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What makes children happy

What makes children happy?

It is just the middle of November but the annual blitz has started. I am referring to the endless commercials on TV and the advertisements in the flyers paid for by toy manufacturers and retailers to persuade children - and adults - that the lives of our young people will be forever blighted if Santa does not bring them a certain toy or the latest in electronic gadgetry. When I visit homes where the floor is littered with expensive gifts and the children are having fun in one corner with the cardboard cartons in which the gifts came, my mind wanders back to Africa and my own childhood. 

My father was a hard worker but salaries were small in the thirties and forties. He always handed over his entire monthly salary to my mother who worked miracles providing us with the necessities of life, making sure we were well fed and clothed and received a good education. Christmas was a special time when my three sisters could be sure that Mum would get Mrs. Dias, a wonderful seamstress, to produce Christmas dresses for them. Mum and Mrs. Dias would pore through the fashion books and choose patterns with puffed sleeves and flared skirts that were bound to make my sisters the envy of all their friends. Dad never owned a car his entire life so on Christmas Day we would walk the two miles to St. Francis Xavier Church in Parklands. Mum and her three girls sailed in front, a rather splendid sight that called to mind the Spanish Armada in all its magnificent finery. Dad and I walked a discreet distance behind hoping that nobody would associate us with the galleons advancing ominously some distance in front. I prayed fervently that I would not chance on any of my friends en route. I could just imagine their smirks unless, of course, they were enduring a similar situation to mine...

Mum managed always to get each of us a Christmas present. It was not big or expensive but it was always appreciated because it was ours. I remember that one year I received a plastic flute and the following year a four-inch Hohner mouth organ. I guess that the sounds I produced with those instruments convinced my parents that I was not destined to be a Mozart-like child protégé. They resigned themselves to the sad fact that their son was more interested in sports than the fine arts. Whatever the case, from that time on Santa's gifts were definitely more sporting than artistic in nature.

But I digress. My sisters and I never felt deprived growing up. This was partly because most Goan families in the thirties and forties in Kenya didn't have a lot of money to throw around. We did not realise it then but compared to indigenous Africans we were really well off. It was only as an adult that I began to have the opportunity to see both urban and rural African children and realise that the vast majority had very little in material terms. I travelled a great deal, chiefly to game parks. On my safaris, I often came across villages in the boondocks where the children were dressed in rags and the younger children wore little more than a shirt, if that. Most rural areas in Kenya survived on a subsistence economy basis and the crops that farmers produced on their small holdings were barely sufficient to feed themselves and their families, leave alone afford luxuries. It is easy to blame colonial policies for large numbers of families living from hand to mouth. The fact is, however, that independence has not changed the situation in most of Africa. In large areas of Africa, famine and lack of water remain very real concerns. Among people who are struggling to survive, generations of children have grown up without the luxury of new dresses for Christmas or mouth organs under a Christmas tree.

All these thoughts came flooding back to me when a friend sent me the video attached below. I realise, of course, that everything in the video is staged and those are hardly children from deprived situations dancing spontaneously. I love them and I think you will enjoy them greatly as, choreographed or not, they have an infectious joy about them. But they are not the deprived children that I was referring to earlier. I emigrated from Kenya forty years ago but my enduring memory of children in the shanty towns and the outlying areas was of children who had little or nothing in material terms. Yet I rarely saw a child crying or throwing tantrums. Rather, the laughter and joy of living were ever present. They had never known better and, in the remote areas, there was no television to create an awareness of the Good Life that the rest of the world was living. So they found happiness in spontaneous song and rhythm and companionship and family. Western Civilisation has brought children material well-being of a kind that those bush children cannot even imagine. Yet I sometimes wonder if we have not lost something in the consumer society we have created. As for me, I am deeply grateful for the childhood that I and my dear sisters enjoyed thanks to our dear parents. We were so blessed.

Francis

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