I’ve lived in the village of Ambondro for nine months and I can proudly say that my best friend is a five-year-old. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed the company of others in my community – they are all very friendly, hospitable people. But I’ve formed a unique bond with someone special. Her name is Sylvie.
Now, she is a frequent visitor, stopping by my house at least four times a day. We spend our time balancing various items on our heads, dancing and making funny faces in the mirror. She is a quirky girl, who will talk my ear off when we are alone. But if someone else is in the room, she will not make a sound. Her mom often stops by my house to ask where her child is, if Sylvie isn’t home. Some of my neighbors have even started calling Sylvie, my child.
But it wasn’t always that way. Our relationship took a while to blossom. The first time I spotted Sylvie, I was in awe of her cuteness. She would say “Hello!” and quickly run away. This interaction continued for many weeks. When I could finally get her to stay in one spot long enough to speak to her in Malagasy, she refused to respond. As she became more comfortable, she began to visit me at my house (though she remained silent). This soon turned problematic though, as I would be cooking and turn around to see her standing in the corner. Once I even fell asleep mid-day with my door open and woke up to see her inches from my face. It was hard not to laugh, but only after I practically had a heart attack.
Having her has a friend has involved a lot of teaching – I taught her to politely knock before entering and ask to come in and cover her mouth when she coughs. She is learning numbers in English and always says, “Thank you,” when she is given something. When she is thirsty, she politely asks for water and when she is finished playing, she cleans up. While her company is ample repayment, my friendship with Sylvie is so much more than a cute face and curly hair. Here are 8 reasons why having a five-year-old as a best friend, especially while living abroad, is seriously awesome.
1. They don’t judge you
Little kids are the least judgmental human beings on the planet. Your house can be a mess, your feet covered in dirt and have stains on your shirt and they don’t care a bit. That being said, if I have charcoal on my face after I've built a fire, or specs of chalk on my glasses after erasing the blackboard, she is the first to alert me. I often let Sylvie enter my house while I am washing dishes or tidying up my house. She likes to watch and doesn’t mind a mess.
2. Kids love to teach you
From culture to taboo to market prices to directions, little kids love to share their knowledge with others. As soon as someone gave me a turtle as a pet, Sylvie and her older sister told me that it was taboo to eat a turtle (not that I was planning on it). Sylvie keeps me in the loop.
3. They love to help you, too
You get the hang of it, but building a fire to cook on a charcoal stove isn’t as easy as it looks. Sylvie was by my side though, using a hammer to crush the big pieces of charcoal and gathering small pieces of kindling wood outside. She even helped sweep my floor afterward. Little kids want to get their hands in everything and are eager to assist you. She helps me put away my vegetables from the market and as soon as I take out my tsikelo to pick out the rocks of my rice, she grabs it from me and does it herself. She is young so she is still learning, too. But she is excited to show off what her older sister has taught her. We practice together.
4. You can practice your language skills without being embarrassed
There is no need to be afraid of making mistakes when speaking Malagasy in front of Sylvie. A five-year-old best friend eliminates the intimidation when speaking the local lingo. It’s a great way to practice new vocabulary – if I get a reaction from her, I know I used it correctly. She often teaches me new words, too. Kids this young often speak the obvious with basic vocabulary so its great listening practice, too.
5. Their minds are malleable
When your job is an educator in your village abroad, young kids make your job easy. You are starting with a clean slate and play a huge role in their early development. It’s been fun to teach Sylvie good manners and see her practice them. Sometimes she still pouts when her request for a second piece of cake is denied, but I am trying to teach her to be appreciative. It’s a good feeling to know that you can empower someone younger than you with qualities that they will (hopefully) continue to convey for the rest of their lives. I want Sylvie to grow up to be an independent, polite, confident, smart woman. I’ve got two years to guide her.
6. (Most of them) have big hearts
There is no better feeling than a giant bear hug around your legs from a little kid. Sylvie gets a little shy after I am away from my site for a period of time and return. But her brother quickly tells me that she has missed me and then she proceeds to tightly wrap her arms around my legs, refusing to let go.
On a day where Sylvie insisted on staying at my house for the entire day, she took out my straw mat and laid down to relax. Since it was below 75 degrees (so, freezing), I gave her my fleece blanket and she curled up on the ground. She laid there silently and motionless, aside from the ever-so-often blinking of her big, brown eyes. I asked her what she was thinking about, but she remained silent. Just a few minutes later, she asked me in Malagasy, “Vola, how do you say ‘kiss’ in English?” and then, fell asleep.
I tell Sylvie that I love her – she whispers “I love you” pauses for a few seconds and then remembers to add: “too!” I give her a kiss on the cheek and she turns to return the favor. In a place so far from home, these exchanges of affection go a long way.
7. Fun is always a priority
After a stressful day, Sylvie makes me smile. From hiding in the flower bushes next to my house to climbing a tree to making funny faces in the mirror, she knows how to lighten the mood. She makes me laugh as she goes around my house, smelling any item she can find and enthusiastically, going “Ahhhhh!” (even when there is no smell), just like I did that one time, as I explained to her what my hair conditioner was. Be ready to release your inner-goofball with a five-year-old.
8. No expectations
Possibly the best part of having Sylvie as a best friend, is her lack of expectations. Each other’s company is enough. I can invite her into my house and know that there is no special entertaining involved. When we play, we find fun in the most basic things. She pretends a squash is a person and begins to tell me how the squash is sad because it has no clothes, arms or feet. Sometimes she sits next to me as I work and she contently watches or entertains herself. When her older siblings come to bring her home as the sun sets, she will get up and say, “Goodbye.” She does not expect anything from me, except maybe a nibble of my pancake and a promise that I’ll see her in the morning.