Tag Archives: africa

It’s All In His Head

29 Sep

The other day, I happened to be feeling rather grateful to the wonderful Bill Bryson.

Well, I’ve always felt quite grateful to him actually. As the incredibly talented, witty, top-notch, best-selling author actually WROTE to me when I lived in Africa. In fact – the rather lovely fella has actually sent me TWO letters. It’s great to receive such fan mail, it really is!

Okay, okay – I’m lying about the latter, but neither did the comms from Bill contain a missive from his solicitor, demanding me to abstain from the stalking activities. And I’ve always loved Bill’s style of writing, would have read his stuff anyway – but the fact the chappie took time out to scribble a few lines to me – meant a hell of a lot to a budding writer.  Pure gold, that kind of thing.  So I always do my absolute best to read his books. Brilliant for a laugh and for pithy, social observation.  But this week, I was particularly glad that I’ve just finished reading one of his more recent books. Because I ended up having one of my usual –  rather strange and contorted – conversations with my 8 year old boy. And without Bill’s help, I wouldn’t have been able to interpret it.

I don't imagine that Bill wrote this as a parental self-help manual. But it sure as heck worked for me.

I don’t imagine that Bill wrote this as a parental self-help manual. But it sure as heck worked for me.

The chat with the lad centred on me relating events that took place in 1980.  To cut to the chase, the moral of the story of today’s parental lecture was all about me, trying to persuade the lad not to make ‘unwise’ swaps of toys. Because once you’ve swapsied, most kids don’t want to swap back, yeah? So I told the kid of a similar time in my childhood. That on seeing my flute teacher’s case for her instrument, I had envied it. Because hers had a handle. Mine didn’t. So she offered to swap it – and this was of mutual benefit to both parties.

And even though the handle came in handy (it was MUCH easier to smack my brother over the head with it) I almost instantly regretted the swap. Because just a couple of weeks later after the novelty of this had passed, I noticed that she had a brand new, sleek flute case. And me? I had a scruffy old one. With my brother’s skull-marks imprinted in it. Albeit with a handle, of course.

“Soooooo,” I told my son. “I still look at that flute case today and regret it. I wish I had kept the one I originally had.” He asked me, “So didn’t your teacher ever give it you back?” “No,” I replied.  He snarled and then yelled;”That’s MEAN!” And then? And then he grew suddenly quiet, with a strange and distant look on his face.  “Hang on, though,” I said. “I never asked for it back. I felt silly about asking for it back. I’m sure she would have given it to me, if I had. She didn’t do anything wrong. She was a really nice person!”

He suddenly looked guilty. “Uh-oh,” he said. He wouldn’t respond when I asked him what he meant. I began to wonder what was going on for him. And then – thanks to Mr Bill Bryson and ‘The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid’, I quickly realised why. “I know why you’re looking a bit worried,” I told him. “You’ve just killed my teacher haven’t you? Using your superhuman mind powers. Boys do things like that, don’t they?”

Bless him, he had the decency to look slightly abashed. “Yes,” he replied. “Well!” I answered, “You can just ruddy well bring her back then! If you’ve got the power to kill someone with your mind, you can at least resurrect them. You go to a Church of England school – you believe in that kind of stuff! C’mon! Bring her back!”

“Sorry …” he sang – as he wandered off to find some plastic superhero figure or another with which to entertain himself with; “…when I’ve killed someone with my supreme mind death-ray, they can’t come back. But don’t worry – your teacher would be well-old by now. So she’s probably dead anyway.”

And would you believe me if I told you that this lad has natural charm – in spades?

Nah. Probably not.

The Joy of Boys – Feminist Mamma now thinks twice about nurture vs nature

 

Zip It!

10 Jan

‘Zip It!’ A popular expression in our house. Normally employed for smaller human beings who are gobbing off beyond a reasonable level. But the recent horror of Charlie Hebdo has left me and many other parents that I know, wondering if we now need to be uttering this phrase a bit more at the kids.

Interestingly, it seems to be the more switched on, politically aware, well-read and generous folk who are fretting the most about their children saying or doing something that might offend someone else – in this stoked-up atmosphere of religion, politics and race.

