Donkeys can’t fly on planes
I went to a book launch on Tuesday night for a beautiful book – Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes: Stories of survival from South Sudanese refugee children living in Australia.
This is such a memorable book, filled with powerful, very moving stories written by children about their experiences. Some of the stories describe life before they come to Australia, living in villages with their families, or in large refugee camps like Kakuma, in Kenya. The stories offer us a child’s view of the world there, with snakes that follow you, scorpions that bite, and giraffes that push you over on to the hard ground (“because there is not much grass in Africa”), as well as the story of Steven, the kind and helpful donkey that was a much-loved and valued member of Sunday Garang’s family until they moved to Australia.
I loved the story of Nyawech Ruach. She describes herself as having been “an angry girl” who used to fight with other people a lot. She would hit and slap people until they cried, boys and girls alike. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with. One day her brother came to her with a knife in his hand. He wanted to remove her lower teeth (a custom for people from her tribe). But she kicked and screamed until he gave up. Then, when she came to Australia, she went to see the dentist, and the dentist was very happy that she had been such a tough, fierce-some little girl, because it meant she still had all her teeth!
(A funny postscript to this story is that on the night of the launch, her teacher revealed that Nyawech is actually an incredibly quiet, shy girl, and everyone was completely amazed when they read her story, struggling to believe it could be the same girl).
There are heartbreaking descriptions of hunger and starvation (“I could not cry because I did not have the energy to make the crying sound or to squeeze tears from my eyes”), and of feeling sad and empty when there was no food. But one child also writes about a day when there was a big feast, and the girls got to eat before the boys (“I remember that day well because there was plenty of food for everyone”).
Other children write about the journey to Australia, including travelling first by horse, before finally getting to the aeroplane. One boy describes how he didn’t want to go to Australia, so he climbed a big tree and refused to come down. He didn’t want to leave his home, his friends and family, the place where he was born where he knows the language and the ways. Someone had to climb the tree in order to get him down.
Some of the children write about danger. They write about terrible things they witnessed or experienced in very matter-of-fact ways. Sometimes, the danger in the story comes completely out of the blue – much as it would have done in the child’s life. One day, life was normal… and then all of a sudden it was very, very dangerous and people had to flee as fast as possible.
This is a book of stories that need to be told, as the publisher, Victoria Ryle from Kids Own Publishing, said in her welcoming speech. In a political climate that hides the human desperation, loss, trauma, grief and hope of the refugee experience behind numbers, fear-mongering, “business models”, and slogans, the stories offer an alternative image. They also demonstrate just how much refugees can contribute to the communities that welcome them, and how filled with potential they are. A perfect example is given at the end of the book, when we learn that proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards building a school in the village of Bor. The Bor Orphanage and Community Education Project has been started by two amazing young men. They are former Lost Boys of Sudan and child soldiers who were fortunate enough to be resettled in Australia. Now they want to give back to their community, and have initiated the BOCEP organisation and school/orphanage project in response to the huge number of orphans in their home village of Bor who have no adults to look after them and who are fending for themselves, older children trying to teach the younger children.
This is a book for everyone, of all ages. If you are a teacher, please consider buying Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes for your students to read. There are many possible activities that could be drawn from this book of stories. I haven’t mentioned the artwork yet – but the collages that illustrate the stories are also very captivating and will inspire other children to create artworks using similar techniques. You can order your copies directly from BOCEP, http://bocep.org.au/.
Lastly, I bought an extra copy of Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes to give to one of my blog readers. If you would like me to send it to you, please post a comment below this blog post, telling me how you will share the stories with others. I will then contact you directly to get your mailing address, and it will be yours!
And lastly, reading this book brought back many memories of my own work with newly-arrived refugee children in Language Schools in Melbourne. I could hear the children’s voices very clearly as I read the book, and could imagine the gentle line of questioning from the teacher that would have helped these stories come out. I created many songs and music pieces with children about their journeys to Australia. Here is just one: