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April 29, 2004

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Columns - April 26, 2004

Your Turn, NH:
Children's innocence lasts longer in Kenya than in America

Guest Commentary
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THERE IS A miracle happening in Kenya. Just outside of Nairobi, in an orphanage known as Nyumbani (“home”), some 92 HIV-positive children are living, growing, playing and feeling good about themselves and where they live.

Every child was literally rescued from a life of abandonment in the slums of Nairobi, and none was expected to live much longer than a few months. Now, with excellent medical care and a loving and nurturing environment, their life expectancies are increasing, and the death rate at Nyumbani has decreased from two or three children per month to just a few each year.

I recently had the privilege of being invited to Nyumbani to spend a week with the children, writing songs and making music together. In my career as a children’s musician in the United States, I have had countless positive experiences, but none to compare with what I learned spending time with these children.

The songs they wrote are powerful representations of their lives and their feelings, and when heard, I hope, will go a long way to breaking the stigma of HIV-positive children and adults all over the world.

Of course, it is hard to spend a week with Nyumbani’s children and not fall in love with them. During one of my last evenings there, I sat on the stoop of one of the cottages that house the children (10 or more children per cottage, with a house “mum” or “uncle”) and held an 11-year-old girl in my arms. She said that someday, when she grows up, she wants to be a singer like me. I told her I would send her music to sing along with and I would write to her and keep up with her progress. Then she asked the inevitable, would I take her to the United States?

Even I was shocked at my answer. “No, dear, I will miss you with all my heart, but I believe you are better off growing up here.”

Better off in an orphanage in Kenya? How can that be? Granted, they do not have fashionable clothes (they’re wearing your old cast-offs) they lack money or malls and they certainly don’t have Nintendo, but they have everything they need. They are so loved and well cared for by the staff and volunteers at Nyumbani, they are in a hermetically sealed environment of constant love and support; sheltered from the outside world of harsh criticism, prejudice, breast-baring pop singers and violent and sexual music, television and movies. In a word, they are innocent. And they are beautiful, and all I could see was that beauty and innocence being spoiled by life in the good ol’ U.S.A.

Here in the United States our children are daily exposed to a barrage of cultural influences that are slowly but surely stripping away that sense of childhood innocence. When their entertainment choices go immediately from Barney to Britney, when “The Cat in The Hat” is adapted into an obscene feature film, when 6-year-old girls are wearing belly shirts and imitating MTV, I have to say stop! In my search for suitable music to send back to that child, I had to go all the way back to Aretha Franklin’s “Greatest Hits” before I found a CD by a female pop singer that didn’t feature questionable lyrics or cover art.

So while I would love to bring every child home with me and love them to pieces, I believe in my heart that their childhood is better protected right where they are than in the land of the free, where our cultural freedom seems to mean the end of freedom for children to be children.

Judy Pancoast lives in Goffstown and composes and performs songs for pre-teen children.

Opinions expressed in this weekly column aren’t necessarily those of The Union Leader. All readers are welcome to submit essays of up to 750 words for the editor’s consideration. Please include a word or two about yourself, along with name, address, phone number and, if possible, a photograph. Mail to: Your Turn, c/o The Union Leader, P.O. Box 9555, Manchester, NH 03108. All submissions become property of The Union Leader and can’t be returned.

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