Kids. They are everywhere here.
There are ours, of course, then the small children with whom we share staff quarters, our American friends at the guest house, the children of all the other staff, the children who live opposite and who greet us every day as we walk home, the children who follow us if we go for a walk, the children who join us when we are down at the river, and the Batwa (pygmy) children who come furtively into the grounds of our accommodation to rifle through the rubbish and play in the drains. Children, children everywhere.
In the local community where we live, it is the norm for families to have five or six children. This is a combination of (very) early average age at first pregnancy, and lack of contraceptive uptake. This in turn is the result of fears and misconceptions about contraception, and ultimately, from the imbalance of power between men and women. So, people have many children, often more than they might want. From my adult outsider perspective, childhood around here looks pretty tough. Very small children round here are often in charge of siblings, or in charge of animals, or fetching, carrying, hoeing, or just left to their own devices whilst their parents (their mothers) get on with the gruelling work of scraping together enough to get by. It appears that children bring each other up. On Sundays (the day of church, and rest) children are more free to play, and I see the older ones dressing the younger ones, helping them on tricky bits of the path, helping the others cross the river. Amongst the boys, there is a lot of rough and tumble, a lot of hard knocks. But there is a lot of fun, a lot of resourcefulness and a lot of freedom, to be roaming in bands, stripping off to jump in the river and splash around. And not an adult in sight.
Our region is home to the Batwa people. They were the original forest dwellers of this area and are ethnically different to the local Bantu population who are the Bagika. The Batwa are true pygmys – they are indeed very small. When the national park was gazetted, they were displaced from their traditional homes and lost their traditional way of life. Like many minority groups who lose access to their land (think aboriginal people in Australia, for example) the resulting destitution was very damaging. The community struggles with problems of extreme poverty and landlessness and the consequent risk of alcoholism and violence. They are very very poor. Their best source of income is dancing traditional dances for tourists. I fear that much of the money earned is easily drunk away before it can be used to buy food for the household, and the children can fare badly. The ones who we see near us are ragged and malnourished. They hunt for food scraps in the waste from the staff houses, they relish anything they are given – a fresh mango or banana – as if it is a jewelled treasure. It is heartbreaking.
For the children of staff at the hospital (essentially a middle class), it is another story, and another set of considerations for the parents. Our neighbour’s children are all young, about five years old and under. At the moment, it is the long school holidays, so the children are around the staff quarters in the day, finding ways to entertain themselves in piles of sand, or chasing the chickens. For their parents, children are a heavy economic investment. Nurses work shifts, so it isn’t enough to put their children in nursery in the day, as then who would look after them in the evenings or at night when their parents (often mothers again) shift patterns demand it? The solution is to employ maids. The maids have a busy time of it, cooking for the household, doing the washing, the sweeping, and the childcare. And yet their pay is limited by how much the nurses can afford to pay on their own respectable but still modest salaries. So the result is that the maids are often village girls (some only just into their teens) whose skills in childcare can be limited to what their own family responsibilities have taught them.
Child rearing is very much a collective effort. Children in staff accommodation can be fed, chastised, washed, entertained by any of the adults who may be around. And this also means that all the children expect to be able to be part of all the households. It’s expected that the door will be open, and the children generally expect to be able to go straight in.
For Brian and me, our relationship with our children is one of the obvious areas where we are most strikingly outsiders and odd in a Ugandan community. We want to spend time with our children alone sometimes rather than always being surrounded with by other children too, so sometimes we close our door and send other children away. I do this with mixed feelings and a heavy heart, as I know our home and our toys and our play are so appealing to our small neighbours. Maybe we are perceived as selfish? I’m not sure. I suspect we are seen as mollycoddling our children far more than would be the case here. It is a delicate balance between meeting our needs as a family and spending time with our children who are making sense of their new experiences, whilst learning to be part of this community and the shared living that goes with it. Something we are trying to navigate as we go along.