I have fond memories of childhood. The long summer days when I’d jump on my bike and join the other members of the Camouflage Club (previously known as the Clue Club) in the woods near our house to build our fort, climb trees, solve whatever mysteries came our way. We’d be off on our own playing outside until my parents, quite literally, blew a horn signaling it was time to come home.
I’ve often bemoaned the fact that the world we live in is too different for me to allow our children the same freedoms I had. When we moved into the our house back in the US I was excited about the woods that lay beyond our fence, “The mysterious beyond” we labeled it and encouraged our kids to go explore. That is, until we saw the tarp, the sleeping bag, the evidence of a campfire. We live in a small city, there are many homeless, occasionally they camp just beyond our fence. Neighborhood kids are fun when home, but often busy with activities, or our kids have activities. If they want to play at a park, I’m there with them. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but in the US it is hard to have free range kids.
On our first day in Kibuye, Anna, the other 9 year old, asked if the girls could join her for a walk. “We don’t know, can they? Is it safe?” And so our motto came to be “If Anna’s parents let her do it, then it’s okay, you can too.” And off our girls went with Anna into the woods to walk past tea fields and Burundians hoeing and to find a mound of red earth just beyond the bamboo fence. They spent they next few days shaping the clay into bowls and animals, creating “claytopia”. Ella even had a Burundian boy paint her face with the red clay. (We like to tease her in saying that we’re pretty sure this means that they are now engaged.) They let Biniyam join them and I unpacked in peace and strange silence.
That night I had a nightmare in which I was back in the US. I was unpacking and Biniyam ran into the room, he said some people brought him home and wanted to talk to me. They were from DSHS and they said they had found my 5 year old wandering around town by himself and why wasn’t I watching him? Once awake I found the dream amusing, pointing to the big reason I don’t allow my children to roam free in Bellingham. I’m afraid of other people, that they will hurt my kids or what hassle they will make for me. I fear people looking at their phones while they drive and not watching for kids crossing the street. I trust my kids, I don’t trust the community at large.
But here they have a controlled area in which to roam, and it’s of a pretty good size. There is one short road and rarely does a car open the barrier and drive slowly through. They have multiple houses in which to play (for example, I currently have 3 children playing at my house, none of whom are mine, my children are playing at someone else’s). Before school they will often head out and find friends to play with and after school until dinner they’re with friends. They spend a lot of time in our “art studio” room drawing their characters for whatever storyline they have going that day and then they head outside to act out their stories. They catch toads and lizards, they climb trees, they play chase, they build forts, they solve mysteries. They don’t complain of boredom, they don’t beg for media time, they fall asleep quickly and sleep through the night. This is my favorite part of our life here in Burundi, watching our kids experience this childhood of freedom and exploration.