DEAD MICE, An African Tale – Turning Experiences Into Stories

By Jackie Houchin

In last week’s Writers in Residence blog post, Gayle Bartos-Pool asked the question, “What do I bring to the party?”  She went on to tell of her extensive and varied experiences and personal contacts that have helped in research for her detective and spy novels. It got me to thinking about what I “bring to the party” of my story writing.

(1) I have a good knowledge of the Bible. (2) I’ve been on three short-term mission trips to Malawi, Africa. (3) I have 3 granddaughters who were once little and to whom I told and wrote many stories. (4)  I teach the 4th-6th grade Sunday School class at church and I occasionally help in the K-2nd grade Junior Church.

What a set up for writing children’s stories that take place in Africa and that have a Bible truth woven into them. Hey! That’s just what I am doing. I write the “Missionary Kids Stories” series (about a family serving in Malawi) and I send them out to about a dozen young kids (6-11) at church via email every 1-2 weeks. They are entertaining (according to  the kids) informative about Africa and mission life (occasionally gross as in the story that follows), “safe” (one mom’s comment), and have truths from the Bible as a take away.

Here is the first one I sent out, introducing the family and setting up the series. It is the shortest and simplest one. The stories vary in age level depending on the MK (Missionary Kid) who is telling the story. Stories five and six – told by a teenager – is one story in two parts with a cliff hanger at the end of five.

Dead Mice

Introduction

 These stories are about the (make-believe) Matthews Family, who went to Malawi, Africa about eight years ago to be missionaries.  This family has a dad and a mom, and seven children (three boys and four girls including a set of twins). As part of their names, each of them has the month that they were born in as a first or middle name, like Melody May or April Grace.  All of the stories are written to you as letters.  The first story starts like this: 

Hi kids!

My name is Melody May, and I have a twin sister whose name is Charity June. I also have three brothers and two more sisters. We all have the month we were born in as part of our names. It’s really cool I think, but some people think it’s weird.

My mom – her name is Mrs. Matthews – is really fun and creative. She picks out all our names. My dad – his name is Mr. Matthews – just smiles at her with love and agrees to the names.

People call me Melody, but they call my twin sister “June.” You may wonder how twins could be born in two different months. Can you guess how? It’s kind of tricky.

I’ll let my brothers and sisters tell you about themselves in other letters, but right now, let me tell you about what happened to my sister June and I a week ago.

We are MKs (Missionary Kids) who live in Malawi, Africa. Our dad is a college teacher at the African Bible College. We go to a school there too, but in a different building.

One day, an African boy in our class showed us a mouse… a really DEAD mouse. Then he dared us to do something with it. At first June and I refused, but then…..

Here’s how it happened.

The boy’s name is Kukana (Koo-KAH-nah). On that day, the first day of the new school year, he dared us to EAT a dead mouse! Ewww! Would YOU eat a mouse, especially a dead one? (I guess a live one would be worse!)

There are kids from America and Canada and Holland and South Africa in my class. There are many Malawian kids too. We have three grades in our classroom because, well, our teacher is very smart and can teach three grades at once! At least that’s what I think.

That day, when Kukana stood up in class with a closed box and told us he brought something for us to eat, we all smiled. We thought it might be some roasted peanuts, or those small super-sweet bananas they grown in Malawi. Yum.

Then he opened the box and reached in and held up this really stiff, black, hairy thing.  Some of the new girls screamed, but June and I didn’t. We almost did, but we grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed real tight.

“This is a mbewa,” he told us.

(You say mbewa like this – mmmmm-BEE-wah.)

“They are very tasty to eat,” Kukana said.

Then he held the mbewa up high by the stiff tail, tilted his head back, put the old dead mouse’s head into his mouth… and crunched it off!!!!!  He smiled big as he chewed it. The Malawian boys cheered and stomped their feet!

Our teacher frowned a little, but she didn’t say anything.

Kukana smiled again, real big, and there were little bits of black fur in his teeth!  He leaned very close to June and me and showed us his icky tongue, trying to scare us, I think.

Then he ate the rest of it….. even the tail. There were more hoots from the boys, and this time Mrs. Molenaar said, “Okay. That’s enough. Now tell the class about mbewa. Why did you bring it – and eat it?”

Mrs. Molenaar knew about mbewa – we could tell by her look – but she wanted Kukana to explain about this “famous Malawian snack food.”

“We eat mbewa because it’s good protein food,” began Kukana.

