Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stop, Look and Listen

I, like most children in the Western world, was taught from a young age about the dos and don’ts concerning safety. Mantras like don’t talk to strangers, don’t play with matches, stop look and listen are drilled into our skulls until following the rules became second nature. In my childhood there were cartoons and adverts targeted specifically at kids to help keep them safe. Frances the firefly was a personal favourite of mine but the ‘King of the Road’ hedgehogs certainly captured their audience. There was a time during primary school that the whole of my class would have been able to sing the advert to you word perfect, maybe even in four part harmony if you’d asked really nicely. 

Courtesy of the 'Staying Alive' road safety campaign
Here, however, there isn’t the same level of diligence about being careful. In truth there seems to be a bit of a disregard for being cautious. It is not uncommon to see young children, 5 or 6 years of age walking around with pangas (machetes) that are a big as my forearm. They are not carrying them in a threatening way but instead are carrying them so that they can cut wood or bamboo. In fact the biggest danger they pose is to themselves. Martin, a friend, once showed me an enormous scar on his back that he got from a panga accident as a child – he had forgotten that he had placed the knife through a length of bamboo and as he threw the bamboo over his shoulder to carry it home the panga had driven into his back.

But it’s not just knives, children tend to charcoal stoves, light paraffin lamps and play right next to, and even sometimes in the middle of, busy roads. I’ve stopped wondering where the parents of the unaccompanied children you see wandering about the town are and people are much more willing to pass their young children around to complete strangers. For example on a recent matatu ride my mother offered to hold a newborn baby while her mother got on and ended up holding it for most of the journey whilst the mother chatted away to fellow passengers.

Children in Stone Town, Zanzibar observing road safety beautifully
 Frankly, in Britain I think we’ve gone too far with our fear of strangers and general mistrust of the adult population. It’s ridiculous that friends can no longer look after each other’s children unless they are vetted and that in some play areas adults are not allowed, even the parents whose children are playing inside. We need to have more trust in the general population and allow children vital freedom and independence. However, letting them play on main roads and allowing children as young as 4 or 5 to be unaccompanied in town is going a little too far, especially in a country where child abduction and subsequent sacrifice is not unheard of. There must be a middle ground somewhere, I just hope when I come to have kids of my own, whether here or in Britain, I’ll have gone someway to finding it.

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