Sunday, June 15, 2014

Grabbing the Rope

     The letter m before certain words denotes the singular. For example, mwalimu is a teacher, one teacher. Mtoto means a child, one child. Shamba is the word for farm, and while mkulima is the word for farmer, mshamba is a derogatory term for someone "just off the farm", basically, a hick. Washamba  is the plural form.
Dirty, dusty village kids.

     My daughter in law, Sarah, has remained behind in the village with her kids while I deal with my problems here in the States. She's doing a fabulous job and I am so proud of her. She didn't have to stay when I left so unexpectedly, and I would not have faulted her if she had left with me. But she chose to stay and continue teaching; pretty brave, if you ask me. Especially with a 5 year old and a 6 year old to take care of.

     There have been good days and bad, like any job. The St. Mary's kids are sweet, fun and absolutely adore her. They will do anything for her. Some even call her Mommy, and will be heartbroken when she leaves. The village kids are another matter altogether. So what's the difference? Why are some of the village kids so washamba and the St. Mary's kids so "normal"? Are the St. Mary's kids basically better people? Are they basically smarter? No and no. The difference is they have been taught.

My son, Asa, helping Neema onto the swing.
Most of the kids in this picture are St. Mary’s kids.

     My son put up a rope swing in our back yard, which began as a wonderful thing. Word got out all over the village and soon kids started coming around. We welcomed them at first, because there is little for the kids to play with in the village. There's sticks and mud and other things lying around, and they're very creative with these, but an actual swing was a marvel to them. It was huge fun at first, especially with my big, hairy son out there playing with them and supervising. But he went back to the US for work and things got out of hand, 4 or 5 kids on the rope, kids pulling and shoving to get a turn, pulling kids off the swing. That kind of stuff. 

They’re dirty, dusty, and everywhere.

     We told them that they were welcome to play on the swing, and with the tub of toys Sarah and Asa brought with them. We told them the rules. They stole the toys, they pushed my grandkids off the swing, as well as their friends, (these are equal opportunity hellions). It's not all of them, just a select few, like it is everywhere, but they run away when we yell at them, and basically one dirty, dusty, village kid looks like all the other dirty, dusty, village kids. They're fast and impossible to catch.
You can see why we can't tell them apart.
They’re all some shade of brown, them and their clothes, and the dirt.

     We tried dealing with it like you would any other problem. We rounded them up and talked to them, explaining the rules again, and for a bit that worked. But there's one swing and sometimes 30 kids waiting to use it. So that wasn't a screaming success. Then we made a rule that only St. Mary's kids could come over, as they are generally more well behaved. That also worked for a while, but the other kids came back. We sent Ruth out to talk to them in Kiswahili, and she threatened them with seven kinds of hell, which worked for a bit. We have made the St. Mary's kids monitors (which they love), but that hasn't worked. Lately Sarah has taken to chasing them with a stick. Yep, it's come to that. A stick they understand, but they still come back. I suggested they put up a swing in the village, but Sarah doesn't want to reward their mshamba behavior with a swing of their own. I personally just see it as a viable alternative. 

     So the swing will come down, which is sad. What is even sadder is that the kids didn't learn to behave well enough to stay. They dropped the rope.

Some kids playing at the river.

     Let me tell you about the life of a village kid. They spend the first year or so strapped to their mothers back. If there is an older sibling, and there usually is, and that kid can walk, the baby will spend a good portion of the day on the slender back of a very young dada or kaka (sister or brother). This is so the mother can work. Childcare is not considered a man's job, and you rarely see a man holding a child. So the mtoto, when he can walk, becomes part of an  amorphous gaggle of kids roaming the village. I will state here that the old saying about it taking a village to raise a child is crap. Basically these kids raise themselves. I have seen 2 and 3 year old kids roaming about totally unsupervised, while their mom is at the shamba. In general, this is a benign form of neglect, born out of poverty. There is no daycare, and people need to work. There is very little to hurt them in the village, and they all run around together and take care of each other. Big kids will pick up little kids who fall, or not, but there is safety in numbers so nobody pays them much attention. They're like the chickens and goats who live here; they know where they live and go home at night when it's time to eat.
This beautiful girl is Pili.
She’s about 14, and had to stop going to school at
Std 2 because her father died. Her life will be very hard.