Regular readers of this blog will know that me and mine represent everything that your anti-multiculturalist sorts love to hate. So you might think that I have all of the perfect answers when it comes to discussing such sensitive issues with my kids. In fact, no. No. And I certainly didn’t have all of this off to pat before Charlie Hebdo.  Here are some recent examples of the level of dialogue that has always been ongoing within My Fam:

Scene 1 Namibia (southern Africa). Me, Him and 2 kids.  Driving through a police check-point on the road outside of the Capital. Unlike the rest of us – my 6 yr old lad is a chap of very few words….

10 yr old: It’s not fair! They never stop us. They never search us!

Him: You don’t want to be searched. Look at the people in the cars over there. They’re really naffed off.

10yr old: But it’s not fair! I really wanna get searched! We’ve been through these road-blocks about twenty times now and they never stop us. Why?

6yr old: It’s because we’re white.

Me: Whaaaat?

"I'll swap you a Stop n' Search exemption for the Right to Wee"

“I’ll swap you a Stop n’ Search exemption for the Right to have a Wee”

Scene 2- Namibia (southern Africa) a few days later. Visiting a national monument which is only usually visited by people from the different black ethnic groups. We are desperate for the loo.

10 yr old: This is awful! They keep telling us the wrong way to the toilets and we’ve been back three times now and ask and they still just flap their hand at us and tell us to go the wrong way.

Me: The seem to think that we’re just being a nuisance. We should have gone to the loo before we got here, though. Oooh – I’m bursting!

10 yr old: Well, they’re hardly busy… we’re the only ones here in the car park! Why are they being so rude and unhelpful? I feel like they don’t like us! People! Why aren’t you helping us? Before our Mum wets her pants!

6 yr old: It’s because we’re white.

Me: Pardon?!

Of course, in both of these instances the normally oh-so quiet 6 yr old was making a mere observation. One which very much shocked us. Because of his lack of verbosity, we simply haven’t  sat with him and explained to him issues of race, apartheid, politics etc in the way that his older sibling might have had our attention…

Scene 3Leaving our semi-rural immediate neighbourhood we are now driving through an inner-city suburb, somewhere Up North.

6 yr old: Hey, Mum! I think you’ve got us lost, Mum. Hey!

Confused of Africa? Or of UK?

Confused of Africa? Or of UK?

Me: Why?

6 yr old: Because I think…we’re in Africa

10 yr old: What are you on about? You little weirdo.

6 yr old: Look – outside – everyone’s looking like…we’re in Africa! It’s well cool!

10 yr old: Yeah, right – Stupid! Do I see any giraffes? Or those termite mound things? It’s raining! Are you totally thick, or what?

6 yr old: Well – that one over there in the doorway-thingy is a street child. I think.

10 yr old: It’s a drunken man asleep in a pile of sick! You idiot!

Me: Stop being horrible to your brother. I think he only means that there a lot of black people in this area.

6 yr old: Yes – that’s what I meant. I just never knew there were so many black people in England.

Him: (to Me) Keep him away from the English Defence League and their lot, eh?

6 yr old: (sulking) And anyway. I want to go back to Africa now. It’s better than living with you lot.

Me: (to Him) I don’t think his sentiments lie with the EDF, dear. It’s just his use of language and terminology that we perhaps need to work on…

Scene 4 After a troublesome time in the playground

6 yr old: I don’t like them brown boys. I won’t ever play with them.

Me: (shocked) What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?

6 yr old: I just don’t like them.

Me: But … well. You can’t say that you don’t like ‘brown boys.’ You shouldn’t…

6 yr old: Well I just don’t like any of them.

Me: But you can’t say that! You can’t go round saying things like that. Your cousins are… well – ‘brown.’ Aren’t they?

6 yr old: Yeah. But they’re different. I know them.

(NB – It turned out that what he meant was the Pakistani-British boys all knew each other and he found it hard to break into their games. One week later it was “Mum – I always play with the brown boys now and they’re all my best friends!” “Great,” I replied. “But shouldn’t we maybe not use the word ‘brown?'” Only to be corrected by daughter who goes “Well, my auntie always says she would rather be called ‘brown’ because that’s the shade she is as she isn’t the colour of black or of Pakistani. And calling someone a ‘Paki’ is just nasty and upsets people and like… has gone out with Martin Luther King’s time. Or whatever. Although…I heard someone say ‘that Paki shop’ the other day. But there were old and a bit stupid so you can forgive ’em”)

Scene 5 – Our kitchen. Children sharing out coloured sweets.

