Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Raising Little Foreigners: "Give Me That Ball"


This is the first in a my "Raising Little Foreigners" blog series.  It's simply my observations about raising children in a different culture.  I firmly believe that no one way of bringing up kids is superior to the next, and that we all have a lot to learn from one another.   I feel privileged (and often confused) to experience multiple answers to the question of how to bring up humans. 

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Caleb and I walk down the craggly Kenyan road, one of his little hands in mine and the other clutching his prized soccer ball. 

A man is coming our way, looking at Caleb, his ball, and smiling.  I brace myself for the inevitable, and he says it:

“Habari mtoto. Give me that ball.”

“No!!” screams Caleb and clutches his ball even closer.

“It’s mine, I want that ball.” Counters the stranger.

“No!! Ni yangu!!” (it’s mine) Caleb asserts, hoping the Kiswahili will make his message clearer, because this man is not quite getting it. He runs behind me, frustrated and a bit scared. 

The stranger laughs good-naturedly at this display and chases after him saying, “I don’t have a ball.  Give me yours.”

“NOOOOO.  It’s MIINNE!!!” Caleb screams, completely at his wits end.

“Ok, Ok.” concedes the stranger and walks off laughing at what he perceives to be a funny exchange. 

I’m not kidding when I say that this interaction has repeated itself near daily, as if there’s a federally required script.  We cannot pass a Kenyan with Caleb holding something and NOT hear “Give me that ….”  

Since Emmet’s been with us, it’s been “Give me that baby.”

This “give me your ball” exchange used to unnerve not only Caleb, but his mom. I was stuck between feeling simultaneously exposed and protective. Clearly, this game is part of typical adult-child daiologue, and Caleb, screaming vitriol at the unsuspecting person, is going way off script.  It marks us as more foreign than is already obvious, the objects of laughter. I sometimes end up apologizing or explaining that “he’s just shy.”   

At the same time, STOP TAUNTING MY CHILD!!

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Every country has rules (written and unwritten) about how to interact with other people’s children. 
In the US, teachers used to be able to whack your kids’ bottoms with a ruler.  Now a hug from a teacher could prompt a sexual abuse allegation and a stern warning from a neighbor to “quiet down!” could lead to a Hatfields vs. McCoys situation.

Point is, other than a benign game of peek-a-boo, in the US, there’s pretty much an unspoken “hands off” policy, when dealing with other people’s children.  

In my experience, it’s pretty much the opposite here in Kenya.

There’s a sense here that every kid is everyone’s responsibility. The old “it takes a village” cliché permeates everything. I’ve seen virtual strangers pick up each other’s children to comfort them when they fall, grab babies from each other’s arms without asking, and admonish (and even physically punish) other people’s kids when they misbehave.  It’s seems expected and even appreciated.  It’s certainly a way to share the burden of childrearing.  

So, what does all this have to do with the whole, “give me your ball” exchange?

I think “give me your ball” from a stranger here is much like the “I’ve got your nose” taunt from a favorite uncle at home.  There’s no reason to be scared of a little gentle teasing from a loving uncle.  The teasing is just a way to relate, to interact.

I’m guessing that the “give me your ball” game serves the exact same purpose, and works because adults are viewed by children, in some ways, as extended family.

I’m happy to report that Caleb finally seems to get this dynamic.

Just the other day,  Caleb was playing on his toy motorbike, and a visitor to the compound asked him to “give me your bike.”

Instead of feeling threatened, Caleb simply coyly hunched up his shoulders, smiled a “noooo” – the kind of a “no” that is followed by a silent “you silly man”- and even let out a playful laugh.  And it felt really nice to finally be a bit more a part of this web of playful aunts and uncles.  

OK.  This is NOT the motorbike he was riding. In that case, the "give me your motorbike" might have been more of a stick up than a taunt.  It's the guard of our compound's bike that he lets Caleb play on.  Kind of makes the same point though.

Linking this up with a fantastic group of writer/blogger. Click the link below to find some posts that I'm going to guarantee (you heard it hear) will make you laugh and some that will leave a lump in your throat. Come back Thursday to vote for your favorite.

30 comments:

  1. Pepper spray the taunters

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    1. No need. The point is, they are not trying to be cruel, it's part of way people seem to interact with children here who for the most part get that it's gentle teasing. Being outsiders Caleb (or I) didn't quite know what to make of it. But, it's all in good fun and Caleb now gets it.

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  2. I love that he is wearing a "rookie" shirt on the bike :) This will be a great series - I'm really looking forward to more! It's good to write these things down that after some months or years really become part of "normal life", but when you/we first moved, they're so bizarre!

