I’ll admit that something I was rather stressed about when returning to Namibia was the way that my kids would behave in public. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that in general, African kids who live in the sub-Saharan countries are less … hyper … shall we say – than kids from the West tend to be.
And there are plenty of reasons for that, which I won’t go into right now.
So, watching our kids’ reactions to life in some of the poorer parts of the former township areas was very interesting. At first, as we entered the squatter camps, our son came out with “Hey – little houses made of old rubbish! Like metal and tyres and fings. Can I have one like that? So coo-wul!” Then, as it dawned on him that this way of life wasn’t ‘play at tents in the garden’ and that he was face to face with kids who had no shoes, who had only one (dirty) set of clothes, who had no parents, who slept rough, who begged in the streets and who played in the rubbish dumps … he grew a lot quieter.
His sister was unnaturally quiet too. As we stood with friends from the less poor parts of town who were helping us to create a list of the neediest children, my daugher nudged me and asked “What on earth is that lady doing – stamping on that broken old chair?” I glanced over. “Ah – she’s made herself a sort of washing machine. She has to carry the water in and she’s stomping on the soggy blanket to get it clean and using the frame of the chair to help her to do it. Pretty clever eh?”
Nearby her baby was yarking for some more breast milk. The woman noticed us and came over to us, baby now hanging from boobie. She asked us to buy something warm for the child as their winter was approaching “He has just one thing to wear and it’s already cold in the night,” she said to us through a translator.
“What do we do?” I asked my daughter. “We were only supposed to be buying for the school aged children.” “Mum!” she murmured “I’ll buy him something myself. Look – he’s only got one sock!”
Both kids were still adjusting to what they were seeing. In fact, I’d never seen either of them behave so meekly (without being told to.) Sure the day was a scorcher and the adults were talking about dull logistical and political stuff – but my two stood in a corner as they clasped each others hands and stared at the children in front of them. Normally – in England for example – they would be sighing ‘Boooring!’ and ‘Where’s the Monster Munch? I’m ‘ungry!’ or thumping each other. So this was all very unfamiliar behaviour from where I was standing…
It was all about staring. (Not for too long … see my previous posts on ‘eye contact’!) And the brown and black children with holes in their pants and sores on their faces stared back at the funny white children who had such brightly coloured clothes and such pink and sweaty faces.
I think that it took about fifteen minutes for the reality to sink in for my wee english kids – the harsh way of life that these other children were leading. I did experience a moment myself of ‘is this all a bit too traumatic for my two to cope with’? But I soon got over myself. And the kids got over themselves too. But please note that this was not a deliberate ‘I’ll show my kids how flippin’ well grateful they should be’ experiment (ha, no – they’re still ungrateful little monkeys, if you ask me!) Rather, it was a lesson in 2 stages. Stage 1 being ‘Look. Observe. Show, Don’t Tell.’ And Stage 2 being ‘Right. What do we do now? Get your sleeves rolled up.’
For Stage 2, we were going to be People On A Mission! And despite their blood sugar slump and exposure to the midday sun and the shock of what they were seeing – my two didn’t even need to be asked. They sprang into action and began to engage with the children as their parents talked more logistics. The 6 year old was well-impressed “Look – the kids make well coo-wul kites out of old bin liners! And they made a football out of old plastic bags!” Whereas the 9 year old was rather more indignant; “But this is awful! The tiny ones are playing around a rubbish dump? Why has no-one cleaned it up? Mum – you can’t ever moan about our bin-men at home again after this!'”
Thanks to our fantastic friend who lives in Epako, we spent a good hour sorting out which were the neediest of the children that we could help. Many of them were orphans (but more on that tomorrow.) Returning to our friend’s home in a less poor part of the former township (but still very much ‘going without’ by our own standards) my son was bonding very well with the local lads and fully integrating himself into location society – wandering from home to home in the search for playmates.
One of the most ‘telling’ moments for me was when the children playing in the area wanted to ask him about his T shirt. I think that it was also a very revealing moment for my lad too. Sadly, he is a little chap who often feels very hard done to, because his evil Mum and Dad don’t buy him all of the stuff that he thinks that he should possess in terms of superheros, LEGO etc etc. This video clip says it all really. Check out the surprise on his face as he realises that his old T shirt – one of his many Marvel Superhero tops, and his Skylander hat – has utterly fascinated the boys. And that they don’t know who these superheroes are… And oh. How they would LOVE to wear something like that …
The dialogue on the clip here involves my boy trying to explain to them who the heroes are and what they do. His sister correcting him (of course!) And then the both of them attempting to tell jokes to the other kids (who clearly hadn’t a clue what they were on about – but they all laughed lots anyway.)
And that was the brilliant bit for us – bringing the kids had NOT been a mistake. Bringing the kids reminded us just what this was all about … Children just love each other’s company regardless. And they want to share their stuff and to have fun together …