They broke long dead branches from fallen trees and waved them around like swords. They held them like spears, but never actually threw them. “I am Kunte Kinte” they yelled, “I am a warrior”.
We walked on the overgrown path in the State Forest that spreads out for 800 acres behind Pompanuck Farm where the kids from the refugee center in Albany are having a three-day retreat. I was leading the way. This is not the trail I got lost on a few weeks ago, but one I know clearly.
I told them how I got lost and Fate led me home. She was with us on this hike too, hanging back on the way there and running ahead on the way back.
“Why do you always talk like you’re from Africa?” Ali asked the boys who mimicked his accent. Most of the boy are from Thailand, but it was obvious to me why they pretended to be African warriors. Ali, their soccer coach, mentor, big brother, surrogate father, is from Sudan. He works at RISSE, the Refugee Center where the kids go after school and during the summer on the weekdays. On weekends Ali coaches their to soccer games, takes them on outings, throws them birthday parties, keeps them off the street and out of trouble.
These “warriors” are the same fourteen boys that were singing love songs around the campfire last night. They were also begging for scary stories, a couple huddling together under blankets.
When we got to the small stream, that you have to walk over a log to cross, they all bust into a song about overcoming obstacles. Ali’s voice the loudest, his arms outstretched as he balanced on the fallen tree.
One of the boys taught me to whistle using my thumbs and the top of an acorn. Another boy gave me a feather that he found. The smallest boy, in a bright yellow shirt, held back a low hanging branch for me so I could pass by. Two boys got small bumps on their hands when they brushed them against stinging nettles. The boy, who was always in the front, found coyote tracks, hoping they were bear.
On the way back, the four boys that were lagging behind on the way in, (they would rather be swimming) were so far ahead we had to stop and wait for the others to catch up. You’re like horses I told them, slow on the way there, eager to get home.
They were following Fate and kept saying to her “Fate, let’s go home.”
By the time lunch was done so was I. We had been at Pompanuck for five hours. Jon and I both wondered at Ali’s ability to keep up with the fourteen boys.
Now I’m at home in the sanctuary of my studio. It’s quiet, Fate’s sleeping by the door.
I enjoyed being on the hike with the kids. Watching them collect kindling for the campfire tonight. Witnessing their curiosity as the played in the small stream. Their warrior selves exploring the jungles of Washington County.
They didn’t need me to tell them about the woods. If they had a question they asked (I didn’t know what kind of frog was hiding in the muddy puddle, but I did know to rinse the bumps from the stinging nettles in the stream).
They were happy just to walk, their imaginations taking over, as they bushwacked through the overgrown trail. Most of them wanted to go further, all the way to the end. But we had to get back. Gordon was coming with his drums and keyboard to teach them a song.
Jon and I will go back tonight to help out with dinner and have a good meal too. Lisa and Scott Carrino, who are hosting the retreat, love to serve food to the kids around the two big tables pushed together to make one long one.
As much as I would rather be home eating just with Jon or even by myself, I’m glad to be going back. I’m glad to be a part of this all. I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but once in a while, it’s fun and it feels good to do. And the kids are so worth it.