Lent Reflection 2: The Playground


Amos Disasa and his father Jerman shared essays inspired by our Lent 2012 theme “Reintroducing You” during our mid-week lunch gatherings at The Spot on Blanding. Each week Amos and his father, inspired by a common theme and connected by one very long journey, read one essay. The genesis of the project can be explored hereThe archive of essays is here.

Amos’ essay on the Playground

The playground at University Terrace Apartments is now covered up by a parking garage. It once rested on Blossom street in the center of the University of South Carolina campus. The playground was covered in sand, but not on purpose as you might expect from a playground. The sand was a result of an absence of grass, which may have been present at one time. The sand was not thick and mushy like playground sand should be. Instead it was dry, and lay thinly above a layer of more sand that was packed a little harder and difficult to penetrate with a plastic shovel. But that didn't matter because we rarely dug holes or moved the sand about. Most of our time on the playground was spent running around in endless games of freeze tag, or chasing a soccer ball during hastily formed matches, or climbing one of the hulking colorless metal jungle gym sets.

The playground was home to a giant swing set, a typical slide, one tortoise and one duck with springs wound underneath each for rocking back and forth, and the previously mentioned jungle gyms. Additionally, the playground at UT was shaded by a giant oak tree that was impossible to climb without the assistance of the chain link fence that offered a boost up to the first branch. Only the tall and crazy kids dared to teeter on the fence and reach perilously for the first branch in acts of bravado that seem small now but were legendary then.University Terrace provided housing for international graduate students and their families. Each afternoon on the playground a virtual United Nations meeting was convened as boys and girls from every habitable continent and dozens of countries gathered to practice their English and absorb cultural lessons from the more seasoned immigrants. It was our first neighborhood after immigrating to the United States in 1983 and we remained there for until we were forced to move out seven years later to make room for the cars that would inhabit the new parking garage.

Our family moved three more times in later years, but I do not miss any of our other residences like I miss UT. The playgrounds of the other apartment complexes we called home on Beltline Boulevard and down Garners Ferry Road offered more sophisticated and safer equipment, grass was present, and there was never a line at the bottom of the slide. However, what the UT playground lacked in ammenities, it made up in culture. It was not unusual to observe a soccer ball being passed from a South Korean, to a Ghanean, and then to a Brazilian. The only thing more diverse than this international pick-up game, was the variety of smells that lingered in the air as a result of the open kitchen windows of apartments that towered above the playground on two sides. The rich smells of traditional African and Asian food, all cooked by real Africans and Asians were passed back and forth across the playground. Together they represented the scent from a melting pot of international cuisine. It was as if an international festival was held every day

On the playground I suffered my first and second broken noses. The first resulted from a fateful climb and subsequent fall from the oak tree. The second was more painful due to the embarrasment of running into a jungle gym at dusk while looking up to catch a football that was thrown high by one of the bigger kids during a game of 500. Blood and tears flowed freely that day. The shame of clumsily breaking your own nose was bearable only because it resulted in my first late night visit to the emergency room which offered a story to share with my crew the next dayMemories have a way of becoming more memorable as time passes. Surely, the playground was not always the idyllic vision of Kingdom of God in which people literally came from East, West, North, and south, where peace was necessary because we were all strangers in a foreign land, and where jealousy was impossible because no one owned enough stuff yet to command it. But still, it was the closest I have come to seeing heaven on this earth.

Jerman’s essay on the Playground

You Can’t Keep Me There

The first three members of the Disasa family (Jerman, Nigatwa, Amos) arrived in Columbia, SC from Ethiopia on January 31, 1983. The fourth member was impatiently kicking inside the womb to come out and see the same liberation that his family had just seen. Raaji became the first American in the family on April 1, exactly 2 months after his parents and his older brother had arrival. We appropriately named him Raaji. We wanted to keep the memory of this miracle of liberation for years to come. Raaji means miracle, unbelievable act of kindness, or unheard of, or simply, “Wonderful!” We arrived from Ethiopia with practically no material possession or any claim of financial possession. After all, we just arrived from 8 years of witnessing and experiencing a brutal, Marxist system that did not hesitate to deliver raw suffering upon its citizens. It was after three different, unsuccessful attempts to leave the country legally, that is, after going through 27 layers of government bureaucracy, that we were finally given a leave of absence for education. Even then, we were still detained from Addis Ababa Airport minutes before departure; it was too late to reclaim our luggage. The generosity of the University of South Carolina and the thoughtfulness of the residents of Columbia resurrected a new hope for us to begin a new life.

We came and settled in an empty 2-bed-room apartment that had a sofa set, a refrigerator, and a small dining table in the kitchen. Thanks to our host family, the Hampton Oliver family, and other Christian friends in the city, we were denied the opportunity to apply our experience of living under adverse conditions. Before too long, we had vital household supplies including toys.

