Sonya VanderVeen Feddema was inspired to write this story after a visit to refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda in 2007 with CRWRC’s (World Renew) Refugee Learning Tour.
Back home in the village, where Pandasi had lived for all of his eight years, Mama’s laughter was bright yellow. Now Pandasi missed the golden sunshine of Mama’s laughter.
Pandasi was sure that Mama had lost her laughter on the dusty brown path by the baobab tree. On that path, by that baobab tree far from home, men with night-black guns had found Pandasi, Mama and Papa. They scared Mama’s laughter away. They chased it away when they killed Papa. Pandasi and Mama ran and hid. They ran and hid some more. Finally, they reached the refugee camp. Safe at last!
Now, weeks later, Pandasi watched Mama kneel by a low, wooden table as she prepared his breakfast in a chipped bowl. The table’s thick, short legs reminded Pandasi of an aardvark’s legs. Its smooth, broad top reminded him of a hippopotamus’s back. He wanted to laugh out loud when he thought of the aardvark-hippopotamus table. But he didn’t because he was reminded of something else. Mama still hadn’t laughed. Pandasi wondered, will Mama ever laugh again?
While Mama cooked Pandasi’s breakfast over a small burner, he closed his eyes. He remembered the sky-blue laughter of the man who gave them the table. The man didn’t need the table anymore. He was leaving the refugee camp to go to a new home in a faraway country. Pandasi also remembered the yellow-red-mango laughter of the woman who gave them the chipped bowl. The woman didn’t need it anymore. She was returning to her own country.
“What colours are you seeing now?” Mama asked Pandasi.
Pandasi’s eyes shot open. Mama knew. She had always known about the colours in his mind. But Mama didn’t wait for him to answer her question.
“Eat while there is food,” she said. “Colours will not feed you.”
“Colours?” a voice asked.
Then Sekibibi stuck his head into the open doorway. Pandasi smiled at his new friend, who had been born in the refugee camp nine years ago.
“You are welcome, Sekibibi,” Mama said. “Please share our meal with us.”
“Thank you!” Sekibibi replied.
Pandasi held his breath. Would Mama tell Sekibibi about the colours in his mind? Would Sekibibi laugh at him if he knew about them?
“What were you saying about colours?” Sekibibi asked as he ate.
“Pandasi has colours in his mind,” Mama said. “It is a gift from God, just like his papa had.”
“Then he must watch Pastor Gahinja and the other artists paint,” Sekibibi said.
“Artists?” Mama asked.
“Paint?” Pandasi said.
“Here in the refugee camp?” Mama added.
Sekibibi’s star-silver laughter rang out. Pandasi wondered, will Mama laugh, too?
But she didn’t.
“Where do they get their paints, brushes and canvases from?” Mama asked.
“Artists from other countries help them,” Sekibibi said.
“May I go?” Pandasi asked.
“Yes, but you must stay together and take care of each other,” Mama warned.
The boys set off. Their bare feet raised small clouds of dust. When they reached a small, wooden church, they walked inside.
“That’s him,” Sekibibi said.
Pastor Gahinja sat facing the empty wooden cross on the wall, his easel in front of him. He turned when he heard the boys.
“Sekibibi,” Pastor Gahinja said, “you brought a friend. What is his name?”
“Pandasi,” Sekibibi said. “He has colours in his mind.”
“Wonderful!” Pastor Gahinja’s tree-green laughter filled the church.
“His mama said that it is a gift from God,” Sekibibi explained. “His father had the gift, too.” “Had?” Pastor Gahinja asked. Pandasi nodded sadly.
“Ah,” Pastor Gahinja said mournfully. “So many children without fathers. And many without mothers, too.”
Pandasi thought about Pastor Gahinja’s tree-green laughter. It made Pandasi feel brave.
“I would like to paint a picture to make Mama laugh again,” Pandasi said. But even as he spoke the hopeful rainbow-words, he was afraid that Pastor Gahinja would say no.
Pastor Gahinja put his blessing hand on Pandasi’s head.
“I will share some paint with you, but you must bring your own canvas.”
“I have no canvas,” Pandasi said sadly.
“Open your eyes,” Pastor Gahinja said. “If you want to paint, you will find something to paint on.”
That night, Pandasi’s dreams were filled with canvases, large and small. A black stone. A brown stick. A yellow flower petal. A peacock’s purple-green-black feathers. A green turtle’s back. A gray elephant’s ear. A white wall.
The next morning, sunshine spilled through the open doorway. Pandasi opened his eyes. He saw Mama kneeling by the aardvark-hippopotamus table as she prepared his breakfast. Pandasi blinked. He blinked again. Then he knew. He knew what he would use for a canvas.
When Mama left to stand in line for water with Sekibibi’s mama, Pandasi ran down the road to Sekibibi’s home.
“I found a canvas!” he said.
“Come with me,” Pandasi said. “I will show you.”
The boys dashed to Pandasi’s home. Inside, Pandasi pointed at the aardvark-hippopotamus table.
“It’s ugly now,” Sekibibi said, “but it will be beautiful.”
“Help me carry it to the church,” Pandasi said. “We need to hurry so we can be back by the time Mama returns.”
As the boys ran to the church, an old woman sitting by the side of the road called out, “Are you selling that table?”
The boys stopped.
“No, grandmother,” Pandasi said respectfully.
“If you decide to sell it, I will buy it.”
“Yes, grandmother,” Sekibibi answered.
The boys arrived breathless at the church.
“I found one! A canvas!” Pandasi said, as they ran inside. Pastor Gahinja turned from his easel.
“Mama’s table,” Pandasi said proudly.
“Ah, Pandasi! I knew you would find one!”
“What will you paint on it?” Pastor Gahinja said.
“Our brown house in the village. The blue sky. The yellow sun. The green mango tree. Papa and Mama. The gray goats and the white chickens. And the orange and green blanket Mama made for me.”
“Have you ever painted before?” Pastor Gahinja asked.
“No,” Pandasi said.
“Then I will show you how,” Pastor Gahinja said. And he did.
When Pandasi finished painting, he thanked Pastor Gahinja. Then Pandasi and Sekibibi started for home carrying the table between them.
“Have you come back to sell me your table?” the old woman called out as Pandasi and Sekibibi walked by.
“No, grandmother,” Sekibibi said. “Pandasi has made a painting on it for his mama.” The boys turned the table so the old woman could see the painting.
“Beautiful!” she said. “Any mama would laugh with happiness to receive a gift like this from her child.” The old woman’s sunset-orange words filled Pandasi’s heart with hope.
“Your mama is back,” Sekibibi said as they came near to Pandasi’s home.
“Someone stole my table!” Mama said loudly to Sekibibi’s mama.
“Look!” Sekibibi’s mama said, pointing down the road. Mama turned and saw the boys carrying the table.
“Pandasi, you took the table! Why did you take it?” she asked. Pandasi and Sekibibi turned the table so that Mama could see the painting.
Mama gasped. “Pandasi, you painted home!” she exclaimed.
Then Mama’s bright yellow laughter filled the air.