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    1. Totally agree! Already there are things that I once thought were bizarre that I barely even notice enough to comment on. I only notice them again when someone visits or I come back from a long visit home. So, I'm forcing myself to write them down...

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  3. What an interesting insight to another culture. Thank you. your posts are a window onto the world. I think you are right on in your comparison to the "give me your nose" gag. Keep on bringing us your great stories, Erin

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  4. I find this so fascinating. And you tell a story so well.

    I've said this to you before, but I really enjoy your posts and getting a peek into another life, another culture. I learn and laugh every time.

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    1. Thanks for this Heidi. I'm glad you're enjoying my posts. It means a lot coming from you, soon to be published author and all! (And one of my favorite bloggers!)

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  5. totally crazy!! but explained, it makes sense and... i kinda dig it. :)

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  6. Interesting insight into another world...thanks for sharing!

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  7. Hmmm interesting! A big cultural shift for you.

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  8. Stopping by from YeahWrite - I spent 4years in Africa (Guinea-Bissau) when I was really young. my parents were missionaries & then we stayed in the US after 4yrs in Africa. I don't remember much about it, but I love hearing the stories. Hope it's the same for your son as he gets older - that he'll love hearing these stories someday! :)

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    1. PS - up on the top under Who Is Mama Mzungu, I tried to click the link to read more but it said the link did not work.

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    2. HI Becky. Thanks for that. I hope I fixed the problem now.
      And I hope you're right that he loves hearing these memories (that's part of the reason I blog in the first place). I hope he has his own memories too...
      Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. Wow, that's really interesting. The taunting uncle parallel makes a lot of sense. Great post!

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  10. YES! I've never been to Kenya, but my kids have had this same encounter over and over in their life and travels -- and I never know how to handle it. I always feel clueless and confused (of course, I kind of feel that way about the "I've got your nose" game, too) so I'm really glad for your insights! Thank you!

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    1. I STILL (after nearly 2 years) don't know how to handle it when Caleb is not playing along. So, unfortunately I don't have any words of wisdom. That's why I'm so glad Caleb is finally clued into the fact that this is just a little game. Whew!

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  11. Such a wonderful post, I think it's the same here in Malaysia. Adults normally strike up conversation with children by asking them to share what they have in their hands or what they are playing with at that moment :)

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    1. Isn't that interesting! I really think it's just a simple easy way to get a child to interact with you. Funny that it's the same script across the world!

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  12. I really enjoyed this post! I'll be back to read more!

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  13. I feel the little anthropological coursework I've had coming out of the recesses of my brain with this post! The adult/child dynamic must be interesting to observe and take part in, as compared to our (US's) rather conservative interactions.
    I look forward to reading more!
    I also am quite happy to hear that Caleb has already figured out the dynamic!

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  14. It's so fascinating to me to read about other cultures and how even simple things like interacting with children can be so different. I won't lie, if I was a kid the "give me your ball" thing would kind of freak me out. But then again, if I was a kid from Kenya, I guess it wouldn't :)

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  15. Um, yeah that's a pretty nerve wracking exchange....

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  16. Thanks Jackie! Yeah, I need to draw on a lot of old anthro classes to navigate the cultural differences here. But it's never dull!

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  17. It's so interesting, observing how different cultures approach things. In Malaysia, it's totally common for the older folk to offer often unsolicited advice on how to raise children. And you're supposed to thank them!

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  18. Really love this post, Kim. I was just talking with other expat parents today about this very topic. I am so accustomed to the village of child raising that I often struggle when I go back to the states- I correct, (gently, teacherly) console, play with, and watch over other's kids and expect the same to be done for mine. But it doesn't happen, and that seems so foreign to me! AND- as a side note- I had completely forgotten about the African "Give me that..." Funny to know that it happens in East Africa just as it did for us in West Africa.

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  19. The customs of another culture can seem so strange sometimes. I wonder if there are some children in Kenya who don't appreciate that game as much as others. I know amongst my son and his friends (preschool age) some can take a joke and some can't -they get upset or offended. I wonder if the "parenting" role bein shared makes a difference in ability to take teasing. Very interesting dynamic.

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  20. A wonderful post about adapting. And children really are best at it...eventually.

    I am continually in awe of your storytelling. Really enjoying these posts.

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  21. He should say "You can't have my ball, but you can have this...", before launching a rock at the guys shin. Maybe that'd teach them.

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  22. This has nothing to do with your post, although I did read it and liked it! Gosh, I just LOVE blogging and how it makes the world feel a little smaller. I am in the US and you are all the way over in Africa and I'm talking to you. Just love it!

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