The promise of a song in Zimbabwe

As a child named Happiness belted out ‘Amazing Grace’ at a school party, the writer recalled the song’s promise in her own life.

Zimbabwean students go to school.

"Through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come," Rufaro belted out.

Age 10 and dressed in a fuchsia-pink dress with black polka dots, she knew the words to "Amazing Grace" as well as I did – though probably not for the same reasons.

"Stay for our party," Rufaro's teacher had urged me earlier that morning.

I had arrived to teach my volunteer "book lesson" at a government junior school in Zimbabwe. It's one of the better state schools in this Southern African country: The grounds are well kept; the teachers rarely strike.

Still, the school library hasn't seen a new book for nearly three decades. A tin bath takes up part of the book shed. "We want our children to want to read and write," one of the parents, the wife of an Army chaplain, told me worriedly.

So in the third term of this year, these 50 fourth-graders and I discussed the difference between poetry and poultry. ("Not much," one girl answered bravely. "Both are creative.")

One morning I showed them a pair of magnets. We talked about crafting a magnetic first sentence, something that would make your teacher want to find out what you were going to say next in your essay.

Together, we studied words like "manuscript" and "editor." We talked about never judging a book by its cover. That's an important thing to remember if all of the books in your library have lost their spines.

The children were bright and always eager to participate. But that day, it was plain their minds were on neither magnets nor manuscripts. It was their end-of-year party. The noise was deafening.

Mounds of cheap corn chips and plates of hard candies were stacked round the room. Gone were the drab brown school uniforms. The children were wearing their "civvies."

Kimberley came to the teacher's desk to offer me some cookies and an imported bonbon wrapped in shiny yellow-and-red paper. "Take them," the teacher shouted above the hubbub. "She'll be offended if you don't."

The highlight of the party, I quickly grasped as I chewed, was what the children called lip-syncing. Actually, it wasn't lip-syncing at all: Alone or in pairs at the front of the classroom, the children sang jazzed-up Sunday school songs and things they'd heard on state ZBC radio.

"When I get older, I will be stronger," chanted two gangly boys to roars of appreciation from their classmates.

I nodded along politely, watching the children enjoy themselves.

Then Rufaro (her name means "happiness" in the local Shona language) pushed her way to the blackboard. She looked at her classmates, opened her mouth, and started: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound."

My eyes filled.

I had this hymn at my wedding. Not by choice, I have to admit. We had decided on the simplest of weddings, my far-from-flush Zimbabwean fiancé and I. There was to be no sermon and no choir: Just those beautiful age-old marriage vows, in the middle of the African bush.

We held the short service in a wooden church on stilts in the east of the country, near what was then my in-laws' home. Our handful of guests filed in, followed by me wearing a hooped Paris gown paid for by my sister.

I recited my words in a wobbly voice. I didn't realize that the church was quietly filling up behind my back.

"We will now sing," the minister announced suddenly. From the nave swelled the sound of "Amazing Grace," sung unaccompanied by dozens of local parishioners. It was the best wedding gift of all.

In the political and economic turmoil of Zimbabwe's intervening years, when inflation soared beyond 230 million percent and basics like bread became luxuries, I've cherished the memory of that unasked-for present.

Now almost exactly 10 years later, a small girl in clumpy brown school shoes and a pink party dress was singing "Amazing Grace" to me all over again.

Naively I had believed that it was I who was giving these children something.

"Than when we've first begun," Rufaro finished. I clapped as she scurried back to her friends.

The next singer was already dancing at the front of the classroom under decorations made of looped bits of newspaper. Chips packets littered the desktops. A few browning frangipani flowers studded the floor.

I settled back in my chair amid the joyous chaos.

Whatever happens in the next 10 years, I told my husband later, I have this to hold on to: "Amazing Grace," sung at Christmas by a child called Happiness.

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