     Many of these kids don't attend school. Government schools are supposed to be free, but there is a contribution fee, and a child must have a uniform and shoes, so many don't go. They just hang around the village all day with nothing constructive to do. Some leave school because a parent dies and they never go back. Their fates are sealed. Without an education, nothing, absolutely nothing, will happen  to improve their lives. I know Abe Lincoln was self taught and wrote his letters in the dirt blah, blah, blah. This isn't happening here. Sometimes kids who don't go to school watch our kids through the windows. Sad. 
Putting up play electricity poles.
     Our school kids are generally well behaved, but it wasn't always that way. We've been nagging them for over three years, and it's working. We do have a small group of kids that I would call mshamba, but they are new and will catch on. People tell us they can see that our kids are different, but we teach them how to behave, and when they do well, we acknowledge it. In the village, what a child does well is not just unrewarded, it's unnoticed. But let them step over a line and it comes down on them fast and hard. Hence the speed with which they flee. Life for a kid here is very free, they run around and play and have fun. The downside of this freedom is a lack of guidance that does not come in the form of a stick. I repeat, as I will throughout this letter, that most of the kids are just sweet, good kids, but the few that aren't….
Mud play.

     As they grow, they learn what needs to be done, again, because the stick awaits if they misstep. But that leaves us with kids that, while generally compliant and happy, are unready or unable to join in and "act right". They have no concept of waiting in line, or waiting their turn. Everything is a competition, even going to the toilet, and the toilet smells like someone popped the lid off of hell. I personally wouldn't be so anxious to go there.  Most of them are like clay, they can be molded. They don't mind either, because then they can play on the swing. 
This is where 2 of our students live.
It’s hard to expect much from a kid who lives like this.

     You've heard of the refugee mentality. Well, this is similar. There is never enough, so if you want your share, you need to compete. If I threw a donut in the middle of the village, they would pile up like a bunch of halfbacks. I'm not kidding. This is hard for us to understand because we have enough, we have more than enough. The sweet thing is that the kid who did get the donut would share it with his friends. I see this daily, kids sharing a small piece of something  with a group of friends. Everyone gets a tiny piece and all is well. 

     This has been a real heartbreak for Sarah, who wants to love them all and help  them. The sad fact is that a lot of these kids won't be helped. There are too many of them, and too few of us. These kids start life behind the 8 ball, and for most of them, that's exactly where they will stay. And this is precisely why a good education is so vital. I'm not talking about a government school where the teachers beat the kids at will, don't show up for class, or don't teach when they do show up. I'm talking about a system that actually helps a kid be a thinking child who grows into a thinking adult. 
Village kids playing some kind of hopscotch.
Always wash your fruit before you eat it.

     I am sad about the swing, it was a good opportunity to make friends and have fun. I'm thinking that when I return I will start an after school program for kids who need help with math and reading. We had already started before I left, but Sarah had to stop it because of all the kids misbehaving. I, however, am not even a fraction as nice as Sarah; it's not a family trait, and nothing to which I aspire. I don't give even a tiny rat's ass if they love me. I can also yell at them in their own language. And I don't have 2 kids to take care of, let's not forget that. 

     I plan to start with the St. Mary's kids and a few village kids, and the swing will go back up. But more as a reward for work done. The only difference between our kids and the village kids was an opportunity. As I try to help my son here, I have developed a mantra. If someone throws you a rope, GRAB THE %$^&^$#$% ROPE. And if the rope is a rope swing, get in line and don't push.
The rope swing.