I’m sitting at the YMCA in Nairobi, watching children swim the YMCA pool. This pool has been used by the public and by school children for years. I remember swimming here as a child so many years back. I would come during the holidays because, lucky me, my school had a swimming pool.
Almost two decades later, nothing has improved. Kids are still coming from far flung schools to swim at the YMCA. That is because this country may have as few as three public swimming pools, all in the city, while every high-end hotel and apartment block has its own elitist pool for high paying guests. And we keep lamenting that we don’t excel in world swimming championships. The last time we had Kenyans at the Olympics in a swimming event, they were white and from rich families. Sorry, I can’t find a more politically correct adjective. Rich.
The only sports we Kenyans excel in, are those that require zero or no equipment input. Like running and…..er….er… well, just running. No one wants to invest anything that does not create ripples that land directly into one’s pockets. Not the government, not the corporates, nobody. Just the rich families who are able to take their kids to swimming classes, or to schools with pools or they already live in apartments with pools. The same applies to tennis, golf, biking, roughly any sport that involves the investment of any kind of prop.
Let me go back a little into my childhood. When I was growing up in a dusty outskirt town about 25km away from Nairobi, we had a right to play. Girls skipped and played dolls using whatever they could lay their hands on. I remember that there was a sort of plant that was used as a hedge to fence off homes. That plant, whose name I never knew, had some kind of soft climbing stem that we “harvested” and used as skipping rope and it could last a few days before drying up and being thrown into the fire. Another plant, don’t ask me their names, had a harder pliable stem that we used to make hoops for hoola hooping. Michelle Obama, a lover of hoola hoops, would have been proud. So would the late Nobel Peace Laureate, environmentalist Dr Wangari Maathai.
Today, when I visit my home town. There are no plants. The hedges are fenced in stone and wood and some are electrified. Keep OUT is the unsaid message. Young girls of today would not even recognize those plants by eye.
Meanwhile, in the past, the boys would be playing football. The balls were made of recycled plastic papers stuffed until hard. Boys those days even made cars out of old tins. Boys today can create nothing out of their hands. During my childhood, the boys played football and volleyball in three grounds, one was a nursery school compound and another was a primary school compound. The third was a large space owned by the local high school. You see, then, there were no hard fences. Schools allowed kids to use their idle land during the holidays. It was fun. Then, even vandalism was rare. The schools trusted the kids. Today, go back to those same schools, the electrified fences are tall and the schools would never let the kids, now known as words which translate roughly into hooligans. If they are not our students, they are chokora (street kids) or just untrustworthy little humans.
This has led to a generation of kids that never play. You are asking why? Well, you see, other changes have taken place in society. More schools have cropped up, private ones, whose key role is to make money. Many do not even have that playground. Then as I watch with teary eyes, the area has started to “develop”. Development in Africa means the replacement of soil and green with concrete. Children are now being raised on the 8th floor of a concrete block with enough space on the ground to park each parent’s car. Children ride bikes inside the apartment until age five when they start riding the bikes when there’s space in the parking lot.
But most of the time, kids would rather not climb down those 8 flights of stairs carrying a bike when there’s TV with DSTV (over 100 channels, I think), the web, video games, mum’s i-phone. They would rather stay up there and grow fat and anti-social. It happens all the time. And I don’t blame the kids. Nor the parents. The problem belongs to the society as a whole which includes the parents, the educators, the church, the legislators, everyone. It doesn’t help that both parents are working and kids are alone or with a paid house-help. I don’t want to drum any guilt into mothers or point my fingers at them. They want to work, they have a right to work and quite often, they need to work.
I feel lucky to have felt real mud under my bare toes when going to the shops in the rain. I feel lucky to have skipped on an organic rope and hoola hooped on an organic hoop. I have never riden a bike inside the house. I never lived in an apartment until I grew up.
What then? There are many debates in Kenya about holiday tuition. Teachers want to get schoolchildren back to school during the holidays for extra coaching in maths, history and that means more money in schools. Parents want their children out of the house during holidays. It means less trouble.
Why can’t teachers open up the schools over the holidays for children to PLAY? I mean supervised play by children of the neighbourhood, at a small fee, so that children can experience live play, be it football, volleyball, skipping or swimming. It is possible and it is for the good of society. That is because, if we let out children into the world, who have too much pent up energy, it becomes a problem for all of us, not just for the parents.