Heather Djunga is a mom and a writer who felt compelled to create stories to help her son, and other children, to understand what has happened in 2020. Here she shares the story 'Christian the Lion', illustrated by Christian Djunga, age 7.
In Africa, stories are told which reflect the rainbow of our people. Many are legends, designed to inspire courage and hope in Africa’s people.
Others are true - or so some say.
Christian the Lion Cub loved Africa’s stories more than most of the other animals in the Rainbow Forest.
He would use a log as a podium, from which to tell his friends these stories. He hadn’t yet found his roar, but his stories were so good, the other animals gathered around each day to hear him speak. They were proud to be African when they heard Christian speak.
They were proud to be a part of the Rainbow Forest. Christian’s mother always told him he was unique in all the world, and Christian loved his animal friends for this same reason. There was Mila, the firefly, shy and unassuming but with a light that came from deep within.
There was Zeb, or Zebedee, the Zebra, a few stripes short of a zebra crossing, but crazy fun to be with. There was Seta, the cheetah, who liked to be in the spotlight – all those spots… Kylie Chameleon, who did her best to fit in with everyone and be accommodating; Mike the Meerkat, attentive, peculiar and fierce, all at the same time.
It wasn’t that Christian set out to roar one morning when a story idea came to mind and he stood up on his podium to share with his friends. The roaring had been the last thing on his mind. But something had disturbed him in the night and he had to let the others know.
Christian had overheard a conversation between his Mama and Papa. They hadn’t known he was listening in but it was hard not to – what they were saying had sounded serious.
Someone, or rather, something, had come to the forest, at the other side of the river… a monster which was making the animals scared and forcing them to stay away from one another. This was terrible news, especially for a little cub who loved to play with others.
What if the creature crossed the river to where Christian and his animal friends lived? Christian loved playing silly games with Zeb, who could use those hooves to shoot the highest hoops. He also went on many adventures with Mila, who was just about the sneakiest friend to have around.
Just the thought of a monster in the Rainbow Forest which made the animals stay away from each other made Christian more than just a little angry. Why he would show the intruder some clenched paw. He might even roar if he felt like it (if he could find his roar).
He determined the next day to do what he did best: relay the news to his friends. He would tell them a story… the best story he could come up with (and he could come up with very good stories).
“I have a true story today,” he said to his small audience of loyal listeners.
“I thought they were all true?” frowned Zeb.
“Mostly,” said Christian, “Although this one’s a little more true than the others. It’s about a scary, spiky-haired Grinch.”
“You mean Mrs Porcupine, don’t ya?” asked Mila.
“No,” laughed Christian. Mrs Porcupine could be a Grinch. Those quills. That pointy nose."
“See, Mama and Papa were talking last night about a monster which was terrorising the animals on the other side of the river: smelly-breathed and wart-toed, with a crown of spikes on its head. He – or rather, ‘it’ - can move forward and sideways and backwards all at once.”
“No ways!” said Zeb.
“It’s true,” said Christian.
“Some animals across the river have already been affected by him. I think it’s his stinky breath, I don’t know. Or his rotten teeth, or warts on his toes and nose, or that ghastly crown of spikes, but he makes the animals scared and they all run, each one to his own home."
Do you know why that is? asked Seta.
"As I said, I am not completely sure,” admitted the cub, “Although I have my theories.”
“Like maybe he spreads stories?” suggested the cheetah.
“Or he makes them afraid of each other,” said Mike Meerkat.
“Could be,” said the lion cub. “But I think it’s because he makes them realise they are all different.”
“Different? How so?” asked Zeb.
“Like you have stripes,” Christian began, “And I have these paws. Mila does that fancy light-up thing with her tail. Mike has that straight back. Seta, those spots...”
“Someone has to silence that spiky mean monster which is making the animals distance themselves and stay away from others,” peeped Mila.
Christian shrank back from the log, not knowing quite how the story about the monster finished, reluctant to continue.
Mila peeped up again, “Is that the whole story, Christian? It doesn’t seem quite finished?”
Christian rubbed his chin with a paw, “It’s not finished. Not that I know of.”
He looked out across the loyal gathering of friends. They looked back at him. He took a deep breath and puffed out his chest, for effect:
“To be continued…” he announced.
That evening, he tried to overhear Mama and Papa again, but when no more was said about the intruder in the forest, he decided to ask for himself. The lion’s grotto was a warm place in the deepest part of the Rainbow Forest, fairly sheltered from the outside winter.
In the winter, Christian would snuggle down beneath a blanket of fleece for a good night’s rest, and this is exactly where he was snuggled when Mama came to tuck him in for the night.
“What is wrong my cub?” she asked, noticing he was looking a little concerned.