10 yr old: I’ve made little piles of the different ones, see? But I’m not having any of the blacks as I hate them…..(thinks)  Oh no!! Did I say something racist, Mum?

6 yr old: It’s okay. I hate the whites. So it all works out fair dunnit?

Got sick of discussing matters of race. So promptly lobbed the bitter lemons back at the grown ups.

Got sick of discussing matters of race. So promptly lobbed the bitter lemons back at the grown ups.

These kind of conversations go on all of the time in most households across the land. And each of these little scenarios were remembered by me – not because the kids said something cute and funny – but because my own reaction felt confused. Blustered. I wanted them to know ‘how we try and say things’ in the adult world. But without doing the whole politically-correct overkill thing on them and without squashing their right to expression and to just be… an innocent little kid.

But sure – there was a bit of me that was thinking ‘Gawd, PLEASE don’t say that in school – will you?’ Even though the school knows us, our background and work etc and probably realise that I don’t stomp around in jackboots of a weekend.

So if I feel like this – with my own family, experiences and interests… how the hell must most other caring and concerned parents feel about what their kids hear, see and say – at this particular moment in time?

I can only remind others (and myself) that all of us – whatever our ethnic or religious background – we are only human if we trot out some ‘corkers’ from time to time. At my Nan’s funeral for example, the Minister said “Edith was the kindest soul ever. Who still clung to what some perceive to be old-fashioned language. But this ‘Blackie Preacher’ knew the love in her heart and the kind of woman that she was, so he never minded the out-moded words.”  And a Pakistani friend told me that on preparing to marry a white woman he was told by his elderly relative “first thing you must do is to teach her to wash her hands properly. If they’re not a muslim, these goras are very dirty.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be panicking and maybe we should be more gentle with the kids and with ourselves. Less of the gut reaction of telling the kids to Zip It (unless they’re calling me a ‘clumsy old tart’ again.) If we are the kind of people who are worried about causing offence then our hearts are already in the right place.

And maybe those of us who genuinley care about this kind of thing are exactly the sort of people who can stop the status quo from worsening. I believe that the attach on Charlie Hebdo was a deliberate act to kick off yet another secular versus religious and racial war.  It didn’t even have as sophisticated an intention as trying to flag up discussions about the freedom of speech. It was an act of contempt and hatred –  spread by psychotic nutters who claim to be religious but who haven’t got a breath of compassion or love left in their bodies. People who are rubbing their hands with glee at the confusion and division that they have created between folk this week and because of whom – hundreds of thousands of more innocent civiliants in the Middle East may well end up losing their lives.*

So let the kids speak. They often make far more sense than the adults do.

*Note the cunning refusal to write ‘muslims’ and ‘non muslims’ there. Because we are all just human beings at the end of the day…

Barclays! Nowt Wrong With a Bit of Chest-Staring!

24 Sep

I was a bit gutted to see that in their latest LifeSkills advert, Barclays have opted for the old ‘C’mon kids! If you can’t make effective eye contact – you’ll be on the job scrap heap forever!’ approach.

I would have hoped that Barclays – given their oodles of dosh – could have thought a little bit longer and a little bit harder before they decided to embrace such an off-the-peg and unhelpful approach to customer service training. The last thing people who really, truly struggle with this issue need is a an advert going out there – telling all and sundry that they are somehow ‘wrong.’

Sure, it’s important to tell young people that *some* people (not me, for example – good grief, no) prefer being looked slam-dunk in the eye when they’re asking you where the tins of baked beans are located.

But it’s equally important not to discriminate against those of us who cannot do this – and who cannot be trained to do this. Whether due to cultural differences or disability issues.

Get the balance right, Barclays!

Get the balance right, Barclays!

So c’mon Barclays! We all liked the nice, chirpy lass who stars in the advert…but please drop the emphasis on Eye Contact Or No-One Will Ever Give You A Job tosh.

(and now to re-blog my original article…)

STOP STARING AT MY CHEST!

