© Corina Karstenberg

Who said the sky isn’t green?

The troubadour sings her song in the Theater aan het Vrijthof in front of a full house with adults. It is a song about drawing, about lines and the colouring within or perhaps outside the lines. It’s about dreaming and daring to dream. And about the colours that children use regardless of the unwritten rules about this, where the leaves are usually green and the sky is blue. It is mainly about how it seems to be necessary ought to, but it does not have to. Her fantasy is like an untamed horse running around in grand dreams.

Never alone again

Lisa, talking loudly with her friend Karima, cycles through the streets of Maastricht, where she recently started studying. She tells enthusiastically about the troubadour she heard singing yesterday and talks about how she has recognized the story from her own life. Suddenly the sound drops out. She nearly falls because a delivery person almost cycles her over in his haste. Out of sheer fright and by keeping her balance with all her might, she swings back and forth. Fortunately, she manages not to fall. Only her cell phone came loose from her headset and fell out of her jacket pocket and ended up somewhere on the street. Gosh, just now it is raining cats and dogs. It has suddenly turned gray and dark due to the clouds that have gathered together at lightning speed. The streets glow with raindrops that are falling en masse from the sky. Lisa puts her bicycle on the sidewalk and looks around calmly. She is wet anyway, a raindrop more or less does not matter anymore. As far as she is concerned, the next mobile phone may be more colourfull and not gray which is hardly noticeable on the ground due to the rain and the dark sky. A young man approaches and sees that she is looking for something. He bends down and picks up an object from a pool of water and asks: Maybe this is what you are looking for? In his hand is her mobile phone with quite a crack in the screen. “Yesssss, yes, thank you!!! Oh how glad I am that you found my cell phone. My life is a disaster without it. I need this to survive”, she rattles happily. The boy laughs and asks her name. “My name is Lisa.” She immediately asks: “What is your name?” “Colin”, the boy says and looks at her kindly. For a moment all is quiet. They stand looking at each other in the pouring rain as if time stood still. “Shall we meet again?” Colin asks her. “This unexpected encounter must have a reason, coincidence does not exist, my mother always says.” “Around the corner I have my atelier, near the old fire station, in the street of Marres the house of contemporary culture. Do you know this area?”

A message from Malala

Lisa has just come home from her adventure with the fallen cell phone and the surprising encounter with Colin. Standing in her living room still dripping because of the rain; she is thoroughly wet. Lisa takes a towel from the bathroom to dry her hair. Then quickly switch on the laptop to send Karima a message because she will be worried. It is not like her to just disconnect their phone call without saying goodbye and then not be heard from again. Because of the pool of water wherein the mobile phone has fallen, it doesn’t work anymore. Luckily Lisa has enough rice at home to put her cell phone in. If all goes well, the rice will absorb the moisture and with some luck she can use it again. The crack in the screen is okay, as long as the phone works, otherwise she will need to buy a new one. Well, she has no money to buy another one at this moment. Let’s hope for the best. The laptop has started up. The first thing Lisa sees when she opens her outlook is an e-mail from Malala. How nice! It has been a long time since they wrote each other. But no, first sending a message to Karima, then take a hot shower and put on the lovely lilac terry cloth tracksuit. With a hot chocolate in her hands Lisa starts to read the e-mail of Malala.

Singapore – The Invictus, the invincible

Thanks to Karima Lisa got to know Malala. It is a special story to tell. But first, briefly, how their lives came together. They first met when they were infants. Their parents worked in Singapore for a number of years. Lisa was four years old when she moved there. Her parents soon found an international school that suited: The Invictus, which means invincible. A message of hope for her future. Not only was this a good school, it was also a very pleasant environment and the students were nice. The architecture of the school was simple and graceful, in a beautiful green setting with a clear blue sky. A white wooden building with black frames, which was well maintained, surrounded by palm trees that frame the building like a green heaven with graceful pillars. This is where Lisa first met Karima. She was her age and they sat side by side in the classroom. It remained that way until their 18th year, during the years they became friends of the heart. Karima’s parents had come to live in Singapore from Malaysia. This is the country where Karima was born and their family have lived for many generations. Karima was raised trilingual. Sometimes she speaks a kind of pidgin when she’s angry or happy. That is so funny to hear, in moments like that we are really cracked up with laughter. Lisa speaks three languages fluently: Dutch, English and German. English because English was the main language at the international school; German because her mother is German and Dutch because her father is Dutch. For some years they even learned Chinese, Mandarin to be precisely, together. Anyway, I digress. What matters now is how Lisa got to know Malala.

