We’re in the backyard of the little compound, and I am swinging one end of a rope that is tied around a tree trunk. Kids are jumping in and out, turning around and touching the ground; more and more of them crowd round and laugh as they try to join in the now-overcrowded jump rope.
‘Mummy, look at me!’ my youngest cries. ‘Look what I can do!’
She’s beaming, her nine-year-old face shining with pride as she runs across the dirt yard beating an old bicycle tyre with a piece of wood. It spins in the dust and she laughs as her new friends clap and cheer her on.
Something stops inside me.
We are in Hawassa, Ethiopia, our little family of four, together with three other people from our church. We are visiting friends of friends that house over seventy children who have nowhere else to go. Some are orphans or born out of wedlock. Some have illnesses or disabilities that mean their parents cannot care for them, or their tribes consider them cursed and they are cast out. Some are abandoned on the steps of hospitals or police stations, and then these people – ESMA Africa – are called, because people know that these people will not turn a child away.
We have been here all of five hours, and already our two children have assimilated into this little tribe. There seems to be no particular distinction between those kids who live in the children’s homes here, and those whose parents run it, and ours too soon blend right in. Ethiopians, Americans, English; all cultural and language boundaries seem to melt away under the heat of this African sun as the children run and play in the yard.
In the children’s home that we visit, toys are sparse; expensive luxuries. It is one boy’s birthday and we go out for ice cream. He is given a small gift by the two families that run these homes: a colouring book and a few crayons. One explains that after a while, most things enter into the communal pot of possessions at the children’s home anyway – the children have a loose grip on owning anything, and instead, most things get shared and passed around. Living in such close proximity to so many other people, the sense of self becomes more blurred here. Everything is everyone’s and everyone is cared for, loved and accepted.
This is my third trip to Africa in twenty years, and I am struck today by the same thing that struck me when I first visited Kenya as a nineteen-year-old: amidst the lack, the poverty and the need, there is a light in people’s eyes – especially children’s – that makes me ashamed of the discontent that I see and feel in my own wealthy, western culture.
In the ‘developed’ world, millions of pounds are spent on researching modern phenomena like childhood depression, anxiety, eating disorders, gaming addictions and cyber-bullying. Worried parents scour the internet, read articles and listen to TED talks. I don’t want to over-simplify or attempt to nullify those very real issues that really do plague many of our young people now, but I do wonder, standing here in the African sun with the dirt beneath my feet and the happy squeal of children echoing in my ears, whether the answer is altogether more straightforward?
Here, hardly anyone has a smartphone – not even most adults. Basics are luxuries, and luxuries are unobtainable. Two pairs of battered, plastic Disney roller skates are passed around the yard, unisex in their usage despite their faded pink and purple colouring. They provide hours of entertainment. We take a stone and scratch a hopscotch square in the dirt and teach the children how to play; they think it is the best game ever.
I watch my own daughter running with that tyre and stick. Two generations back in those post-war years of make do and make-believe, her Grandmother would definitely have played the same games on the streets of East London. But me – her firstborn – and my children, we were raised in this whole new world. It has many benefits, but despite my better judgement, I still find myself succumbing to the social pressures of this new Modern Life. I fret over how to fit in all of the activities that my children do: music lessons, horse riding, swimming, Brownies… And I worry about that which they are not getting to do: how do I get one child to football training and the other to the orchestra that her music teacher is desperate for her to try, because they are at the same time, 10 miles apart in opposite directions, and I am in college anyway.
I wonder, when did we get so caught up in all this stuff? When did planned activity take over from just running loose with a bunch of other kids and making stuff up? Finding a bit of rope and climbing a tree? The kids here have so much less materially than my own, but today, they may have given them something that is beyond that which money can buy: they taught them how to be children again.
And I remembered how to let them be children. Wild, raggedy, joy-filled children.
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