Now that I’ve got your attention…

This is a semi-serious post. Yesterday I began a discussion with my daughter about ‘eye contact.’  I was trying to pre-empt some of the social misdemeanours that she might commit when we return to southern Africa. The thing is, my lass has *the* most incredible staring prowess. When we lived in Namibia, she used to freak the locals out. We’d often hear ”Why must your daughter stare at me so much?” and “That kid is scaring me with the way it is looking at me!”

Even the cat buggered off and left home after the babe in arms trumped it in a staring competition.

My girl isn’t being rude. But in certain parts of Africa, as Libertina Amathila (freedom-fighter against apartheid-turned politician) outlines in her autobiography, youngsters in southern Africa are taught that it is a sign of disrespect to hold eye contact with an adult. And yet – when Africans from this tradition meets a westerner  – all too often this comes over as a very negative action to the likes of you and me. This person cannot be trusted. Is shifty.

During the early days of living in southern Africa, I found this lack of eye contact to be distubing. Once (when pregnant and probably feeling even more paranoid than usual) I became convinced that Africans were looking at my crappy footwear. Regarding it with total disgust. Probably thinking “Buy yourself a new pair of shoes, you crazy and scruffy white lady!” But it transpired that they were simply moving their eyes away from my face, then away from my bump – and finally resting on my feet. (Well, this is what my partner explained to me. But the tightwad was probably making an excuse up not to have to treat me to a new pair of shoes.)

And of course, the apartheid system also had an effect on whether a black person dared to hold eye contact with a white person. And the legacy of this still very much remains.

And as I was giving my 9 year old a very nurturing and compassionate mini-lecture providing sage advice such as “so don’t go gawping at people. Okay?” I was reminded of the similarities with regards to misunderstandings about autistic behaviour and eye contact.

Yes wear the Springboks top. But don't GAWP at people. Okay?

Yes wear the Springboks top. But don’t GAWP at people. Okay?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I try to raise awareness of autistic spectrum conditions and of any kind of ‘exceptionality.’  And thanks to initiatives such as World Autism Awareness Day and some of the incredible charities and associated campaigners (with a special nod to Potential Plus UK here) society now knows more than ever about some of the more common autistic traits.

Lack of eye contact is often cited as a key characteristic of autism.  And this is just one of the huge barriers that ‘autie sorts’ really suffer from a lack of understanding about. Classroom teachers – if the signs of autism are more subtle in a child – might well simply write the kid off as being surly or rude, if they don’t make eye contact.  Adults with autism can ‘bomb’ at job interviews, for this reason alone. Even some of the organisations that you might expect a bit more awareness from haven’t clicked just how excruciating it can be for an autie to meet your gaze (The Co-operative retail outlet once asked me in a customer feedback questionnaire ‘Did the till operator make eye contact with you?’ Yes dear reader, you can imagine what my response was….)

And finally – a distressing example – I know of one young man (then undiagnosed autistic) who was mercilessly bullied because he couldn’t look anyone in the eyes. Several of the more immature teenage girls in his classroom took hysterical offence to the fact that his eyes would always drop downwards when talking to them. He’s Staring At My Tits.  Cue regular beatings by the other lads and for the rest of his life being known as ‘weirdo’ or ‘pervert.’

So today on World Autie Day – let’s try and not judge everybody else by the eye-balling Stepford Wives cultural and customer service standards.

Let’s convince ourself instead, that it is polite, it is pertinent and sometimes it is the proper thing to do – to look away and to give someone that extra bit of peeper-space.

(So long as you don’t look at my chest today, poppet because this T-shirt has got gravy stains all down it.)

Longing for School (Kicking Off At The Post Office!)

2 Sep

It’s well depressing for the them, isn’t it? Just look at their mugs on the photo.

Please Mother! We need school! We are tired of being your lackeys!

Please Mother! We need school! We are tired of being your lackeys!

Gawd help ’em. Having to go back to a life of riley where they receive a free education, free nosh (well…if they’re attending an infant school – from this term onwards) and free access to a whole host of adult educators – whether teachers, teaching assistants, admin and secretarial staff, reading helpers, lunchtime supervisors, cooks and caretakers. Crazy folk who seem to want to hang out with the the little critters from 9 am till about 3 ish.

