Pin It
Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Parenting in Kenya: What It Takes a Village Really Means

Parenting in Kenya

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!”


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.

© 2012 – 2013, Kim Siegal. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

Ramadan Star and Moon Craft

A craft recycled from your kid's art work!

Breastfeeding Around the World

In photos and figures

Is all the Hard Work of Bilingualism Really Paying Off?

I just found out the surprising answer.


Kim Siegal has been living in Western Kenya with her husband and two sons since October, 2010. She was working for an NGO that researches anti-poverty programs but is currently staying home with her new baby. She blogs at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsAmy Marks   |  Tuesday, 04 September 2012 at 9:40 am

    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!

  2. CommentsKim at Mama Mzungu   |  Thursday, 06 September 2012 at 4:09 am

    Thanks Amy!

  3. CommentsInCultureParent | Cross-Cultural Parenting in Guatemala: Rethinking Cultural Norms   |  Wednesday, 08 May 2013 at 3:32 pm

    […] Want more on parenting approaches worldwide? Check out what cross-cultural parenting is like in Kenya. […]

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

A Children's Book for Raising Global Citizens

Every life is a story. It’s easier to understand someone when you know their story.

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!
For quite sometime, whenever there were articles that surfaced the internet concerning whether it was appropriate to breastfeed in public, I was so baffled. As a Mongolian, I was so shocked that som...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
For quite some whenever there was articles circulated on the internet concerning whether it is appropriate to breastfeed in public. As a Mongolian, I was so shocked that some countries considered i...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
I live with my Czech in laws with my four children and my Czech is crap I try to learn but the baby doesn't sleep well I'm a constant zombie and the brain just doesn't work. Plus being tired makes m...
From How I Reclaimed My House from My Mother-in-Law
I am so glad I found this site. I am happy to see that I am not alone in experiencing 'family issues' after getting married. I am not from the West but I am married to a Canadian. I never truly unde...
From How I Reclaimed My House from My Mother-in-Law
[…] my most favourite article about breastfeeding called Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan by Ruth Kamnitzer. I have no doubt that Mongolians would find our social stigmas around [R...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
[…] sources and reasons for the rules of these countries too, such as China, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, and Hungary (see above re “Titanic”).  Has anyone got s...
From International Baby Naming Laws–Are They a Good Thing?
[…] Source Inculture Parents […...
From Lotus Lanterns for Wesak (Buddha Day)
If your nerves shat down your hormones , can you get pregnant by injecting a sperm in you to develop a baby . Please let me know...
From Baby-Making the Hindu Way
[…] Diwali Lantern from InCultureParent […...
From Diwali Craft: Make a Lantern

More Global Parenting