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Lessons from the Coast of Nowhere

Lessons from the Coast of Nowhere

A young African child, whose family couldn't scrape together five dollars to keep him in school, has something most people lack.


In the nine months since I visited a tiny coastal town in Africa, I have continued to correspond with some of my fifth grade students there. They unceasingly amaze me with their generosity of spirit and optimism about the future, despite their crushing poverty and lack of access to even the most basic educational materials.

Young Joseph stood out when, in his first letter, he included a single bead as a gift. Beads are a prized local craft, and I let him know in my response that his present touched me deeply. In addition, Joseph was the only student in my school who did not wear a uniform, and although I had never inquired about it, I suspected he just couldn't afford it. So the gift of a painted bead was especially precious to me.

Months later, he wrote me a very different kind of letter. After a lengthy "grace period," the school was now insisting on the uniform, and had suspended him until he could procure one. Sadly, he reported that the required uniform would cost 40,000 cedis -- a prohibitively expensive amount for his family, but in our currency equal to approximately five U.S. dollars.

Without a uniform, Joseph would be unable to continue his studies beyond the fifth grade -- at least not now. I felt the crushing weight of his loss -- at best, a delay of months or years before he could return to school; at worst, a life of illiteracy in a country where only the best educated have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. Of course, with my next letter, I sent him the five dollars.

I also included one extra dollar bill which, I explained, was for Joseph to buy another airmail letter and let me know that he had obtained the uniform and was back in school. I knew the extra dollar was more than he needed to write to me, leaving him about 60 cents extra to spend as he wished.

A few weeks later, I was stunned to receive a letter from Joseph in a small package.

A few weeks later, I was stunned to receive a letter from Joseph in a small package. I was gratified to read that he had bought the uniform and was back in school. "I thank you very much for what you have done for me," he wrote, "and I do not even know how to thank you. If it were not for you, I would not have my school uniform. May God bless you and your family and also give you a long life."

I have grown accustomed to the flowery words of gratitude which accompany every letter from my students -- appreciation seems to be a national trait. But I was unprepared for what else the package contained. With the extra 60 cents, Joseph had purchased more beads, and made a necklace, a bracelet, and matching earrings for me, to show his appreciation.

I would have been happy if he had bought himself a small treat, or surprised his family with some fresh fruit or a few eggs. I probably would have preferred if he had bought some pencils or other small school supplies, or a gift for his mother who had recently broken her leg. I had wondered how he would use the extra money, but it had never occurred to me that he would use it to thank me.

I'm not much of a jewelry person, and beads are not really my style, but these have become the accessory I reach for first, and most often. I feel more fully human when I wear them, connected to a soul truly free of materialism. For a child who quite simply has nothing -- his family could not scrape together five dollars to keep him in school -- he has something most people lack. He knows that having a little more money, a few more things, would not change the core of whether he was happy or not -- and that the sincere expression of gratitude most certainly would. And that left him free to give the balance back in a gift.

In a season where we speak of freedom, these simple beads remind me of what is possible.

May 29, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 18

(18) David Fogleson, December 4, 2008 9:42 AM

Is there anyway we can help children and schools

I was touched by this "beads" story where can I send my 5 or 10 dollars ?

(17) Gail, November 30, 2008 3:25 PM

You can help

There is a wonderful program called Suubi, meaning "hope" where you order a box of amazing beads (29) made from recycled paper to sell (cost range from $20 - $10. Once sold you send them the money which goes to the women who made them from the Acholi tribe of Uganda that had to flee their homes. Each set of beads comes in a box with a picture and description of the woman who made it. It makes a wonderful gift. Check it out on or

(16) Anonymous, November 30, 2008 11:15 AM

re walmart murder

on this same page is an article about a murder at walmart because of greed and the attitude of me first i hope that this article will b publicized to that community and even if people were not involved they should realize what sacrifices people in this world have to make just to survive and receive an education can u provide an address or kesher to this boy? i am sure there r schools that would b able to help w/books and other material thnx

(15) Batsheva, November 30, 2008 10:52 AM

Timely message

It's too bad that the people that trampled the Wal-Mart workder to death in their selfish pursuit of material goods didn't read this first. Perhaps, that worker would still be alive. Thank you, Aish, for repeating Diane's message which we all can learn from.

(14) ruth housman, November 30, 2008 10:00 AM

beads on a string

This is a beautiful story. There isn't much one can add to a story that is purely about LOVE. I spent time in Venezuela, around Lake Maracaibo, with a group of physicians and my husband who were trying to find a way to mitigate the terrible symptoms of Huntington's Disease, rampant in this community, and a cause for the ostracism of the people around the Lake, in their own, isolated enclaves. Now the children can go to school but uniforms are required and also the ability to sign on, but their parents are mostly illiterate and have no monies, being deeply impoverished in ways we cannot imagine here, living in corrugated tin shacks with no running water, stoves, or electricity. When I came with old suitcases from Goodwill,stuffed with clothing, crayons, paper, anything I could bring, the suitcases became someone's furniture, and even the adults were vying for the crayons and pens. I know what it feels like to see such hunger, such hunger for knowledge, such hunger for what we take so easily forgranted, and these children, and these adults, have, seemingly nothing but each other, but among them, I encountered such grace, such hospitality, such sharing, and children caring for children and sick parents, and each other. Yes, these simple beads on a string, remind me that we are the Family of Man, and that, after all these years, we are not getting it right, and how hard could this possibly be? Thank You. This story moved me deeply. We need to do this: One bird at a time. To save the world. It's about the Children. Save the Children!

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