Mad as a bag of frogs these people may be, but they spend their lives educating our children and they deserve way, way more than a medal. ( And the next time that I’m off on one – moaning about how ‘the summer holidays are too long….’ please poke me in the eye and remind me of this.)

Because from what I hear from my teaching professional mates and relatives, these days bringing education to kids in the western world is harder than ever. The all-availability of non-stop TV channels for kids, the never-ending drizzle of the internet and the fact that so many of our bairns have screens all over the show in their homes and carte blanche to do whatever they want to whether it be the X Box or tablet or Playstation or iphone app game gubbins…

Well, it all seems to lead to one things. A nation of kids who are expecting to be entertained with the ‘Wow!’ factor, every second of the day. And generally speaking, learning and retaining information is -and should be – a long and laborious process – both for the pupil and the teacher. The important lessons in life take a bit of time chewing over.

So I reckon that in 20 years time, we might well be beating ourselves up badly as we reflect on how we didn’t police our nippers’ use of screen time effectively enough. How we didn’t take the time to repeat repeat repeat and to use some of the more old-fashioned methods that involve less stimulation and immediate reward. And how we ourselves as adults, perhaps got too hooked, too quickly into soundbite and wow-factor instantanous habits in terms of electronic communication.

My kids – and my family –  have been lucky enough to see the extremes of ‘lack of access to’ media stimulation for children. (See the blogs below where me and my mini funny lass chat about kids, education and life in Africa.) What I didn’t write about in these posts were just how amazed we were to realise how we could cope for several weeks without phones, TVs, internet access and all of that. Sure – I had done this before in Africa – but last time round and living there, it was sans kids. When you have the nippers – its so much easier to reach out for Mr Tumble or Walt Disney to babysit the little varmints…

So, back to why the kids are looking like miserable little critters in the photo. This was actually meant to be a HAPPY photo. It was meant to be a “look – we are sending our first parcel of comics to the kids in namibia and aren’t we proud of ourselves and everyone who has helped us!” shot.  But we were all rather weary by this point. This was the last day of the school holidays. Following on from our African experience, the kids have had a no-TV and no screen time during the weekdays rule  imposed on them. And only limited access at the weekends.

Actually, it really has worked very well for all of us. Time in the garden, time playing with friends and grandparents, time making up games and plays. Best of all – time READING BOOKS. But please don’t think that I have turned into one of those sanctimonious parents who wants to tell you what a wonderful job of parenting I am doing. That the TV is evil etc etc. The simple fact for me, is that I actually much prefer the company of my kids when their brains haven’t been mashed by the screens. They are nicer. They are less wound-up. They are less gobby.  We have less arguments about moving them away from the screens.

My other half actually calls this approach our ‘Reverse Psychology Summer Strategy’. i.e. “We don’t let them have access to anything quick and fun. We give them loads of dull ‘down time’ like we used to have in the summer holidays when we were kids. We ignore them. We take them on boring shopping trips to Boots. We tell them that we have important work to get done. We make them clean cupboards. And at the end of the six weeks they are utterly sick of the sight of us and desperate to get back to school.”

So the photo above? They were pretty much sick of the sight of me by this point.  And also – I was rather at my wit’s end too – having just shrieked “This is a Post Office for God’s Sake! It’s not a playground! Everyone in the queue is staring at you! Just behave yourselves! Our entire village will be down the police station trying to get you ASBO’d if you don’t pack it in!’

Ah the bliss of packing them off with a an un-ironed jumper and an illegal Twix bar in the lunchbox this morning…

 

Them in Their DARK Corner …

3 Jun

(Part 2)

Bit of a play on some very old-fashioned words to a hymn there …

One of my strongest memories of living and working in Namibia is of waking up just after dawn and hearing small children a-singing. These were the lucky ones who had a school to go to – walking long distances in order to reach their lessons. Their favourite songs as they marched along were ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me! This I know.’  Both of them are huge hits with kids in southern Africa – a product of the old-fashioned missionary school approach.

I also grew up with these songs ringing in my ears. If you were not fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough according to my husband) to have been born n’ bred into a world of Sunday Schools – you probably won’t be aware that the words of that particular hymn, ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’, are all about light and darkness.

