By Tam Kemabonta
I often take walks, most of the time around my neighborhood and sometimes a little bit further. It was recommended, so as to avoid complications from an idiopathic condition that does not even have a name. So in the past month I have had to try to avoid a sedentary life style. I would be at my study table for hours, and then remember: O! I need to take a walk. Most times I take my walks at different intervals in the day, but on those days I lose track of time, night time becomes viable.
15 years ago, the vicinity I live was dotted with small rural settlements and large forests, till the urban planning goons invaded the place. There was enough land, so to avoid reprisals by the local communities, the city planners developed designs around the villagers’ homesteads – avoiding their existing spaces. So within the suburban panorama of the place now, there exists ramshackle and improvised living quarters all around the place. Everyone lives symbiotically. The locals provide small businesses that make the suburban dwellers survive, and the locals survive on the income they get. Still the way of life between the locals and the suburban dwellers are light years away from each other. One would notice that many of these locals could care less about sending their children to schools irrespective of the fact that the schools are available. Their children take on a trade at a certain age, and continue as their parents before them. The primitive form of the master-apprentice relationship holds sway. Many times these children do not see themselves being anything more than the present state of things.
I do not intend to make any judgement about this, based on the fact that the country I live in is a cesspool of inequality and institutionalized corruption. I only present this preamble to set light to what I intend to discuss – an observation I made taking a walk one fateful night.
That night I had walked a couple of meters, and then I decided to stand at a little corner on the road to rest and observe people (yes, observing silently the dynamics of human life fascinates me). There wasn’t much artificial lightning, so apart from the light the moon gave everywhere was dark. Just a couple of yards to me, a young boy of about 4 years old ran out of a kiosk. He was holding an empty paint plastic container. He set it to the floor quickly, placed a nylon on it and sat down to defecate, right there close to the road, in sight of anyone who walked by. This was a normal sight among the locals. Good sanitary hygiene is a privilege for the adults who have outgrown the shamelessness of childhood. Then, after what may have been five minutes a girl of about 7 years ran out of that store. “so ti pari” she said in Yoruba; meaning: have you finished? Then she goes to him, in a seamless fashion that can only suggest constant practice, stands him up, bends him over, uses water from a bottle to clean him up, packs the nylon, carefully wraps it into a dustbin sack and walks back into the kiosk holding the boys hand – just as a mother would have done. I would come to realize that these children, like the 7 year old girl were adults in all but age. They had no time for toys; they help their parents sell in the shops, help to cook and take care of younger ones whom would very soon start to do the same for their own younger siblings.
This display that day got me thinking along the lines of what it meant to be a child, and the very concept of childhood itself.
Childhood is a universal concept, but its experience with respect to the child has to do with the social construct the child contains. That is, as a physiological developmental phase, childhood is universal, but what it means to be a child would differ from place to place. We can make our children become world-class athletes before they become teenagers, subjecting them to rigours that should only be for adults or we could allow them explore the world with innocence and develop into adults of their own accord with only guidance from us.
Should this 7 year old girl be left to engage in the chores of a mother, when she should just be allowed to be a child? This was the question in my mind. Would this kind of social construct help this child to become an adult of stellar qualities?
Many adults today have a pessimistic view of the world because, according to some of them, they had no childhood; they have no memories of themselves being carefree. They were not given the opportunity to be innocent before they were thrown into the debauched world of adulthood. When are we going to reclaim the rights of our children to be children?
So where do we go from here? Though the quality of the public school system is in shambles – a different problem on its own – I propose an enlightenment campaign aimed at the parents of these children. These parents need to see that their children can be more if given the opportunity to truly be children. We could establish the best systems for the enhanced experience of childhood within our social constructs, but if the mentality, norms and stereotypes are not changed, little progress can come out of it.
I remain hopeful that indeed childhood is not an endangered concept; because from endangerment comes extinction and if it gets to that there is no telling what the generations unborn would become.