It’s odd how certain memories can arrive at unexpected but utterly relevant moments. The Monkey Monkey Elephant game.
Refugee Camp Varazdin, Croatia, Winter, 1993
We drink coffee from yoghurt pots. Bosnian coffee. People say that a spoon can stay upright in good Bosnian coffee, so sweet and thick.
I am 23 and working as a volunteer in a refugee camp somewhere in Varazdin, near Zagreb Croatia. Ir’s only for 3 weeks. We give English lessons and dance lessons to kids, keeping them busy. And getting them to brush their teeth. Every evening we walk the halls of the huge army camp, housing god knows how many refugees and displaced persons. We sing the special Tooth Brush song and the kids appear from the rooms, singing along, following us to the bathrooms, armed with toothbrushes, we’re the dental rat catcher of Hameln, only we try catching caries.
Although I will forget most Croatian I speak, I will still be able to remember the Toothbrush song 20 years later, word for word.
I will still remember these kids’ faces 20 years later.
Paprika yells and scream at the other kids. He walks around like a miniature macho, caricature like, as if he’s practised his poses and gestures meticulously in a mirror.
It is winter and I’ve never ever in my entire life experienced cold like this. The sheets hanging out to dry in the courtyard are frozen solid.
Soldiers come back from the front visiting their families. When we’re not teaching we sit with them and their families, play cards, drink. They always drink. One of them is particularly scary. Big and imposing; a loud mouth.
We have lots of games, games to help them escape the boredom.
I suddenly remember a very silly childhood game, monkey money elephant.
“It’s simple.” I say, “You have to repeat everything I do.”
I hold up my right hand, and with my left index finger I touch my little finger, then my ring finger, until I reach my right index finger, every time I touch a finger I say “monkey”, slide down the index finger and up to the tip of my thumb, saying “eeeeelephant” and “monkey” all the way back to my little finger, then I sit back and fold my arms, inviting the others to repeat what you’ve just done.
“That’s easy!” yells the imposing soldier. And he starts, “Monkey monkey…” But he gets it wrong, as do the others. I show them again. It clicks with a few who repeat it correctly and they laugh and nod, showing the correct way to the others, who keep failing.
In the end the imposing soldier is the only one left who hasn’t got it.
He’s going red in the face, his lips pursed and his eyes gone to slits.
“No. You’re still doing it wrong. It’s like this.” again I show it him, slower this time.
His pride is visibly crumbling while the others around him are roaring with laughter at his inability of doing such a simple thing correctly.
I’m not sure if it was wise to start this game in the first place, but I continue regardless.
I do it once more and with exaggerated gestures I show him at the end the folding of my arms. He finally gets it.
When I see Paprika later that day, I think how much he is like that big imposing soldier, only miniature.
I watch him shout and stomp and explode, and ask one of the other volunteers, who is a refugee himself, why he’s called Paprika.
“Because he’s a hothead and because he goes red all the time.” I nod. I understand.
“They sliced his dad’s throat in front of him.” he continues.
I’m not sure what else he tells me, because I can’t listen to anything else he says. I just can’t.
20 years later I will still see Paprika. I will see him in the faces of the kids fleeing from other conflicts. I will wonder if he’s ok, that he somehow has been able to make something out of the shards which were once his life.
As for the imposing soldier.. I’ll wonder if he took on my joke and showed it to others.
I’ll hope he’ll do.