In Uganda I find many similar customs to those in the U.S. but often with an interesting cultural twist. One that I find both amusing and endearing is the children’s lore surrounding the loss of a tooth. Of course, Americans have the Tooth Fairy who comes in the night to collect the teeth carefully placed under the child’s pillow. We know that the tooth Fairy collects the tooth and leaves in its place whatever amount of money the parent, who sneaks in after the child is asleep to act out the role of the Fairy, deems an appropriate exchange rate for a tooth.

Ugandans don’t have a tooth fairy. What they do have is the Tooth Rat. This is in keeping with the culture where one of the local denizens of the countryside is substituted for the perhaps more Western magical fairy. However, I find the story of the Tooth Rat to be charming and somehow more  authentic. Of course, I am saying this about a rat who sneaks in by night and exchanges a small amount of money for a child’s tooth, so take my use of the word “authentic” however you want. It amazes me that parents in both these disparate cultures support a very similar conspiracy to prop up their children’s sense of wonder, imagination and hope in the unseen forces in the world around them.

My interpreter and driver, and key team member in Uganda, Samuel, first told me this tale. He said when it came time to introduce his daughter to the harder truths of this life, that is, that there really is no tooth rat who comes to buy her lost teeth, she would have none of it. She responded as follows:

“No, Daddy, there is a tooth rat. These rats, they labor hard day and night in the market, selling the teeth they have collected. That’s where they get the money for more teeth. I know he is real. You are wrong. The Tooth Rat takes the tooth and takes it to the market and sells it! I just know it.”

How can you argue with such conviction? Better not to, I think, for soon enough our children will mature by themselves beyond the stories of their childhood and face the many realities of life as well as the many benefits and joys of adulthood. But these stories develop in our younger selves a deep appreciation for the real stories, the true stories of our heritage, the legacy of our forefathers, of the Scripture, and our history. These stories and our ability to hear them and tell them develop in us our own skill in passing them on to our children.

So I hereby nominate the Tooth Rat to take his or her place in the pantheon of child heroes alongside Saint Nick, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Leprechauns, Elves, Hobbits and all such wonders of our children’s secret worlds that foster their imaginations and strengthen their ability eventually to sort out true story from legend. I believe such little fantasies as the charming Tooth Rat  build into our children a deep and early sense of appreciation for that unseen realm of the spirit that they will inhabit as adults after making their commitment to Christ. For it is Jesus who said of those who belong to Him, “They are in the world, but they are no longer of the world.” And it is Jesus, after all, Who taught about the Kingdom of God by telling the most famous stories in the world.

For an interesting sidebar on the tooth rat, see “The Tooth Rat vs. The Tooth Fairy” at http://www.empowerafricanchildren.org/the-tooth-rat-vs-the-tooth-fairy/.