In the midst of planning the Great Trek Back to Namibia I was teaching the words of this song to both of my children (whilst my husband griped in the background; “Please! No more! I can’t stand it! Sing your Robbie Williams stuff. Or even Andrew Lloyd Webber instead, if you have to!”) and it suddenly occurred to me to explain to the kids about how stark the contrast is between the light and the dark in southern Africa.

Darkness, even in the height of the summer, falls fast. So, those of us who love our evening BBQs (or ‘braais’ as they are called in southern Africa) wouldn’t be able to see much after 7pm there. And for the families who dwell in shacks in the former townships – especially those in the poorest parts of the areas known as ‘the informal settlements’ or ‘the squatter camps’ –  their lives are ruled by a simple lack of control over the light and the darkness.

Where there is no electricity, you are forced to use candles. Where you use candles, the reality of a shack fire and horrific injuries and death are all too real. And because more often than not, in these kind of conditions, the only toilet available is named ‘Go In The Bush’, those of us who are used to slurping our Horlicks at 9pm would be considered to be nutters to set the bladder up for such a test.

So, imagine that you are a small child. Infant school age.  And that you need to pee desperately in the middle of that darkness. Sure, the stars and the moon shine far more brightly in Namibia than in Yorkshire but would you want to take the risk of leaving the shack and the grown-ups and hopping out to the bush for a quick widdle? Snakes…scorpions…wild dogs. And the rest.

Of course – the alternative would be to wet your pants. Or the worn-out blanket that you share with your brother and sister. But you only have one pair of pants. And no running water for your mum to clean the blanket in the morning. You wouldn’t dare to be so silly.

This is the scenario that I regaled my children with (yes – I’m a laugh a minute to be around, sometimes!) But before you think of calling social services and reporting me for being a morose old bag – the conversation (and the dreadful hymn singing) actually developed into a new idea.

“Why don’t they have torches there?” one of my two asked me (I can’t remember which child, thankfully. Good job really, as they’d no doubt start squabbling over Intellectual Property Rights or something.) So, I explained about the lack of money to buy incredibly expensive things like batteries for a torch.

And then we hit on The Bright Idea. Wind-up torches! Everyone loves a wind-up torch (“Well – the slugs don’t do they? When they see Daddy out there on his midnight slug patrol. Daddy is so weird about his cabbages…”) But yes – wind-up torches for those of us who happen to live in much more affluent countries are a great deal of fun. They are oh-so handy and also quite easy to carry in suitcases …

But much more importantly – the more wind-up torches available, the less reliance on candles, the less scary (or lethal) ‘what could I be crouching on?’ moments in the bush and certainly a greater sense of safety for people who need to be outside during the dark hours.

So we sent an appeal letter to each child’s school. Not only did we end up with donations of over 60 wind-up torches but we were blessed with all kinds of flourescent and glowing implements – bracelets, stickers, small toys etc for the children in Namibia (Netherton Infant and Nursery School and South Crosland Juniors and their parents … you are bunch of little champions!)

(Part Two of the challenge was this; handling dozens of small torches and trying to convince customs officials in 3 different airports during a period of 24 hours – that you are not trying to either a) build yourself a bomb whilst in transit or b) set up a ‘Glowing Thing’ business when you arrive at your port of call. But I won’t bore you with that side of things.)

Suffice to say that the torches arrived and were distributed by us in the poorest corner of Epako in Gobabis,  a place that contains over 5,000 people and yet you won’t find on your maps of Africa (but more on why that is, tomorrow) and yes, not a single child or adult knew what these gadgets were.

But you should have seen the grin on their faces when the light dawned.

Thanks for bringing them the lights, you lot.

MORE TOMORROW …

But the darkness falls, fast. And these kids don't want to have to go and pee in the bush, in the dark.

But the darkness falls, fast. And these kids don’t want to have to go and pee in the bush, in the dark …

 

 

Stop Staring At My Chest!

2 Apr

Now that I’ve got your attention…

This is a semi-serious post. Yesterday I began a discussion with my daughter about ‘eye contact.’  I was trying to pre-empt some of the social misdemeanours that she might commit when we return to southern Africa. The thing is, my lass has *the* most incredible staring prowess. When we lived in Namibia, she used to freak the locals out. We’d often hear ”Why must your daughter stare at me so much?” and “That kid is scaring me with the way it is looking at me!”

