I met Martin during the first week of our trip. We were singing at a community concert at the Tanidare Parish in Katatura (one of the townships in Windhoek). Shortly after arriving, a group of young children followed us into the parish with their teacher, a young German man completing a year of volunteer service. He ushered them in very quietly and sat them near us before he briefly left to attend to other matters. I took the opportunity to go down the line and introduce myself to each one of the children. Some laughed at my forwardness, some giggled at my obvious non-Namibian name, but when I reached Martin, he responded to my greeting in a way that even surprised me...he brought his hand up and rubbed the prickly whiskers on my chin and grinned. I tried to get him to share his name with me but his shyness kicked in and so I continued down the line of children.
Martin's greeting wasn't all that unusual to me. For many years the niece and nephews I adore have found great pleasure in the tactile gesture of touching my beard and hair. Realizing the difference between how if feels if you go with the direction of the hair or against it provided countless hours of the game, "soft...and OW!" Martin was speaking my language.
After the choir went to the front to sing our second set, I returned to my seat only to find the empty chair next to me was filled with the little boy with a larger than life grin named Martin. I pulled out all my usual "tricks" attempting to keep him entertained for the remainder of the concert without encouraging disruptive conversation...the gentle, playful nudges, the allowing him to look at my phone, and his fascination with my Luther ring which he desperately wanted me to remove so he could wear but I couldn't get off my finger despite my best efforts. As the concert was winding down, I reasserted myself by asking his name and he quietly said, "Martin." His innocent voice was again accompanied by that infectious smile. I continued the conversation by asking the typical "getting to know you" questions...how old are you, do you have brothers or sisters, what is your favorite food? We even took this selfie.
My final question prompted an answer I was not expecting. When asked what his favorite subject was in school, he responded, "I love to write."
Having no paper with me, I improvised by asking if he would write his name for me in the air. Methodically, he thought through the creation of each letter...M...A...R (that's the tough one)...T...I... and N. He turned to look at me knowing what he had done was correct and looking for affirmation. I immediately responded with the goofy grin that many of my singers are familiar with and said, "high five!" It was obvious that he had never encountered that bit of American culture before so I tried to explain as best I could... I pointed to each of his five little fingers and counted from one to five and lifted his hand in the air and said "high" and then moved it "low." He giggled a bit.
He then quieted a bit and said in his broken English, "guess what I got for school..." Thinking back to my elementary days and the excitement I felt from getting that new backpack, a set of 64 crayons, maybe a trapper keeper or even a new outfit for the first day I eagerly awaited his answer. "I got a yellow pencil with an eraser on the end."
The reality of this boy's life set in. I'm suddenly jealous of the happiness he has for having so little. As you can hear in one of our performance pieces, the Gospel of Mark tells us to, "lay up your treasures in heaven where nothing in this world can take them away. Your treasures in this world will fade but the things of the Lord will last forevermore."
As I tried to hold back my tears while wallowing in my unintentional shallowness, I mustered the biggest grin I could and simply said, "high five!"
The concert had come to an end and as I've come to learn about Namibians, spontaneous and enthusiastic dancing and music carried on with members of the audience joining the other performers and many of our contingency as well. Martin ran to join them and loved every minute of the attention he received from us. As things began to wind down, Dr. Peterson indicated to me that we'd be departing soon. I called out to the Luther students, "okay, folks...you got about five minutes and then we've got to take off." Martin quickly returned to my side.
"Why you say 'folks'?" He asked. I smiled. Struggling with a way to convey the definition to an eight year old, I simply said it was a word that we used that meant, "friends." I asked him, "what do you call your friends?" The magical smile reappeared and he replied, "my brahs!"
My mother sent along with me some lapel pins that have both the American and Namibian flags to hand out along our travels. I dug deep into my backpack in order to offer the first pin to my new friend. He anxiously waited to see what I was searching for and when I finally recovered one of the pins from the bottom of my bag he looked a bit baffled. I said, "Can I give to you? It is my flag and your flag. Now we are friends. If you are around when I return to Namibia, wear it so that I know we've met since you'll have gotten much bigger." No words came from his mouth this time, he simply smiled and nodded his head.
He ran away to show his friends my small gift to him. Proudly smoothing out his well-worn white t-shirt as he carefully displayed the pin. As the word went out of my gift, I handed out several more pins to other children before I loaded the bus. I gave them all the same explanation that I gave Martin secretly hoping that on my next trip back to Namibia I may encounter even one of these beautiful children.
I gathered my backpack and made a final sweep through the church to make sure we hadn't left anything before heading to the bus. This was the Namibia that I had hoped for...one where connections were made through music despite the cultural and language barriers. I may have just experienced my first "ah-ha" moment!
I exited the church and as I reached the front step, a running Martin grabbed my waist and said, "Thanks for the pin, my brah! Can't wait see you again."
Yaloo omuwa we tu hanganitha America na Namibia.
Thank you for uniting us, Namibia and America.
Andrew Last, Luther assistant professor of music, conducts the Collegiate Chorale and the first-year men's ensemble, Norsemen. He teaches private voice and conducting, and encourages the "need" for singing as part of his teaching/conducting philosophy. Last is a 1997 Luther grad, and also holds degrees from Northern Arizona University