One of the questions I get asked most frequently is, why was it so important to me for my daughter to be born and spend the early part of her life in Kenya? By the time I fell pregnant with my daughter, I was living in the UK and had been living away from Kenya longer than I had lived in Kenya. Although Kenya was home, the UK had also become home. I had a community in the UK, family, friends a house and a business.
There were many good reasons for my return to Kenya. Like the fact that my daughter would grow up seeing her grandmother daily. Where we live now all her cousins are within a five minute drive. Childcare is much more affordable which allows me to work from home in a way that would not have been as easy to arrange in the UK. However one of the important reasons I returned to Kenya was I wanted my daughter to grow up with touch.
As well as being a writer, I am an osteopath which means I spend a lot of my day touching people. It began to disturb me that in the UK (especially among the elderly I treated) I was the only person who touched them in their lives. Given my profession I admit I am biased about touch, but it is a fundamental basic need. Studies of otherwise well equipped orphanages lead to the conclusion that babies who were not touched were just as likely to die as though they had been starved of food.
Recent studies into learning difficulties and conditions such as autism are beginning to highlight the power of touch too. Whilst there are many positive things about raising a child in any country in the world, I think that sadly in Europe and the US the balance has tipped the other way when it comes to issues of touch and child protection. Read the following sentence: my daughter is touched several times a day by people she is not related to. What emotions does that stir up in you? What does it make you think of me as a mother?
Now let me qualify it. I remember having a discussion with friendly acquaintances in the UK about some child protection laws. There were ever increasing boundaries being drawn about the situations in which children at school could be touched by their teachers. The people I was talking to felt it was a good thing and when discussing touch emphasized that it meant that corporal punishment was a thing of the past and children were much less likely to be physically hurt by their teachers. Until I mentioned it, no one was talking about the other aspects of touch: the hug that can help a toddler smile, following a fall and scrape to his or her knee; the child that won’t get sunburned (as has been reported at some schools in the UK) because the teacher had been able to apply sunscreen without fear of reprisals. The list goes on.
Kenya is not perfect. Like anywhere else in the world there are still problems involving inappropriate touch and children still need to be protected. However, children are raised with the understanding that touch is healthy, which I think is a good thing. From when they are born babies are constantly carried and breastfed and the now recommended skin-on-skin contact is a natural part of their upbringing. Greetings are very important and this involves a handshake. The youngest child is not exempt from this. Even my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter knows that when you say hello to someone you look at them and shake their hand. This is one of the many times in a day she is touched by people she is not related to.
It was coming close to the end of term at the kindergarten my daughter attends three mornings per week. I sat in the garden at her school watching the children playing when a scene unfolded that I felt was less likely to occur in a similar school in Europe. The school has resident ducks, tortoises, rabbits and visiting monkeys. The caretaker (fondly known as Babu which means grandfather) is the children’s favourite person in the school. Any child having a tough moment knows that Babu has the time of day and will often make them feel better by taking them into the animal enclosure and showing them how to feed the animals.
A little girl was hovering close to the fence of the animal enclosure clearly wanting to engage but also scared. Without saying a word Babu squatted close to her and put her on his knee and holding out a carrot drew one of the rabbits closer. When the girl’s mother arrived to pick her up a short while later, she found her daughter squealing in delight as she fed the rabbit. The three of them stayed there for awhile enjoying this simple moment. In that instant there would not have been the words to convince a young child that feeding the rabbit was safe, yet the power of comforting touch from a trusted adult allowed her to overcome her fear and turn it into joy.