Even the cat buggered off and left home after the babe in arms trumped it in a staring competition.

My girl isn’t being rude. But in certain parts of Africa, as Libertina Amathila (freedom-fighter against apartheid-turned politician) outlines in her autobiography, youngsters in southern Africa are taught that it is a sign of disrespect to hold eye contact with an adult. And yet – when Africans from this tradition meets a westerner  – all too often this comes over as a very negative action to the likes of you and me. This person cannot be trusted. Is shifty.

During the early days of living in southern Africa, I found this lack of eye contact to be distubing. Once (when pregnant and probably feeling even more paranoid than usual) I became convinced that Africans were looking at my crappy footwear. Regarding it with total disgust. Probably thinking “Buy yourself a new pair of shoes, you crazy and scruffy white lady!” But it transpired that they were simply moving their eyes away from my face, then away from my bump – and finally resting on my feet. (Well, this is what my partner explained to me. But the tightwad was probably making an excuse up not to have to treat me to a new pair of shoes.)

And of course, the apartheid system also had an effect on whether a black person dared to hold eye contact with a white person. And the legacy of this still very much remains.

And as I was giving my 9 year old a very nurturing and compassionate mini-lecture providing sage advice such as “so don’t go gawping at people. Okay?” I was reminded of the similarities with regards to misunderstandings about autistic behaviour and eye contact.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I try to raise awareness of autistic spectrum conditions and of any kind of ‘exceptionality.’  And thanks to initiatives such as World Autism Awareness Day and some of the incredible charities and associated campaigners (with a special nod to Potential Plus UK here) society now knows more than ever about some of the more common autistic traits.

Lack of eye contact is often cited as a key characteristic of autism.  And this is just one of the huge barriers that ‘autie sorts’ really suffer from a lack of understanding about. Classroom teachers – if the signs of autism are more subtle in a child – might well simply write the kid off as being surly or rude, if they don’t make eye contact.  Adults with autism can ‘bomb’ at job interviews, for this reason alone. Even some of the organisations that you might expect a bit more awareness from haven’t clicked just how excruciating it can be for an autie to meet your gaze (The Co-operative retail outlet once asked me in a customer feedback questionnaire ‘Did the till operator make eye contact with you?’ Yes dear reader, you can imagine what my response was….)

And finally – a distressing example – I know of one young man (then undiagnosed autistic) who was mercilessly bullied because he couldn’t look anyone in the eyes. Several of the more immature teenage girls in his classroom took hysterical offence to the fact that his eyes would always drop downwards when talking to them. He’s Staring At My Tits.  Cue regular beatings by the other lads and for the rest of his life being known as ‘weirdo’ or ‘pervert.’

So today on World Autie Day – let’s try and not judge everybody else by the eye-balling Stepford Wives cultural and customer service standards.

Let’s convince ourself instead, that it is polite, it is pertinent and sometimes it is the proper thing to do – to look away and to give someone that extra bit of peeper-space.

(So long as you don’t look at my chest today, poppet because this T-shirt has got gravy stains all down it.)

Yes wear the Springboks top. But don't GAWP at people. Okay?

Yes wear the Springboks top. But don’t GAWP at people. Okay?

 

Pack ‘Em Off?…

6 Jan

This child appreciated her mother's efforts with the packed lunch...

First day back at school.  We were all rather gleeful. Three weeks trapped in British homes in British weather over the festive season is a tad too much familial familiarity for anyone.

Well, after carrying out the usual school-bag search at tea time. I found a letter.  Addressed to me. From the dinner lady (or Lunchtime Fuhrer – or Technician. Or whatever they call them these days). It was with reference to my daughter.  And a dinner-time incident: *

“Just to let you know.  She didn’t drink much of the cooking oil.  We gave her two cups of water straightaway and then she said she didn’t feel very sick anymore after that.

Yes, on the first morning back – I had made a big blooper.  Neither of my kids will drink fruit juice of any kind (no – not because I am on some mission for purified water or something – the odd little blighters will only drink milk, or water from a tap).  Anyway. They don’t like to feel different – so I give them both delicious and FREE tap water (or ‘Corporation Pop’ as dear old Auntie Millie used to call it).   This finest Yorkshire beverage is lovingly siphoned into an old ‘Fruit Shoot’ bottle every morning.

