Children vs. Gremlins

While I was packing for Liberia, I had the wonderful idea to bring a bunch of candy to give to the children here.

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I quickly learned that just about everybody that visits a developing country has this exact same wonderful idea. It sounds harmless and fun, right? I mean, children are so cute and stuff. But you know how when you feed wild animals they get used to expecting food from visitors and can become dangeriously aggressive? Well, the same thing happens with children.

Thankfully, Liberia is not bad at all compared to other developing countries that have big tourism industries. One of my friends who was a doctor in a developing country (not Liberia) was told me how every day she walked to and from work she had to go through a gauntlet of children that would verbally and physically assault her while asking for money and candy. She tried everything to get it to stop, but whenever she thought she was making progress, another expat or NGO would drive through the town flinging candy or money from their car (literally) and she’d be back at square one.

“Being verbally and physically assaulted by children? How is that even possible! Children are small and cute!”, you might ask. Well, the gremlins were small and cute too. It might sound funny, but believe me, it’s not: a swarm of children going gremlin and fighting to tear you apart so they can suck all the candy out of you is nothing to laugh at.

So, being the first Peace Corps Volunteer in my community (since the war), I wanted to be very careful to set boundaries in my relationship with the children so that I would not create dynamics that would be harmful for future volunteers (or myself!).

To this end, I’ve been doing my best to mirror the other adults in my community when it comes to giving things to children. That pretty much means that I’ll give them the leftovers of food that I’ve been eating, and not much else. If I’m feeling especially generous, I’ll share some peanuts or gari with them while we’re hanging out or if they’ve been doing chores with me, but I’ve been careful to not give them anything that isn’t already readily available in the community. I also do my best to not use gadgets or eat food in their presence that they don’t already have access to. (And I try to discipline myself to do this anyway because I want to fully experience life as a community member here).

Some would say I’m being overly cautious, which is probably true. Many of my fellow volunteers are very comfortable sharing all kinds of things with the children at their site. But still, I realize how hard it is to change expectations once they develop, and so I’ve been working hard to insure that the right expectations develop in the first place.

It can be hard to anticipate reactions sometimes. One time I wanted to show a kid how to juggle, and so, without thinking, I brought out some tennis balls. I realized my mistake as soon as I walked into the room. When he saw the tennis balls I was holding, his eyes got wide and I saw the “gremlin” there. He became much more interested in having one of the “American balls” for his own than learning how to juggle. Needless to say, I wrapped up the lesson quickly. Then in true African style, I lied and told him I couldn’t give him one because I was borrowing the balls from a friend, and had to give them back. (In African culture, it’s better to tell a white lie than outright deny someone something). This little lie was also important because it allowed me to detach myself from the ownership and worth of the tennis balls.

This little story also reveals another dynamic I’m trying to avoid — the tendency for children (well, humanity in general) to devalue what they have while embuing what they don’t have with extra value and status. This means anything “American” is seen as being extra valuable and gives status to whoever owns it. This is why the kid got such a glitter in his eye when he saw the tennis balls, why you see children walking around wearing broken headphones, and why I’m not giving out the American candy I brought. The perceived value and associated status is just too high. By giving that much value away freely I risk falling into the stereotype that “I am a westerner with infinite resources that will give anything to anyone who begs loudly enough”.

It’s unfortunate, because it means that it’s hard to share things from our society without the “gremlin” showing his head. For example, it means I’m not going to pull out my computer and show kids how to use it. I’m happy to give kids computer lessons on a computer owned by another member of the community, but my personal computer is never leaving my room, and no kids are allowed in there.

Again, these are all personal decisions I’ve made for myself in how I interact with my community. Other volunteers in different communities have different boundaries (due to differences in the volunteer and differences in the community). But at the end of the day, the last thing I want do is go “here’s something cool or super useful, but way out of your reach”. It makes children start to think that they can only do cool and useful things if those things are given to them, or if they get money.

Instead, the message I want to send to the children in my community is that knowledge and skill is much more valuable than any material possession. A single piece of paper can become a snowflake, origami crane, box, book, and countless other things. (Can you believe these kids hadn’t seen paper snowflakes before?) A piece of string can become an intricately woven bracelet, a cat’s cradle, a magic show, an incredible machine, you name it. Don’t waste your time wishing you had a TV or mp3 player like the American children do, because the fact is, their addiction shuts them down to all the wonders and possibilities in life taking place around them every day. Let’s see what you have to play with here already, and have some fun!

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(So you may be wondering now what I’m doing with all those bags of candy that I brought… well, I’ve found an excellent use, which will be the subject of my next post!)

(edit 2/11/14: In this blog post I talked about how giving things freely to children can create a really bad relationship dynamic, but I didn’t go into some of the more insidious and brutal problems it can create and perpetuate. This article does: “Giving money to child beggars is the least generous thing a tourist can do”)

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