By Margaretta Swigert-Gacheru, Ph.D (3 July 2018)
Practically every parent that I know in Kenya wants their children to have an education that will maximize their child’s full potential.
They are invariably prepared to make tremendous sacrifices to ensure their children get into school, which is not an easy proposition since the best schools cost far more than most families can afford.
Even the most humble local schools compel parents to pay for school fees (equivalent to tuition) plus school uniforms and books.
Many a young Kenyan has dropped out of school for lack of funds to cover those costs. Ironically, that’s when many young men and women have no choice but to enter the informal economy and devise ingenious means to earn an income. There is much that has been written about Kenya’s informal sector workers and their resourceful ways of surviving. And again, one would have to say that those informal sector (known as jua kali) workers have learned that technique of inventing ingenious means to earn a living from their parents, particularly their mothers who tend to be the main breadwinners in many African homes.
But even before children go to school, their home environments tend to be highly enlightening. Kids learn to take responsibility for their siblings’ child care since their parents (mainly their mothers) are either working outside on their farms or looking for basic essentials like water and cooking fuel in the form of firewood.
Children learns early on how much their parents sacrifice to get them into school so they tend to feel responsible for working hard, doing well academically and maximizing their own potential. They understand education is the key to their future success and the main means for fulfilling their human potential.
In many African homes, grandparents still live in the same household as their children and grandchildren. Often, those elders have stories to tell, be they in the form of folk tales or family histories, songs, riddles or poetry. If children are blessed with having a wise grandparent at home, then evenings are not filled with TV and computer games. They are filled with storytelling that enriches children’s imaginations and equips them with wisdom and knowledge that may have been passed down over generations.
In many cases, parents may not have funds to buy their children toys. But this reality often leads children to create toys of their own. Many Kenyan artists that I know have stories to tell about how they created cars, buses, trucks and even toy bicycles by recycling bottle tops for wheels, tin cans for vehicle bodies and wires from sundry sources to make the skeletal infrastructure of their vehicles.
Then they’d have car competitions, inspired by the annual Safari Rally races that were started during colonial times and which thousands of Kenyans still stand by roadsides around the country just to see the competing cars drive by.
Meanwhile, I know mothers who wanted their daughters to have toy dolls which they would make out of old socks and yarn unwound from old sweaters. None of those daughters pestered their moms for the latest iteration of the American Girl doll. They would just be happy to have what their mothers created for them.
Most Kenyan youth tend to grow up out of doors since the climate is temperate (given the country stratles the Equator). Parents often provide them with plastic bags that the youth can use to create their own footballs so they can play soccer (which Kenyans call football) throughout the school holidays.
If families are in town, one important gift that parents give their children is a love of books. This applies mainly to families having educated (literate) parents and who also live in towns having libraries (which are relatively rare). I know parents who drop their children at the library and promise to return after two hours of shopping. The children love having the library to themselves. Depending on the size, structure and library policies, the youth love to explore the book shelves and discover the love of learning and reading on their own time in that conducive space.
If parents are more affluent, one of the best things they can do is find out what sorts of afternoon and weekend classes are available in the community for youth. Ideally, the child loves the possibility of learning a new musical instrument, new language, new sport or even a new style of dance after school. Allowing the child to see that he or she has options (rather than pushing them into what the parent wants them to do) is a good idea. But then there are times when the parent can see their child is being influenced by peer pressure to try none of the above. That’s when the parent may want to step in and encourage the child to do one project or other.
It always helps when a child sees his or her parent practicing what they preach. For instance, if they take their child to the library, does that child see his/her parent reading? Do the parents play musical instruments, belong to a ballet company or sing in the community choir or amateur theatre group?
There is nothing more enlightening and enriching for a child, nothing that can stimulate an incentive on their part to maximize their own potential than to see one or both of their parents practicing some particular skill, be it in the form of a hobby or professionally. The child picks up on their practices implicitly, like a sponge. So it makes sense for the parent who wants their child to maximize and fulfill his/her full potential, to continue striving to fulfill their own potential and learn new things on a daily basis.