“I overhead something the other night,” he confided. “I overheard you guys talking while I was on the way to the bathroom.”
Mama frowned: “What did you overhear?”
“I overheard you and Papa talk about the intruder – the one who has come to the Rainbow Forest,” he said.
“You did?” his mother looked concerned.
“What did you hear?”
“That he causes people to separate and not spend time together. Everyone separates each one to his own home. He causes division and isolation. I don’t like him, Mama."
‘Do you know what… neither do I,’ his mother said.
“Can’t we ask him to go?” Christian asked.
He frowned when his mother answered, “He might be around for a little while longer.”
“But make him go, Mama.”
“When he comes to our side of the forest, we will also have to be safe and stay indoors for longer than usual, because he can be mean, but if we are wise and practice safety, we don’t have to be scared.”
“I like my friends,” Christian protested.
“I don’t want to turn against them… even if they are different to me. Even if Zeb is annoying with that loud chewing he does when he eats grass. Even if Mila follows me everywhere I go, and Seta thinks she has to flaunt that slim waistline and always be in the spotlight. We are different, and that is ok.”
Christian’s mom looked just a little confused. “Now what is this about Christian?” she asked.
“The monster at the other side of the river… the one who whispers in our ears that being different is not ok and turns animals against each other, and makes them isolate themselves and stay away from animals and places they love.”
Christian’s mother laughed. “He must be big and scary,”
Christian continued. “You said he had a spiky crown.”
The lioness placed a reassuring paw on Christian’s shoulder: “Christian, the animals aren’t staying away from each other because they dislike each other’s differences."
"The intruder Papa and I were talking about is a virus, a sickness, called Coronavirus. It makes animals sick and so animals need to stay safe until it passes through the forest. It won’t turn you against your friends, or divide you,” she continued.
“You are stronger than that cub. You can find ways to stay together, even if you have to be safe for a little while and stay indoors.”
“So you mean he isn’t whispering lies to divide us?”
“No,” said Christian’s mother, “But there is something that does do that, an intruder as invisible as the virus.”
“Which intruder is that Mama?”
“It’s a monster called Racism. It makes animals in the forest grow weary of animals who are different from themselves. They stop appreciating one another’s stripes and spots and pointy noses. They isolate and divide out of choice.”
“That is terrible. Is Racism a virus like Coronavirus?”
“No,” said Christian’s mom, “But it’s just as invisible and when you catch it, it’s not your body that hurts and becomes sick… it’s your heart.”
“Is there a cure for these things?” Christian asked.
“Not yet for Coronavirus,” said his mom, “Someday there will be. But there is a cure for racism.”
“What then?” asked the cub.
“Look forward to time together and make sure you notice and appreciate what is unique about each animal. Learn to laugh about these differences. Learn how these differences help you stand together as a team."
"See how each animal has strengths and weaknesses. Even in a heard of zebra where all the zebra seem striped and similar, or among a group of gazelle, where all their coats seem the same shade of fawn, each animal is unique in all the forest. We would not be a Rainbow Forest were all the animals the same.”
“It would be boring,” said Christian.
“How would I tell my stories? They would all sound the same because all of the characters would be identical.”
Christian was still concerned and his mother could see this.
“How will my friends hear my stories if Coronavirus comes here?”
Christian’s mom thought for a while. “You could send a bird with a message. There are plenty in the forest who could carry a note for you. It’s the latest thing nowadays: Tweet, Mail.”
“I guess,” said Christian.
“Or you could write the stories down and send them out in a letter. Like a newsletter. The humans call it a newspaper.”
“It’s not the same Mama. I hate Garona.”
“Corona,” corrected his mom, “And I do too. Still, you know how we deal with someone we hate? How we get revenge? Remember what your Mama taught you…”
“I know, I know,” said Christian, reciting the lines he had rehearsed with his mother so often, “We live the best life possible… the best life under the circumstances… and we determine to become better animals for it.”
“Correct,” smiled his mom.
Christian was relieved that his side of the river was still safe from Coronavirus and his friends were still safe to gather to hear the rest of his story the next morning. He had rehearsed it as he had tossed and turned all night in bed the evening before.
He stood up to address his captive audience:
“Sometimes,” he began. “There are things too big for a cub to understand.”
“A cub and a zebra calf,” agreed Zeb.
“We don’t have all the answers,” said Christian.
“So today I won’t pretend to.”
He gazed lovingly at his friends’ faces. He loved each one. Zeb with his stripes, the way his mouth moved constantly, clockwise, then anti-clockwise, as he chewed his grassy lunch. The way his back hoof twitched every time he spoke. He loved the guy.
