He is deceivingly old for his appearance. He stands at easily under 5 foot, a slender body as most people here. But what raises question as for his correct age, is the fact that he has scarification on his face, which is a discontinued birth ritual practice. Up to probably the later 1990’s it was common to put special tribal designs on the face of a child in the first months of life. This is done by making cuts resulting in a scar design. Yen is likely ten years older than most other members of his 4th grade class. Yen is a dwarf, a type of dwarfism where the proportions are the same as people with normal growth; he will just never get any bigger. He is 19 years old. He speaks English reasonably well, however some concepts will always be beyond his ability. This does not imply he is dull; far from that.
Lisa and I have been an acquaintance of Yen since our first visit back in 2005-06. He was a cow herder; ‘cowboys’ do not attend school. Now he goes to school, but questions are raised as to what he learns. It seems the headmaster continually requires him to go on errands during school hours. So when his attendance is marked ‘present’ he may be off a good share of the day bicycling from errand to errand. He will always be a ‘small boy’ as defined by African society. Here, a ‘small boy ‘ is expected to do various work requests by actually any adult community member. If you are a small boy you learn who to avoid. But you can’t avoid your headmaster.
Yen is poor. We can tell this by his rag-like cloths. He is cared for by apparently no one. His father died ‘some five years ago’ and his mother ‘maybe four’. He says his auntie cares for him, but we have no evidence that shows. He seems to survive on his own. Friends tell me he is a very good worker within his limited strength. He sometimes goes to the gold mines a few miles away to wash clothes for small cash. For us, he is very willing to pick up garbage for an hour and receive some compensation to be used for food. He has sharpened hundreds of pencils for us. But recently I discovered a talent that has until now been hidden.
Yen can make toy trucks out of evaporated milk cans. I saw him pulling one attached by string. I admit I thought he was not the engineer of this fine toy that was spring loaded, giving it a comical bouncy movement. I needed proof. “Come to the Mango tree tomorrow , and make one for me. I will pay you for it!” says I.
Along with some same-size assistants, I see Yen cutting and punching evaporated milk cans , transforming them into an authentic enough pull toy. A true craftsman has been found. He produces a second truck that moves as nicely as the first.
I pay him half of the 10 cedis agreed upon. I warm him “Tell no one you have this money”. Despite that he shows up the next day to account the theft of his money left hidden in his room. Tending to believe this, I arrange for a fair-minded business women to act as his banker, so when he needs money earned, he can ‘withdraw ‘it.
I am thinking of ways to assist Yen by either selling his toys in the U.S ( though transporting could be a big added expense) or better yet, offer Yens’ Milk Can Truck Design, so others can attempt to make one of their own.
Readers input gratefully accepted. -David Stone