street kids of Kisenyi, Uganda

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste”

I witnessed something that reminded me of the public service marketing slogan, “A mind is terrible thing to waste,” which was adopted by the United Negro College Fund in 1972. The brilliance of the campaign at the time was that these seven words helped change the “public perception of young black men in the media from angry, troubled and dangerous to being thought of as minds; encouraging respect rather than indignation or pity.” (Gil Silberman May-13)

If you’ve ever met or worked with street kids, you know they are smart. They have to be, in order to survive street life. In many ways, they seem intelligent beyond their years. In others, they are very much like children – hungry for knowledge, eager to learn and excited to show off what they know. I recently experienced the latter for the first time, during my return to Kisenyi Slum after three months away.

I must admit I’ve always assumed that these kids I’ve come to know could not read. I never considered the possibility they might be better educated than I thought – something that quickly became apparent after asking one simple question, “How do you spell your name?”

One boy stood out, Enock. I first met Enock when he came to me with a bloody hand, having cut himself badly on a piece of glass. He never spoke as I cleaned his wound, just flinched in pain. And when I was finished, he quickly disappeared. It wasn’t until later that I got to interact with him.

Street Kid in Kisenyi Slum

Like most of the boys living in Kisenyi, Enock along with one of my favorites, Ashraf, are constantly high. These kids get loaded … a level of intoxication (from sniffing a combination of glue and petrol) that should incapacitate their brains. But wow, did I misjudge them.

I had an epiphany after I asked Enock to spell his name, thinking he may not be able to – mainly due to his drug use. I was wrong. He had no problem spelling his name, and neither did Ashraf or any of the other kids that were around at the time. But the schooling for me didn’t end there.

As the kids were yelling out the spelling of their names, they were looking at photos of my two dogs and asked to know their names. Instead of telling them, I typed out “Boomer” and “Brianna” into my smartphone. I was curious to know whether they could read, or at the very least knew their letters. They quickly spelled the names back to me, and recited them without any prompting from me.

Then Ashraf and Enock noticed the words in the memory section, right above the keypad on my phone. As I clicked on the stored phrases, the two boys read the words back to me in unison. This went on as I scrolled through more than 50 different words – leaving me and my Kisenyi companion, Benn, quite surprised.

As I left Kisenyi that day, not only did I recall those seven powerful words – “A mind is terrible thing to waste” – but I was also reminded of the white man in Vernon Jordan’s memoir, “Vernon Can Read!” Like that man, I made an unfair assumption. Though the color of these boys’ skin had nothing to do with my premature conclusion, I should have never assumed these kids couldn’t read. Both Benn and I made assumptions based on the kids’ circumstance, compounded by their heavy drug use. And we must not forget that these children, along with millions of others, live on a continent where quality education is not available to the most marginalized population.

But now I can’t stop thinking about Enock and Ashraf’s minds – and how they are being wasted. I can’t stop wondering what great things these two could accomplish if they were given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Ashraf and Enock are not the only diamonds in the rough. There are an endless number of children, just like these two, who are being deprived access to life-changing education that would provide them with the skills needed for them to sparkle.

Learn how the Shule Foundation is planning on helping these diamonds in the rough to shine.

2 Comments on ““A mind is a terrible thing to waste”

  1. Hi Jackie,
    I read your article “9 Myths of Africa” and have just to say thank for debunking those misconceptions about my great continent. I tried to leave my comment there, but couldn’t. Could you please allow me to reblog that article?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Nzinga,

      Anything I can do to shine a positive light on the continent I have come to love….is my pleasure. I think the misconceptions infuriate me just as much as they do my African friends.

      All the best,