Parenting in Kenya: What It Takes a Village Really Means

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Caleb, my three-year-old son, and I walk down the craggy 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 as he says it:
“Habari mtoto. Give me that ball.”
“No!” screams Caleb, clutching 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.
Caleb 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 MINE!!!” Caleb screams, completely at his wits end.
“OK, OK.” The stranger walks off laughing at what he perceives to be a funny exchange.
I’m not kidding when I say that this same interaction has repeated itself near daily, as if there’s a federally required script.  We cannot pass a Kenyan when Caleb is holding something and NOT hear “give me that ….”
Since having my second child, the refrain has become “give me that baby.”
This “give me your ball” exchange used to unnerve not only Caleb but me as well. I was stuck, feeling simultaneously exposed and protective. Clearly, this game is part of typical adult-child dialogue, and Caleb, screaming vitriol at the unsuspecting person, is going way off script.  It marks us as even more foreign. We often find ourselves the subjects of laughter. I sometimes end up apologizing or explaining quietly “he’s just shy.”
At the same time, I want to yell, “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 United States, teachers used to be able to whack 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.
The point is other than a benign game of peek-a-boo, there’s pretty much an unspoken hands off policy in the U.S. when it comes to dealing with other people’s children.
In my experience, it’s pretty much the opposite here in Kenya.
There’s a sense here that children are 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 seems expected and even appreciated, and it’s certainly a way to share the burden of childrearing.
So, what does all this communal childrearing have to do with the whole “give me your ball” exchange?
I think “give me your ball” from a stranger is much like the “I’ve got your nose” taunt from a favorite uncle in the U.S.  There’s no reason to be scared of a little gentle teasing from a loving uncle because the teasing is just a way for the adult and child to relate, to interact.
I’m guessing that the “give me your ball” game serves the exact same purpose. It works because children—in some ways—view most adults as extended family.
I’m happy to report that Caleb finally seems to understand this dynamic.
Caleb was playing on his toy motorbike the other day when a visitor to the compound said “Give me your bike.”
Instead of feeling threatened, Caleb simply hunched up his shoulders coyly, smiled a “noooo”—the kind of a “no” that’s followed by a silent “you silly man”—while laughing.  And it felt really nice to finally be a bit more a part of this web of playful aunts and uncles.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Kim for this insightful and thought provoking article. It reminds of raising my daughter Bahia in areas of South Africa and being able to rely upon the contribution of “aunties and uncles” in her development. Keep these vignettes and reflections coming! Warm regard and best wishes!

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