Only this morning I screwed up.  I grabbed what I (foolishly thought) was a full bottle of water already filled by the father of the gang.  ‘Blimey’ I was thinking ‘He’s ahead of the game this morning’….  So I seized the butty box from the fridge and stuffed it into my lassie’s schoolbag.

Turned out that it wasn’t water. It was cooking oil. On our wee self-catering trip away over the New Year, I had been (unusually organised) and had made up a small bottle of cooking oil. In an old Fruit Shoot bottle.  I had even put a big label on it that said ‘COOKING OIL’.

So who was the daftest brush? Me for grabbing the bottle anyway – regardless of the genius labelling? Or my daughter for drinking the damned thing? (because she CAN read those words now.  But her excuse was ‘I was talking to my friends mummy! We do DO that at dinner-time!!’)

Either way, I confess that I felt rather embarrassed and guilty at making such a bizarre mistake.  But it could have been worse I suppose (like the time when I myself was 7  – at a family ‘do’ – and Auntie Janet ‘forgot’ that she had mixed a whole load of vodka in with a family sized bottle of Coca Cola and all of the adults present kept saying to me ‘Oh stop bloody moaning and being so fussy. Of course things taste different sometimes at other peoples’ houses! Don’t be so ungrateful!’)

After he had managed to stop choking on his Sherbet Dib-Dab (don’t ask) my husband suggested that we write back to the dinner lady, pretending to be offended and telling her that ‘As our daughter was born in Africa, we have always tried to bring her up using the customs and practices that we embraced whilst living there. Consequently our children drink cooking oil on weekdays and at weekends they are allowed beer as a special treat.  So please do not impose your western cultural so-called ‘superior’ values on my  family’s chosen dietary habits. Thank you.’ **

However, on reflection, I felt that it might be best not to employ our usual sarcastic sense of humour on this occasion.  After all, the school are still struggling to get their heads around the fact that our daughter’s use of the term ‘Coloured’ – to describe some of her pals in southern Africa – was not actually a result of our family looking up to Alf Garnet as some kind of role model.  In fact, the school clearly found it difficult to believe that there actually IS a defined ethnic group who are known as ‘Coloured’ in that region. ***

(NB  –  this part of the conversation between the two of us was generated by the recollection that – hey, yeah – we DID give her cooking oil as a toddler when we lived in Africa.  This was on the advice of our African friends – to cure chronic constipation. And yes – it did help actually.)

But I digress. I hold my hands up! I was rushing about like a madwoman.  The fallout was highly embarrassing.  But I bet the dinner ladies had a good old laugh at my expense.   And why not? It’s a crappy time of year after all.  And we need more laughter in the world. Especially if you are a dinner lady and you’re paid sod all in comparison to the teachers. Plus you don’t get paid out of term-time…

So.  Parents.  If you are responsible for sending your kids to school with packed lunches – set yourself a challenge once a week and see if you can get away with packing something a little ‘bit different’.  Or something that may just cause chronic childhood obesity in the space of 20 minutes.  And if the dinner ladies don’t notice your neglectful/abusive packed lunch – threaten to sue the school.  You never know.  They might offer YOU a week of free school meals or something as compensation!  The horrific experience may well politicise you as it did that lovely Jamie Oliver bloke…

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* Note to all Southerners – Up North many of us still refer to the meal between the hours of 12 noon and 2pm as ‘dinner’.  Always have – always will. Get over it.

** African chums – of course, I am joking about you lot drinking cooking oil and giving beer to the kiddies.  But I am following the rather wonderful African tradition of making up a load of  hillarious fibs that I witnessed many an indigenous peoples’ group relating to unsuspecting (and annoying) western anthropologists who would truck up for a few days and ask them some stupid questions…. YOURS is the kind of sense of humour I appreciate the most (i.e. ‘Oh yes!  Every 3rd Tuesday we always swap huts – and husbands. That way we all appreciate our own things a bit more’). How many PhDs have been awarded, based on complete and utter made-up tosh eh? Eh? Plenty. Believe me.

*** And DON’T get me onto what happened when my daughter was trying to tell her class about the ethnic group in Namibia called ‘The Basters’. The teachers are still in denial about that one..