Then there was Mike, who sat to attention, meerkat-style, each time Christian shared a story. What would Christian do without him? And Seta, the best ‘let’s play catchers’, or ‘let’s race’ friend… Mila, whose light was particularly handy during evening adventures… How he would miss their faces if he had to stay safe from the creature, for a while.
He determined that day that he would tell his friends a story they would remember for a long time to come, clearing his voice, and perhaps roaring just a little for the first time:
“The spiky monster went through the Rainbow Forest,” he picked up from the story of the previous day.
“Some said he was not real. Others were afraid. But all said to stay safe. It was better. He had stinky breath. No-one wants to be outdoors when a monster with stinky breath passes over.”
“I like the way you are telling this story today,” said Kylie chameleon, always accommodating.
Christian continued: “He passed through and although the entire forest trembled, the animals refused to be separated, even though the monster’s presence had caused all to flee indoors."
"This was because there was thought more terrible than the Corona Monster - as he was named - and this was that the striped animals would never again see the spotted ones; or the sleek ones see the slow ones; or the velvet-furred ones, the quilled ones."
"Each animal knew he was part of something bigger that must be saved – the Rainbow Forest. So when the monster stamped and flattened whole grottos, whole burrows and caves, the animals kept up their unity. The ones in the trees sang new songs, which others in far off places could hear."
"Some sent birds – Tweet Mail - with letters. Others, dug burrows to the meadow where they gathered food, staying safe and covered from the spreading venom of the giant."
"Those who gathered more than most left it at the entrances of the burrows and dens of those who had none, and in the evenings when it was particularly still, some animals roared, some bellowed, some squeaked with all their might - they made a noise so each would know that he or she was not alone. Until the monster passed right through and was then gone forever.”
Christian sighed now: “Some say if it hadn’t been for the smelly-breathed creature, the animals might never have realised how precious each stripe, each spot, each pointy nose, each flat face was – for they had once been afraid of these differences, but when the creature came, they saw their differences differently."
"The day the smelly-breathed monster came, another monster fled – the monster of division – not Coronavirus, but the monster of Racism. And so they were saved from their hard hearts because they learned the only way to save the Rainbow forest was to keep on calling out to each other and to stand as one against the wart-toed fiend.”
The cub took a deep breath before concluding his story: “Mama says it is a true story. She says the creature could come to this side of the river and then we must be safe. But she also said he would pass through, and we would change because of him. I might have to write these stories down and share them with you a while, using social media birds."
"I might not be able to come out to the log when I must stay safe. I will miss your different faces, so many designs and colours, but I will carry them in my heart and use them to inspire my pen. One day the stories will be heard from this log again, and then you will hear each one differently because you will be different.”
Zebulun’s jaw moved clockwise now. He was deep in thought, even for a zebra who was a few stripes short of the zebra crossing. “I heard a similar story once when we were out here grazing, down here by the meadow.”
“A similar one?” Christian asked.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know it,” said the Zebra. “My grandmother, faded stripes that she has, knows just about every story in the forest. She says there's no such thing as a new story. Not really. Especially not if you are an animal who listens. I listened to your story Christian and I don’t think it’s new.”
‘Oh,” Christian felt a little disappointed. He had tried to be as dramatic as possible about the stinky virus.
‘Nope,” Zeb explained. “Winter comes to the Rainbow Forest now and then. It is invariable.”
“You mean inevitable,” corrected Seta.
“Yes, inirritable,”said Zeb.
Seta refrained from correcting him a second time.
Zeb continued: “And even if you don’t care much about winter, it will come. It is the same for every animal in the Rainbow Forest. As different as we are, some things are the same for all of us.”
“It’s true,” said Mike. He sat bolt upright, pointy snout alert, paws firm against his chest and tail to attention. “I have felt the coldest of winters.”
“So have I,” said Mila. “It was during a particularly cold winter that I learned how to shine from my tail. Before this… I was afraid. Winter taught me true friends survive the wind, and afterwards, are even better friends for it.”
“I like that,” said Christian. “Paw five.” He held up a paw and Mila high-fived it with her tiny firefly hand.
“So who’s going to race me to the other side of the forest?”
It was a story but it was more than that and every animal knew it as they left to chase after Christian the Lion Cub, the best storyteller in the entire forest.
The winter would come, but after the winter, the spring, and the Rainbow Forest would continue, and as Mila had said, the animals would be better friends for it… because the stinky creature had made another monster flee, the monster of Racism – as the animals had seen each other clearly for the first time.
When you share this story, remember how, in a moment, a little cub roared from a log, crowned with truth more powerful than the corona or crown after which the virus was named.
Some crowns will eventually fall away, as coronavirus’ would. Others, those we wear when we choose to stand on and believe the truth, are unshakable.
That day, Christian chose to put on his crown and roar.
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