Speaking of toys, soon after Raaji was born, Mrs. Linderholm, a 77-year old gentle lady came to our apartment with a brand new toy gift for the baby. I had never seen such a toy before. It was a chin-up, singing toy although I did not know what animal or bird exactly it depicted. There is an element of a penguin, or a fish, or a head of a dog. It did not matter. Immediately, I boldly and rather selfishly concluded that it had more meaning to me than to Raaji. I stole it from the baby and hid it in my closet. This is the first time I am confessing to Raaji. Twenty-nine years later, it is still my favorite liberation toy. In it I could immediately see what my American missionary teachers, friends, and followers of Christ had given me: a sense of refusal to yield to all suppressing powers and sources of unhappiness. Push it or tilt it backwards, forward, sideways, or turn it upside down, it rises back to its original, upright position.

No matter how roughly you treat him, or how many times you kick him around, or how angry you get at him, this toy, whom I call Chin-Up, keeps singing while he keeps his head up. Finally, I taped this sign on his chest: YOU CAN PUSH ME DOWN, BUT YOU CAN’T KEEP ME THERE.

The grave could not hold in Jesus!

As a Christian and as an educator, there is nothing more important and future defining than the character of this toy that I want to posses and pass on to kids today, especially to those kids who, sadly, display the tendency to yield to fleeting values. Poverty might act relentlessly to push them down; alcoholic and drug addict parents might fail to give them the right role model; peer pressure and bully kids might threaten them; temporary and fading images from the media might tell them they do not measure up to standards; and all kinds of shame-producing images and realities might push them constantly down. But, in the end, if they equip themselves with the same character this toy displays, I am confident that they will conquer all odds to resurrect themselves and reach where they were and equipped to reach.

For the past 29 years, this toy has been by my side. These days, sitting in a coffee mug that bears an Ethiopian flag, in my office, Chin-Up reminds me of both where I had been and where I am going. While it also reminds me of the atrocities I witnessed and experienced myself, it warns me against taking things for granted. I know that if I had surrendered to the oppressive powers of my past, I would no longer be living, let alone living as a productive member of a society. I am forever grateful for all those who have contributed to the task of believing in me and encouraging me and nudging me to keep going. Because of this toy, I have left behind poverty or lack long ago. I am rich! The only poverty I struggle with is the poverty of affluence.

I owe Raaji my apology for having stolen his toy. Twenty-nine years later, I am still unsuccessfully looking for the same, identical toy to purchase each time I go through a toy department in more than one state.

In those early years of my life in Columbia, SC, while I was strengthening my habit of stubbornness as a result of my attachment to this toy, I was also admiring the depth of a new opportunity that Amos had when his new life began on USC campus and around the University Terrace Apartment complex. This was unquestionably an international community center. Between Lower UT and Upper UT we had a limited parking area, which I found to be a spoiler of our common denominator, a battle ground to occupy.

Adjacent to the parking lot was a small, fenced play ground covered with plenty of sand and equipped with a 3-swing set, a slide, a merry-go-around, a couple of rocking horses, a sand box, and 3 benches under a large oak tree that attracted parents (mostly mothers) to sit under and tke turns to watch the kids. The one and only one gate to the play ground was kept securely latched to keep the children in. Kids practically from every regions of the world were there on any given day after school and all day during weekends. It was here where kids and parents converged. It was here where, while the kids played, the parents exchanged shared cooking tricks and cultural differences. They talked, they gossiped, they laughed, they listened, they worried, they hoped, and they practiced their English. There in that fenced play ground the image of a global community with all its multiplicity of languages and cultures.

Once, Amos, using his Ethiopian skills of climbing trees (and partly to sow off) climbed the oak tree and crawled along a branch in an attempt to swing from it. He slipped, before ending his goal, and fell on the sandy ground. Fortunately the fall only twisted his nose and that is why he still has a crooked nose, which Sarah failed to notice and I did not dare to tell her till now. No wonder why they say love is blind.

While the fathers (graduate students mostly) spent their long, summer evenings in the University library, under the watchful eyes of the mothers, the kids had their intensive soccer games on the sandy playground. The mothers struggled with the English language to have their women-to-women conversation. I saw my son playing with children from across the globe—large and small countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Cameroon, Libya, India, Israel, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, and, yes, the United States. In the evening, sitting on the playground bench or walking on the adjacent parking space, one could also truly experience a mixture of the smell of food from many cultures. It was a place where one would experience the real meaning of a global village.

It was also a place where one would find his new identity without losing his old identity. It was here, not in Africa, that I met my fellow Africans from nearly all 54 African countries. It was here where Amos also developed his affinity with global and American cultures. Interestingly enough, in these United States, we are remarkably a nation of nations; yet, unfortunately, we are unable to expel the fear of other cultures or other languages.

When we arrived from Ethiopia, Amos was fluent in three languages, one of them being English. I still think it was on the University Terrace Apartments play ground that he began mysteriously losing the other two languages while concentrating on English alone, since English was what was stressed and promoted as their common, uniting language. Times have changed. Today, I read in him such a sincere yearning for the revival of those two lost languages and for his first visit to his place of birth and childhood years. God willing, this too shall come to pass! In the meantime, prayerfully, we will encourage him and ourselves to wiggle out and rise from whatever is binding us and holding us down inside.