As an American youngster in the late 1980s, early 1990s, my childhood was well-fed by Walt Disney’s animated films. Lately I’m beginning to realize that the Disney movies of my youth served as more than simple entertainment. They provided essential lessons whose value I failed to recognize until I stepped foot in Africa. Humor me as I reflect on the top 10 lessons I learned from that Magical World of Walt Disney:
10. French Language Skills
From Beauty and the Beast, a classic tale set in rural France, I gained a basic French vocabulary. Music from this film taught me a handful of words such as: Mademoiselle (Miss), ma cherie (dear one), lumiere (light), jour (day).
Beauty and the Beast also taught about hospitality in “Be Our Guest”… Why would this be significant in Africa? Well, Congolese practice the “drop-in”. If you haven’t seen a friend for several days, if you want to meet the new neighbors, or even if you just want to hear some gossip, drop-in and pay someone a visit, no advance notice is even necessary. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers are warmly welcomed into the house as guests of honor. Sit down to have tea together, or even a meal, and enjoy one another’s company.
8. Living with roommates
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs prepared me for what I would experience living in a house with seven others. Although they certainly don’t resemble her dwarfs, my roommates each have very unique and distinctive personalities. I’ll refrain from any identification or correlation to Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey.
7. A cheerful presence uplifts the home
Snow White did more than teach me tolerance. From this fairytale, I also learned a trick to maintaining a joyful spirit amidst the mundane. Snow White was responsible for cooking and keeping house for the seven dwarfs. This work proved less laborious when she whistled or sang…”when hearts are high the time will fly so whistle while you work.” Here in Congo, every Mama embraces this philosophy. In a place without modern conveniences, Mama spends all day cooking the meal, tidying the house, and hand-washing clothes. Whether to pass the time, set the pace, or stave off boredom, the Mama is always singing or humming some merry tune.
6. There’s no place like home
The Little Mermaid warned against developing a yen for a far away place. Ariel learned that its better to embrace life where you are than wish for someplace you are not. While living in America, I used to fantasize about a simpler, slower pace of life. Now living in Congo, I fantasize about life in America, wishing for its ease and convenience. This is when I must remind myself that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. So I guess I’m still learning the lesson: there’s no place like where you are now. Embrace it and be fully present.
5. Everything tastes better with a little sugar
Mary Poppins is a film which emphasizes good manners. The part from the film that I recall most vividly? A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way. Fortunately nowadays, most meds are in capsule or pill form. Thus, this lesson is best applied to foreign foods. Some of the Congolese food — goat meat, grasshoppers, fish brain, monkey, or even just the insects crawling on my food — has a strong potential to cause nausea. On such occasions, I am relived to have a soda (made from pure sugarcane) to wash down my food.
4. It’s a small world after all
Stemming not from a film, but rather an exhibit at Disneyland, this lesson sings of unity throughout the earth. Visitors to the “Small World” exposition ride in small boats along a lazy river in the spirit of Gulliver sailing round the world. Here in Africa, I’m realizing the truth of that exhibit. For example, I recognize the music of my favorite English hymns sung at church, and although the lyrics are in Swahili, the melody is the same. Also, I have a friend who frequently wears a Green Bay Packers sweater (from the 1960s), reminding me of the frozen tundra where I grew up. And in the marketplace, I’ve seen Milwaukee Brewers baseball caps (secondhand). But my favorite reminder of home lately has been the children and adults who love to sing Michael Jackson songs, although they haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the lyrics.
3. The bare necessities are all one truly needs to survive
The Jungle Book, set in a remote village in India, gives useful advice regarding life away from the big city. “Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found. When you find out you can live without it and go along not thinkin’ about it, I’ll tell you something true: The bare necessities of life will come to you.” As you know by now, here in the isolated town of Beni, I’m learning to live without many luxuries that I previously viewed as necessities. I quickly learned to halt my futile search for things such as: a newspaper, high-speed internet, snack food, quality coffee, chocolate. And as it turns out, Baloo and Mowgli were right, I’m learning to survive on the bare necessities…which are not so bad, after all.
2. Swahili vocabulary
What Beauty and the Beast did for my French language acquisition, The Lion King did for my Swahili. Vocab essentials found in the cast of characters: Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend), Pumbaa (careless one), Sarabi (mirage), Shenzi (savage). Furthermore, my respect for Disney greatly increased upon learning the accuracy of the animation which depicted Kenya’s landscape (Pride Rock and the Savannah). My Swahili instructor still cannot comprehend why I am able to remember the word for lion, but cannot seem to memorize the vocabulary for other animals.
1. No Worries
By far the most important lesson for my time in Africa comes from The Lion King, specifically the absentminded warthog, Pumbaa. His motto for life is “Hakuna Matata”. Sung throughout the film and accurately translated from Swahili, it means “no worries” or “no problems”. Since I first stepped foot on African soil, “hakuna matata” has been a resounding theme. Slowly but surely, I’m learning how to stop worrying and release my need for control. Type A personalities are countercultural. Plans frequently change by the hour and without flexibility, one could never survive.
So, I’d like to offer my sincere appreciation to the Magical World of Walt Disney which has prepared me far beyond what I could have ever imagined.