From a city with more dogs than kids
Before coming to the Peace Corps, I lived in Seattle. I will forever think it’s one of the best places on earth, but it is also one of the most childless. Of all the American cities, it has the highest percentage of single adults and one of the lowest populations of children.
In contrast, when I came to Madagascar, there were suddenly children everywhere. Even so, I don’t think I initially drew the comparison between childless Seattle and child-abundant Madagascar. The presence/non-presence of children just seemed like another part of the landscape, and it took me about a year or so to separate this bit from the Larger Picture. I don’t know how it took this long though — I am surrounded by kids here. I wake up to the screams of children outside my door on the middle school compound, I frequently think to myself “oh. my. god. somanychildren somanychildren psfhfdaffffft” This is totally different from my life-before-Peace-Corps. I have absolutely no recollection of ever interacting with a kid in Seattle. I don’t think I ever even saw children on a regular basis. I was more likely to cross paths with small dogs than small humans around my Capitol Hill apartment.
Ohmygod they are everywhere
Given my lack of interaction with kids, their presence felt as foreign to me as everything else when I first arrived. Especially with the language barrier, they just seemed to be these little creatures with snot running down their upper lips, smelling of pee, and generally screaming/shouting/crying. While I was still in homestay, meaning my first month in Madagascar, a group of children took to following around my friend Steph and I while shouting “Stephan-IEEE! Jess-y-KA-KA!” They would then roll around the dirt in uproarious laughter, because of the easy one syllable leap from my name to my name + ‘poop’ (kaka) in Malagasy. I wanted to strangle the little jerks. But mostly, their everywhere-ness made me long for a world filled with small-dogs outside of coffee shops and adults who didn’t care what I did/who I was. I hated being the target of such immature jokes but didn’t know how to respond.
Okay, kids can be kind of cool…
Initially, children were, and often still are, just plain annoying. At the same time, they just. won’t. ever. go. away. They are always there, always, and I quickly realized that letting them remain this annoying entity would only drive me crazy(er). The first time I started thinking differently of kids was in the classroom. Though my students are noisy and get on my nerves (there’s just too many in one classroom) I keep myself sane by thinking of teaching 7th graders as a social experiment. Sometimes I tweak lessons from one class to another to test when they best absorb information, or try pairing up a girl with a boy to see which one is more intimidated at the notion.
Further along, I began discovering that kids can actually be kind of funny when the opportunity to laugh with them, rather than be laughed at by them, arises. For example, last weekend another PCV, Jackie, and I wanted to do yoga in a hotel’s garden, but peacefully, not under the Constant Gaze of curious Malagasy. I knew this would be impossible with a group of children milling about nearby but we went for it anyways. As expected the kids started giggling and mimicking us. I hate to admit it, but it was kind of cute seeing them join in, shifting from downward dog to plank, and falling over each other when Jackie and I turned sideways for side plank.
This would be simply unacceptable in America!
This never would have happened in a Seattle park. For one, there aren’t many children just bored and ‘hanging around’. Secondly, American parents would flip a shit if their children went to play with a couple of strangers, no matter how innocent the activity (yoga) or non-threatening the strangers (two young females in workout attire). Thirdly, the strangers themselves might be confused about why they’ve suddenly got themselves a posse of miniature people. It just doesn’t happen in America, but in Madagascar it would be strange if all the children in a 300-meter radius didn’t come flocking to us whenever we (foreigners) did something out of the ordinary.
In short, the division between ‘child’ and ‘adult’ has been blurred for me over the past 20 months. Especially as my Malagasy improves, they more often seem like ‘real people’. Even though they really do scream/cry/shout a lot, smell like pee half the time (Malagasy babies don’t exactly wear diapers), and I question whether I’d ever want one of these ‘things’ for myself, they confuse me less. They’re less mysterious, wonderful to take photos of, and I have a feeling that it will be strange, though quieter, to return somewhere where children aren’t everywhere.
Photos: (1) Kids playing at our hotel (2) Kids doing yoga (3-6) This is what happens when you give a group of kids a balloon