June and I looked at each other, our eyebrows raised way up and our eyes got big. OUR family eats  eggs, chicken, fish, and sometimes pork or beef for protein.

Kukana went on, “Village families here in Malawi are very poor. They raise goats and sometimes cows to SELL but not to EAT. They do this to have money for beans and maize to eat, and seeds to plant.”

I thought about what else OUR family eats. We like the beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts that the villagers grow. We also eat yogurt and canned fruit and oatmeal. Sometimes Mom cooks nsima (nnnnnn-SEE-mah) which is made from white corn, called maize, and tastes like thick hot cereal without any salt. (Mom adds some for us.) Poor Malawians eat that every day. Sometimes that is all they HAVE to eat.

“There’s LOTS of mbewa around,” said Kukana. “You just have to catch them. We go to where old maize stalks or dead grass is piled up. We stand around the pile with sticks. Then someone lifts up the pile with a long pole and mice run out everywhere.  We have a lot of fun killing them with our sticks!”

Kukana laughed and all the boys laughed too.

“Then we put five or maybe ten of them on a long stick and roast them.”

Kukana looked right at June and me, opened his eyes really big and added, “….just… like… your… marshmallows!” Then he laughed in a mean way.

That made us feel mad and scared and icky, but we didn’t do anything. I think it was then, that I started to think….. maybe I WILL eat a dead mouse!

Mrs. Molenaar gave Kukana a stern look and he finished his talk like this. “Sometimes our fathers burn off the maize stubble (old stalks) in our fields. Then all the people stand around the edge of the field to catch the mice that run out.”

Mrs. Molenaar told the rest of it. “After the mice are roasted, which dries out the bodies but doesn’t burn off all the fur, they will keep for quite a while. Maybe you American children have tried jerky. It’s a bit like that.”

She turned to Kukana. “Did you want to share your mbewa with the class?”

He walked through the desks with the box down low. All the Malawian boys and girls took one out and started crunching and chewing. One American boy, named Benji took one too.

When the box came to June and me, my sister leaned way back, but I….. I reached in, grabbed a stiff hairy burned mouse and took it out.  Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned back, held the thing up, and crunched off its head!!!!!!

This time June DID scream. “Melody! Noooo!! You are going to get sick and die!! And Mom will be very mad!”

I didn’t look at her. I stared at Kukana as I chewed the prickly, scratchy thing. It tasted kind of like burnt peanut shells and grease to me. Finally I swallowed it and stuck out my black-specked tongue to prove I ate it.

Kukana was surprised. He smiled at me (nicely, this time) and gave a little nod.  After that, he didn’t tease June and me. He kind of respected me, and since I was usually with my sister, he didn’t dare tease her either. After a while we even became friends.

Let me tell you a secret now. I didn’t finish the dead mouse.  I passed it to the boy behind me who snatched it up and ate it.

And you know what else?  I didn’t get sick and die.

I just became a Malawian.

But Mom DID get mad at me and told me never to do that again. I promised her that I wouldn’t. I figured I would never HAVE to do it again.

Later in our Sunday School class at the International Bible Fellowship church where my Dad sometimes preaches, I learned what Paul wrote in one of his letters in the Bible. He was a missionary to MANY countries. I don’t know if he ever had to eat mice, but he did say in 1 Corinthians 9:22, that he wanted to “become all things to all men that he might save some” for Christ.

I hope Kukana will someday want to know Jesus too. Maybe he will listen to me now when I tell him the gospel story ….. BECAUSE I ate the mouse.

mk-mice-and-boy

mk-mice-1

~~ Facts ~~

          Malawians DO eat mice like this for protein. Sometimes you can see them along the road, selling mbewa still lined up in a row on the roasting sticks, or in piles on a piece of cloth they spread out on the ground. They also eat big grasshoppers for protein which they fry in oil and sprinkle with hot pepper. 

