The idea is “do something to make the world more beautiful.”
My childhood manifesto still beats in my heart. I tend to take myself way too seriously, but sometimes life really is this incredible.
We painted a world map on the outside wall of the 6eme classroom. It’s the wall that is most visible from the dirt road connecting the school compound with the next community. When we began, we had a blank wall with some graffiti on it. The first step was to draw a giant rectangle and paint it blue. That raised a few eyebrows.
Next, we drew a grid: 30 rows tall, 50 rows wide. 1,500 squares, five centimeters by five centimeters. From the road, our pencil lines were not visible, so the confusing stares continued as people passed us doing seemingly invisible work. This went on for two days. We fed ourselves from a giant pot of coconut beans and rice. Then we continued to work. We started to stencil in the countries, using a piece of paper as a reference point. Each square represented a tiny portion of the map: disputed borders between countries, groups of islands, land masses, oceans. We actually drew it all.
On the third day, magic happened; color appeared on the map. From what was once a blob of light blue paint emerged distinct, unique lines and squiggles, each a different shade of blue, orange, green and red, signifying ownership: this large, upside down orange triangle represents Brazil. These tiny red dots in the Pacific Ocean are the Polynesian islands of Vanuatu. This long yellow blob, right smack dab in the middle of the map, is Madagascar.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
As nations began to emerge, so did people. We had an audience by day three, sitting under a shaded roof and watching us paint, laughing at our silly dance moves and sometimes coming closer to ask questions or lend a hand. By day four, the paint was dry and we were ready to label. Writing the full names of each nation across its land mass was…frustrating. Try writing Boznia and Herzegovina next to Montenegro, all within a two centimeter surface area. It’s tough. But we prevailed, and we insisted, because without names, the map is just a picture. But with names, it became a portal.
“Oh, so that’s where Brazil is.”
“Where’s Russia? I want to go there for the next world cup.”
“Where are you from, Melanie? Where is Memphis?”
I smile, I point, and then I step back. I watch as my friends and neighbors and former strangers talk and point and share stories, their eyes glued to the blobs of blue and orange and red and purple that signify culture and success and struggle. I hope they will continue to stare and ask questions and share stories long after I’m gone. I hope the paint won’t fade, or if it does, I hope someone will pick up a brush and make Australia bright purple again and Philippines that shiny yellow. I don’t know if this map can change anybody’s life, other than my own. The map has changed me because, in that moment when I walked in the mud and the rain to the office of my School Director to say, “It is finished,” and in that moment when he came over to look and made a speech to say thank-you and applauded, I knew he was energized about what I had given him, and I knew that in that moment he respected me, and I finally felt understood.
I don’t know if that will continue. But whenever I walk to class from now on, I can look up and see the world. And so can all my 450 CEG students. And so can my colleagues. And so can the rice farmers. And that, I think, makes the world a little more beautiful.