Christopher Columbus

By  Carley Centen February 3, 2011

A narrative account of a particular child who simultaneously made me feel ineffectual and hopeful that I met while traveling and volunteering in the small eastern town of Hohoe, Ghana. 


This is just a simple snapshot of a day in the library, but it is my hope that in this simplicity the affect he brought to my life is made clear.

Christopher Columbus is five years old and attends KG2 at the Little Academy of Santa Maria in eastern Ghana. Actually, he’s called Kweku Christopher Columbus – Kweku for having been born on a Wednesday. 

According to Ewe tradition, Wednesday-borns are mischievous and daring. It is difficult to say yet whether this small boy, drowning in a purple-and-white striped hand-me-down school uniform, is a typical Wednesday child, but I am far more curious about his Christian name. Christopher Columbus was chosen, not merely ascribed by accident of birthday, though it may have been just as random. Still, I like to think he came by the name for a purpose, as if his mother intended great adventures for him.

Every day after school Christopher Columbus walks home alone in yellow flip-flops at least one size too large for his young feet and worn clear through at the big toe of the right sole. On his way, he stops at my one-room ‘library’ no bigger than a bus shelter where I am a volunteer. He greets me with a hesitant smile that belies the curiosity behind his deep black eyes. 

In the library, half-empty shelves line the far wall and two narrow rectangular tables run the length of the room that comfortably sits about fourteen students at a time, but which often holds twice that amount. The children sit two to a chair, on or under the tables, and on the porch steps, filling the room with noise that echoes outwards and down the street. 

I have just begun to set up the library and sort our first donation of books. Of the dozen boxes sent by a foreign donor, approximately half contain only National Geographic Magazines from the 1970s. At first I consider the donation a part of the trend of recycling junk to the third world. However, the glossy pictures prove fascinating to the children. I find a map of the world and of Africa within a magazine from 1974 and show my students where they are in the world.

Christopher Columbus is one of the youngest children to come to the library and he barely says a word, but the most curious thing about him is the perfect white circle around the crown of his head. Unable to determine the cause, I have an older student translate for me. The student doesn’t know the English name for the condition, but as soon as he mentions the Ewe term, Christopher bends over, covering his head with both hands. I ask if he takes medicine. The response: his mother doesn’t mind him. 

I try to comfort him, this five year old Christopher Columbus, to remind him of his adventures to come. We sit and read a story, Christopher turning the pages and naming all the animals as we go. 

I close the library for the evening soon after and replace books to shelves, thinking of my own travel in Ghana and wondering about the journeys of children who have no one to mind them.

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