"Episodic Kid Lit"

by Jackie Houchin
Or, how I got started writing serialized children’s fiction.
I guess it began with verbal bedtime stories. When my three granddaughters were quite young I would tell them impromptu stories about anything in their lives – toys, pets, games, etc.  I tried to make them exciting and vivid, and always managed to finish the story before it was time for prayers and sleep. Next visit I would begin where I left off.
When the first granddaughter was about six and already an eager reader, I decided I wanted her to love mystery stories as much as I did. But how would I do that? There were Nancy Drew chapter books available, and I collected them for later, but I wanted to start her right away.
Then she broke her arm, and I got an idea.
I created a little girl who had a family and lived on a street much like hers, a little girl who also broke her arm, but under some mysterious circumstances.  Then I introduced the two girls with a letter, like this:

Hi Shannon –

My name is Molly Duncan.  I know your Grandma.  We see each other at the park sometimes. 
Last time she told me how you broke your arm when you were riding a scooter.  And, you know what?  I broke my arm too. Not just now, but way last summer, in July. Your Grandma said I should write to you and tell you about it.
Do you know what I was doing?  I was riding my bike when it happened.  But, I’ll tell you about that later, and what happened because of it.
But first I want to tell you about myself.  (I was going to send you a picture of me, but I lost it.) 
I’m 7 years old and I’m in the second grade.
I havered hair, which is very curly. It is kind of long, and I usually wear it in two French braids that my Mom fixes for me. But sometimes, some of the hairs get loose and frizz out from the braids. 
My eyes are green, “just like Granny Smith apples” my mom likes to say.  I wish they were blue like Benji’s. Mom says his eyes are “like the sky”.  Oh, I forgot to tell you.  Benji is my little brother. When he grows up he will probably be called Benjamin or Ben, but right now we call him Benji. He’s four years old.
I also have freckles. Do you know what freckles are? They are tiny, light-brown spots that most people have on their faces, and sometimes their arms, if they have red hair. I only have them on my nose!  They remind me of sesame seeds on hamburger buns!  When I think of that, it makes me giggle.
And last of all, I wear glasses, thick ones that keep sliding down my nose all the time. I hate wearing them, but Mom says the doctor promised if I wear them all the time now, I won’t have to wear them after “poo-ber-tee” (or something like that).
Well, anyway, about my broken arm. I want to tell you how it happened and what happened after that.  There is a mystery and a surprise about it... etc., etc.
And that’s how an eight year letter-friendship began.  (I don’t call them Pen Pals, because Shannon didn’t write back.)  For a great long while, Shannon thought Molly was a real girl that I knew!  But when she asked about it one day, I told her the truth and she was able to enjoy the installments like chapters in a book.
As Shannon and Molly got older, the stories got longer. I introduced other characters, friends at school, neighbors, older people (shop-keepers, a grandmotherly babysitter, teachers, a friendly policeman). The town took on a character too and I soon drew a poster-sized cartoonish map of the streets, shops, school, parks, church, hospitals and police station to walk through in my mind.
 I wrote about age-related situations; new-girl jealousies, pre-teen angst, and a few quite serious events; a brother in a car accident, a search for a runaway girl, a mother’s stay in a mental home. But they always had a mystery twist to be discovered over a series of letters. God, the Bible, and prayer played a big part in solving the mysteries and in learning important lessons. 
Think Jan Karon’s Mitford Series, but for kids.  (http://www.mitfordbooks.com/ )
Before long, the other granddaughters said they wished they had letter friends too.  Soon Kerry was getting letters from pet-loving Annie Black, and Jana heard from Kim Ling, a girl with four brothers. The letter-friends were all from the same neighborhood, knew each other, and occasionally crossed paths.
What fun to keep three story lines going! (I was also illustrating these episodic stories with cartoon-like characters.)
The big step came when Shannon said she couldn’t wait so long between letters. “Can’t you put them all into a book, Grandma,” she asked.  So I did, and “Molly Duncan and the Case of the Missing Kitten” was born.  Soon after that came “Princess Ebony and the Silver Wolf.” (Ebony was an ancestor of Annie Black. Think how The Princess Bride was told.)  Later “Kim Ling, Cub Reporter” was imagined.  I illustrated (very simply) each book, and included a map of the area in the front pages. 
So…. What – besides entertaining little relatives and friends – can be done with serialized children’s stories?
1.  Writers could choose a favorite age group, invent a winsome character in a compelling situation, write about her/him/them, and begin publishing the episodes as 99c short stories to promote a Children’s Book series you write, or to be given away free to those who sign up for your newsletter, or visit your blog. You could even print up a few and hand them out at panel or signing events.
2.  Episodic stories – as long as they are written like short stories with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending, even if the main mystery is not solved until later – can be gathered together into a novel or novella and published. Hugh Howey did this very successfully with his Sci-Fi Woolseries.  
3. Serialized stories don’t have to be just for kids. Try a few episodes in your adult genre, or perhaps with a TV series in mind (the writers of LOST did it well on the fly… until the end that is, when it all fell apart!).
4. Or, write them just for fun to sharpen your writing skills or get over a major writer’s block.