The Girl in the Red Sweater

Read about one little girl in a red sweater who made a huge impact on our hearts.

On one of our last days at Munyawiri School this February, the team participated in the Nhaka Foundation’s ( feeding program, distributing maheu, a thick, fermented corn drink, to the schoolchildren as fortification between meals. We were then encouraged to play with them during recess. I sat on a stair and began to talk with a group of elementary schoolers in broken Shona, and they, in turn, high-fived with abandon and tried at intervals to scratch at my arm tattoo to see if it would come off.

Suddenly a small girl in a red sweater plopped herself down next to me and began to meticulously open her lunch bag. She didn’t respond verbally to my initial “hello” but instead grinned up at me and moved closer on the step, showing me each item as she removed it from its wrappings. I let her be, and we sat for several minutes in companionable silence as she smacked away happily at her vegetables and rice.

Soon recess ended and she packed up her things, shooting me another quiet smile as she made to join her other classmates across the field. I saw her often throughout the day (she was the only child in red and therefore easy to spot among the orange and green uniforms) and each time she would wave and grin, to which I’d respond, “shamwari (friend)!” I finally asked Christie to snap a picture of me holding her. Why? Because, although I knew I would never forget the people at that school as a collective, I wanted to ensure that I’d never forget this specific girl’s face.

As an Orthodox Christian, I interact daily with icons—paintings, composed in a specific 2-D style, often of holy people who lived millennia ago and whom we seek to emulate in our spiritual lives. The life captured in the icon can be a call to action and, if approached with purpose and solemnity, a window to God. We call church bells “singing icons” for the same reason. And people are icons, too: we respect them, we have human moments with them, and we approach them knowing that while they exist entirely unto themselves, they can also remind us to work harder in our own lives.

So here is my point: sometimes we, as people of limited capacity, need constant visual reminders of all that needs doing in the world.We often, in our desire to be more aware of and generous to those in need, require an “icon,” a real human face, to attach those abstracts to, lest these virtues get stuck in the aspirational phase. For me, this icon is wearing a red sweater.