’s knowledge of Justin Bieber suddenly wasn’t as cute. It was sad. A harsh reality.
Cape MacLear is my paradise.
But it might not be theirs.
Their paradise might very well be my reality: a world where Justin Bieber is posted on every teenaged girl’s bedroom wall. That is my idea of hell. But I know I wouldn’t be saying that if I were Stone.
My “paradise” is Stone’s reality. And his reality is this:
He and his friends have nothing to keep them innocent. No lunchtime recess, homework, or school for that matter. Their reality is waking up to go to work at 10-years-old. The beach that I see as beautiful is where the women do all of their laundry. The men selling happy pants are not actually happy because, well, I paid 10 bucks for two pairs and that was considered a lot of money.
His reality is that he could be a star, but has way less of a chance of becoming one because he lives in what I call “paradise.” He might not ever get the chance to leave Cape MacLear.
I say with one hundred per cent certainty that if Stone grew up in North America, he would be the Usher to Justin Bieber. The reason Bieber has claim to fame and a job for that matter.
He has it all.
He is captivating, loves to perform, and can dance like no other. When he is not performing, he has the attention of every girl on the beach. Especially mine. That boy didn’t let go of my hand for a single second last weekend. I loved every minute of it.
I just wish no matter where he grew up, Stone would be given the same opportunities as people like Justin Bieber – an 18-year-old skinny white kid from Stratford, Ontario of all places.
Your reality and mundane day-to-day living might be someone’s paradise. Stop to remind yourself of that.