Mistaken for a Chaamba

By Jennifer Joyner

The canopy of lush vegetation surrounding us blocked out most of the sunlight, making it impossible to tell what time of day it was and creating what felt to us like a completely different world.
The overall atmosphere of the jungle is what I most vividly remember about the African safari. It was hot and wet, and I remember the feeling of being completely enveloped by a deep green sea of vines and leaves, which were large enough to double as blankets if necessary. And I remember how the trees seemed to disappear into the sky above me like I imagined the beanstalk from fairy tale lore.
At one point I was pushing my way through what turned out to be a particularly thick patch of brush.
"Will you pass me the machete?" I called back to my brother, who was my travel partner on this venture.
But there was no answer. 
Suddenly, I felt an arm on my shoulder and the cold steel of a large knife on my neck.
"Who are you," said a deep voice.
"I ... I'm Jennifer ... I'm an American," I stammered.
"You are not one of the Chaamba tribe, sent here to spy on my people?" the voice said, with deliberate pronunciation that sounded like English was not its native language.
"No, not at all," I said in a trembling voice. "I'm just here on a safari ... Me and my brother. We're on vacation with our family."
He brought the knife away from my neck.
"Is that your brother?" he asked, gesturing behind him to Jerry, who was leaned against a tree with a vine binding his wrists.
"Yes," I said.
Once the man was satisfied we were not spies from a neighboring village, he untied my brother.
"I apologize. My name is Amari. I am from the Toubou tribe. The Chaambas are at war with my people," he said. "You must be hungry. Because of my mistake I would like to feed you. Let me bring you to my home."
We spent the next few hours in Amari's hut with his family. We visited with them, sharing stories about our cultures and enjoying a meal of papaya and couscous.
We even participated in an African song ritual by campfire that night.
Jerry beat on drums while Amari and I did what I thought might be considered a traditional African dance and accompanying chant, which eventually turned into a version of "Hakuna Matata" from Disney's "The Lion King."
I danced around and sang it at the top of my lungs: "It's our problem-free ... philoso—"
I stopped short when the door to my bedroom quickly opened, and my mom stepped in.
"Jenny, Jerry, it's time to eat. Your friend needs to go home," she said.
One arm and one leg were still up in the air, as I was frozen in the middle of my African dance move. A bit jarred and embarrassed, I quickly dropped the act. "OK, mom," I said, standing up straight.
"Shane, I guess you better go home," I said.
My brother and I started untying the fitted sheet — which had served as both Amari's hut and the jungle canopy — from the bedpost.
We were always doing stuff like this as children — using our imaginations to create an elaborate scenario. No matter how many cool toys and games we owned, we always ended up playing make-believe.
And those are some of the best memories I have. There were no limits to what we could do.
I'm so glad my 3-year-old son already has become such a fan of make-believe.
These days, there are toys that can do just about anything. I worried that he would never be interested in simply using his imagination, but he loves it. His favorite thing to do is put on a mask or a cape and pretend to be a superhero — or to get on all-fours and play puppy dog.
Lately, I've noticed he can practically spend hours playing with his teddy bears or action figures. He comes up with scenarios and uses different objects as props.
Sometimes the dialogue is pretty funny. For example, he's decided the other superheros call Superman "Soup" for short.
The stories are all created through the prism of a 3 year old's perspective. Although the superheros spend much of the time fighting and saying things like, "Here I come to the rescue!," they also might get mad or sad because the others won't play with them or share toys.
Occasionally, there will be a scene where Spider-Man defeats the Joker and then gets tucked in to go night-night.
Regardless of what stories he chooses to act out, it means the world to me that he loves to use his imagination.
In the words of Albert Einstein: "Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions."
And I can't wait to see how his future unfolds. 

Jennifer Joyner is a reporter for The Saline Courier. She can be reached at jjoyner@bentoncourier.com.