Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The African Children’s Fire: Why There is No “Child-Friendly” in Kenya

African Children's Fire/ © Shutterstock

The children’s fire was a reminder of the promise: “No law, no action of any kind, shall be taken that will harm the children.”


At a Resurgence Readers Ecological Camp a couple of years ago, I only caught the end of an inspiring talk by a man called Mac.  Mac runs Embercombe, a social enterprise in the U.K. In his talk he mentioned the Native American concept of the children’s fire.  He dared us to imagine a world that was governed by the basic principle of commitment to the sustainability of future generations.  His talk resonated powerfully with me because in Kenya we have an expression that we do not own the earth; we only borrow it from our children.


As modern parents we often refer to places as ‘child-friendly’ or not, meaning whether they have the right facilities for (usually) small children.  I decided to take this a step further and began to observe the places that my daughter and I encountered in our day-to-day life.  I understood from the African perspective that there were two levels of children’s fire.  On one level was the day-to-day inclusion of children as a part of the society and the other level was decisions that will impact our children’s future.


I am not going to delve too much into the second level here, as there are numerous examples of how we adults have completely trampled on our children’s fire across the world through degraded environmental to collapsed financial systems.  Yet, what gives me hope is the possibility to be able to include our children in our daily lives.  If they can be welcomed in our workplaces, in our places of relaxation, in all areas in our community then perhaps we will not forget them and perhaps we will light and tend their fire.  The expression “out of sight, out of mind” never rings truer than in this case.


Without having been conscious of it, a large part of the reason that I chose to return to raise my daughter in the country of my birth is because in Kenya, the first level of the children’s fire is still very active.  There is hardly anywhere that children are not welcome and included in society. Consequently I take my daughter nearly everywhere with me and the results always teach me something and expose her to things I could have never recreated on my own.


We also travel a lot together and this has allowed me to see the contrast in other parts of the world with how children are received.  In Kenya, it is understood that one of the biggest gifts that children give us is to be able to reconnect with the child inside of us.  We get to play again, see the world anew and be filled with wonder.

Every now and again, I catch glimpses of a different way of being that can lead to a new  world through the actions that keep the children’s fire alive and well in Kenya.  Several months ago the children’s play place next door to my gym shut down. This posed a dilemma, as I love training and my daughter enjoyed taking me to the gym before playing for an hour next door.


Despite the sign that says that no children under 16 are allowed into the gym, when I was talking to some of the trainers they wondered why I hadn’t brought her before. So my five-year-old daughter began to come to the gym with me.  Sometimes she sat out of harms way and drew, sometimes she ate and slowly she began to join in the workouts. My trainer devised a way in which we could use a section of the studio to have a ‘mother and daughter’ class, which honestly she is much better at than me.  Now she is taking up a martial art and will be working with her own trainer before hopefully joining a group of children who already have a club at the gym when she is ready.


It highlighted to me how fragmented our modern lives can be.  Without the underlying culture of finding ways to include children, I would not have gained another hour in the day to hang out with my daughter in a fun and playful way.  If I had ever wanted to introduce her to martial arts, I would have probably thought of finding a children’s class, somehow working it into our schedules, arranging, organizing and planning.


As we know, children learn by imitation.  If we teach them that their fire is worth tending, then they will do the same.  So the challenge to myself and to you is to start working with your children’s fire.  Take them somewhere that you might not have considered ‘child-friendly’.  Allow yourself and others to connect with their inner child.  Set the spark and see what happens.  Try it today. Try it now.

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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

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