Sticky, covered in dust and altogether too close to your face for comfort… a description that might easily be used for a number of things that day, but in this exact moment it was the tiny, little dark fingers making their way through my hair.

They belong to a little boy, aged three or four, just knee high to a grasshopper and conveniently the perfect height to reach my face as I sat cross-legged on the dusty red ground.

Little belly leaning against my shoulder, he left dusty, grimy streaks as he parted and rearranged my hair, while I sat there simply wondering who is this little boy so enthusiastically lecturing me in indecipherable gibberish. I knew he must have been from our community and his mum or dad would be floating nearby but for now it was just he and I, with only the wordless untangling and re-tangling of his dark fingers through my light hair to unite us.

And then he was off. Extracted from my now sticky, tangled web of hair, he continues on his way, leaping awkwardly to match his own footprints with those already indented in the dust by another child.

Working my own pale fingers through the tangles left behind, I watched the sticky culprit continuing along his footprint trail, leaping from side to side with arms outstretched. Suddenly he stopped, feet splayed and arms out, turning slowly to inspect his back foot. Crouching down to the red earth, he pulled his foot to his belly for closer inspection, the footstep game forgotten.

Bringing his tiny fingers now to the sole of his foot, he slowly removed the cause of his disturbance, peeling off a dusty red, sticky sliver of cooked onion that must have fallen from someone’s lunch.

His eyes lit up, and holding the prize aloft he ran from his dusty track towards another man sitting by the stands. There he pressed himself against the other stranger whose confused expression mirroring the one I had worn earlier. Our sticky little friend brandishing his prize in the man’s face before heading off again to another adventure.

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Working with the children in Injinoo. Image credit: Injinoo IKC

It’s amazing, the confidence of these children to physically communicate with absolute strangers. I think that from a young age they are taught that physical contact is not something to be restrained or avoided, it’s okay.

I recall sitting with two ladies as a friend approached them pushing her young child in a stroller. As he rolled over, the ladies began to blow kisses and wave and as soon as he was within arms reach, they were all over him. He sat still, gazing adoringly as they stroked his face, hair, arms and hands, pulling at his cheeks and nose and gently poking his face and chest. As they moved their fingers lovingly over his face, he moved his own hand, following where they had touched.

These kids are confident in themselves, their own skin and their place among other people because from such a young age they are taught that it’s okay.

Read more of the Red Dust series here.

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