Vasco Takes Chicago: ‘It’s Great to be Alive!’

Vasco Takes Chicago: ‘It’s Great to be Alive!’ May 8, 2009

In Swahili, there is a saying: Asiyefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu.

It means, essentially, that a child who is not taught by his mother will be taught by the world.

In the Kijita language spoken in parts of Tanzania they say Omwana ni wa bhone, meaning no matter who a child’s biological parents are, its upbringing belongs to the community.

And in Chichewa, the language Vasco Sylvester speaks, they say Mwana wa mzako ndi wako yemwe — your child is my child.

Hillary Clinton borrowed from these African proverbs in naming her book It Takes a Village. In the week since Vasco arrived in Chicago from his native Malawi, the truth of those proverbs has come to life in front of his eyes.

Ten-year-old Vasco’s mother and father both died of AIDS several years ago. He wound up living alone on the streets of Blantyre, one of Malawi’s major cities.

Little is known about how he ended up homeless and fending for himself at the tender age of 6 or 7, but we do know he was told he had been cursed by a witch doctor and that ants were eating his heart and he would die.

Blessedly, Vasco now knows that’s a lie.

He also knows that, although his biological parents are no longer with him, he has scores of men and women who love him and are dedicated to raising him in every way.

As a community. As a village –even if they live on the other side of the world.

Vasco has a major congenital heart defect — a large ventricular septal defect, to be exact. He’s in Chicago to have it repaired by the kind doctors at the Heart Institute for Children at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital and the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospitals.

Over the last week, Vasco has spent a lot of time with his doctors undergoing a battery of tests to determine his overall health and precisely what kind of open-heart surgery doctors will perform.

He has also had the chance to explore this wondrous village of ours. Watching him discover the sights, sounds and generous souls that enrich our city has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Whether climbing on the jungle gyms of the Morton Arboretum’s children’s garden, peering over the edge of the Sears Tower observation deck at the massive city below, riding on a Wendella boat down the Chicago River or running from exhibit to exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, squealing with delight and snapping pictures of the fish, turtles and seahorses, he was filled with a kind of palpable joy that brought smiles to the faces of the strangers around him.

Generous offers of assistance have continued to pour in, and so have the presents: a Razor scooter he uses to zip around our backyard in Oak Park; a Nintendo hand-held game that he totes around everywhere, tapping away at the screen even though he doesn’t quite know how to work it yet (and neither do the grown-ups he lives with); a compass given to him by a young friend (so he’ll always know where he is); an iPod loaded with some of his favorites: Akon, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and the popular Malawi musician Lucius Banda; a child-size guitar that he strums blissfully, singing to himself when he thinks nobody’s looking; a free dentist visit; T-shirts, hats, CDs, underwear, socks, coloring books, a football, a soccer ball.

For a child who had only a handful of possessions before he arrived in Chicago, it has been like Christmas morning every day. When he hears the postal carrier climb the front steps, he bolts to the door to see what new delights might be waiting for him.

Are we spoiling him? Probably. But I can’t think of a child more worthy of being spoiled a little.

One of the many beautiful things that we’ve learned about Vasco in recent days is how generous and kind he is. Whether it’s a stack of Pokemon cards or a banana, he always offers to share what he has with someone else. He says thank you. He takes care of his things, carefully putting them back in their boxes and tucking them away neatly in his room.

Vasco has had very little formal education. But he is quick-witted, naturally musical, inquisitive and so very bright. He has learned three times as many English words as I have Chichewa. He wakes up each morning wide-eyed and soaks in whatever the day holds like a thirsty sponge.

On Thursday morning, we went to the studios of WXRT-FM (93.1) to visit the morning host Lin Brehmer and his sidekick Mary Dixon, so Vasco, our young music lover, could see how a radio station works. His eyes lit up when he saw stack after stack of CDs and LP records. (Brehmer put an LP on the turntable and played it — the first time Vasco had ever seen such a thing.)

If you were listening during the 9 o’clock hour, you might have enjoyed some of Vasco’s handiwork. Brehmer let Vasco hit the broadcast button that sent tunes by the Doors and the Shins out over the airwaves. Vasco was obviously pleased to be able to share music with the urban village that has welcomed him with open arms and hearts.

In the car on the way there, we taught Vasco how to say Brehmer’s catchphrase: “It’s great to be alive!”

When he shyly pronounced it for Brehmer in the studio, the radio host let loose a belly laugh.

It’s great to be alive, indeed.

UPDATE: Lin played Vasco’s aircheck this morning on WXRT. Here is the sound set to a few pictures of V rocking out with his friend Ian last week.

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