Gul Makai, the cornflower

Every week at school Lisa and Karima read the weblog of Gul Makai. She is a young writer of 11 years old who wrote on a BBC website about what she experienced as a young girl in Pakistan under the reign of the Taliban. Lisa and Karima were both in the same age as Gul and found it very interesting to read about her life and to talk about it in class. They talked about what it is like if you are not allowed to go to school because you are a girl but when you would like to go. The girl wrote under a pseudonym, Gul was not her real name because it was too dangerous. Than someone found out who she was and tried to kill her, to literally silence her. Fortunately, the attack failed. The real name of Gul was Malala Yousafzai, who was seriously injured but miraculously survived. After a long recovery and many operations in England, she set up the Malala Fund as a thanks for her “new” life. With this fund, Malala is committed to enable every girl and child in the world to go to school. Karima contracted Malala years ago to ask if she could help her with anything. An impulsive action with a small chance of success, which was surprisingly warmly embraced by Malala. Since that moment Karima has been working for the Malala Fund for several years now. While visiting Karima in London some years ago, Lisa first met Malala. It was a nice meeting with a lot of sympathy for each other, and a natural click as you can have with a soul mate. Understanding each other without many words, and sometimes even getting the giggles without knowing why. In recent years they have mainly skyped, unfortunately, because there was no opportunity to see each other. That is how they became good friends.

Malala writes that she is currently setting up an art project that gives young artists all over the world the opportunity to work for a better world by promoting human rights, with the main theme: the right to education. The project is about the importance receiving education for every child. Worldwide she will organize exhibitions with local artists, on a voluntary basis, in collaboration with students of all ages from as many schools as possible. Preferably with the entire local community involved. An idealistic approach. Lisa immediately thinks of Colin who told her less than an hour that he has a studio and is an artist. She sends him quickly an e-mail to make an appointment. Who knows, it might be something for him, if it ties in with what Malala has in mind. Luckily he gave her his e-mail address. Very handy now that her cell phone is not working. The appointment is made quickly. She can come by at the weekend.

Who said the sky isn’t green?

On the stroke of 3 pm, Lisa is standing in front of the entrance to the fire department canteen on the Capucijnenstraat. Colin opens the door and walks up the stairs ahead of her. It’s an old building with soft yellow shiny tiles on the walls that were used a lot in the 1970s. It is apparent that it used to be a fire station. There still is the pole through the floor that fire fighters used to get down quickly when there was a fire. In this place and at this moment it looks more like a work of art from a bygone era, a time machine that you enter and you no longer know yourself in. Colin’s studio is the complete opposite of the outside world she just walked around. As soon as one opens the door, a world full of colour comes into view. It is a decent space with a lot of daylight. Faces are watching you from all sides. Some happy, some sad, some reflective with an endless expression staring into the distance. It is a diverse group of (painted) people of all ages and from several cultural backgrounds. This can be seen in the objects used in the paintings, but also the skin colour can give an indication whether the shape of the face betrays a story from a distant past with a rich history.

Colin says that he records stories he encounters along the way in his life, together with a rough sketch with a pencil or charcoal in his sketchbook of what he has in mind. He regularly addresses passers-by whom he would like to paint or that he may take a picture of them to make a portrait of later. Some women and men even spontaneously offer to pose for him. He had to get used to that, because he actually prefers to be alone when working on his paintings. If possible, he also asks three questions to each of them: Who are your father and mother? What is your favourite colour? and Which object symbolizes you? Based on the answers, he paints the portrait and incorporates the symbolism and colour that emerged from the answers. Then Lisa sees a small painting with a green sky hanging crookedly on the wall somewhere in the corner, just visible behind the coat rack. “Oh”, says Lisa in surprise as she looks at the small portrait. “Isn’t that Malala Yousafzai?” “Indeed”, Colin says with a big smile on his face. “I made this painting just after she was seriously injured by the attack by the Taliban and at the time it was not even sure if she would survive the attack.” “I have great admiration for her”, he says enthusiastically. The courage and enthusiasm she has to dedicate herself to others at the risk of her own life. How she, to put it visually, has risen like a phoenix, after all those heavy operations she has undergone. The title of the painting is: Who said the sky isn’t green?

“How did you get that title?” Lisa asks impressed. Years ago I heard a troubadour sing a song in the streets of Amsterdam, to be precise in the Jordaan. It is about how children are free to colour as they wish, but also how as they get older, everything has to be coloured within the lines and to use the right colours, such as the leaves are green and the sky is blue. The title symbolizes daring to dream, be creative and be brave. Lisa is speechless and knows nothing more to say.

Written by Corina Karstenberg in Maastricht © 2021

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