The first time a few other members of the Kenya team and I ventured down the road from the Daraja House, we were followed by a giggling group of young children. They trailed a ways behind us for a short while before they built up the courage to come closer. Soon they left all hesitation behind and ran on ahead of us. They bounded quickly over rough spots in the road while we wazungu (white people) continued slowly and carefully. Several questions ran through my mind as we continued along the path. This was definitely not the first instance where random children accompanied us on our journeys, so I began to wonder why so many parents allowed their children to run wild with people they did not even know. Were the parents of these children too busy to watch their kids? Were they unaware of what their children were doing? Or were they just super-trusting of white people?
When we came upon a waterfall, we stopped to admire it for a bit and take pictures. Dr. Dixon marveled at how much the recent mudslide had washed out around the waterfall while the rest of us were unsure what to make of it since we had no idea what it usually looked like. While we all stood in some state of wonder, whether over the waterfall or the erosion, the children ran around like monkeys climbing up banks and sliding back down them. They moved around the jagged landscape with such ease. I was slightly jealous of their maneuverability skills.
Suddenly Janelle’s voice broke through the playful noise of the children, “Baboon!” she shouted as she pointed towards the top of the waterfall. This was the first time we had seen baboons since we arrived, so we excitedly lifted our cameras as a couple more baboons came out from the foliage. The children, however, were not so pleased. They ran past us and started climbing up the cliff that surrounded the waterfall towards the baboons. How they did this with such ease and skill I am still not sure. When they reached a flat spot they picked up surrounding rocks and started throwing them towards the baboons.
No one seemed to know what to do for a minute, but Dr. Dixon pulled the situation together and instructed us to start heading back. He called out to the kids, “Come on, kids—it’s time to go home.” As soon as he said these words the kids turned around and hurried down the bank. I let them dart past me, afraid I would fall if I traveled alongside their fast-moving bodies.
As we continued down the road back to the Daraja House, none of the kids made any attempt to go back and mess with the baboons. They did as they were told and followed us home. As we walked it occurred to me that many parts of this situation would not happen in America. One, there would not be baboons. Okay, that was an obvious one. Second, Dr. Dixon, or anyone for that matter, would not have tried to correct the behavior of children who are not their own. Third, had Dr. Dixon still given instruction to an American child, they may not have obeyed. Thinking about these last two statements helped me to understand the community element of Kenyan culture.
Before leaving on the trip, the Kenya team read a portion of Jomo Kenyatta’s book Facing Mt. Kenya. The first section we read went into detail about the kinship system among the Kikuyu people. In the early days of the Kikuyu tribe, they lived together by family in large complexes under a specific pattern of authority. By design the people lived very community-oriented lives in which everyone looked out for one another. One example is that children looked upon their aunts with just as much endearment as they did their own mother, and cousins acted just like brothers and sisters.
Though today’s Kikuyu do not operate just as they did in the early days described by Kenyatta, they remain very community-oriented. Understanding this founding principle of Kikuyu culture sheds some light on our encounter with the children at the waterfall.
For one thing parents are not afraid to let their children wander about because it is expected that other adults surrounding them will look after them. It is not that they were unconcerned about their children’s whereabouts, they simply trusted in other adult members of their tribe. While we were with the children, their parents trusted us to watch over them. This also explains the children’s easy obedience with Dr. Dixon. These children are used to taking orders from adults other than their parents and do it without hesitation.
Things are so different in America where this community parenting does not exist. The whole incident brings the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” into a whole new light because in Kenya it really rings true.