Wednesday, February 3

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Boys and their toys

Scarcity is one of the things that I expected coming in to Nakuru. It was also one of the things I was right about. The kids don't have an awful lot. Most of them keep their clothes, their pens and pencils, their school books, their toothbrushes, their soap, their everything in a metal box that would just barely fit my stereo back in the States. In turn, a good portion of them share their box with at least one other kid. They really only have what they need. They simply don't have the space to keep toys and the other little luxuries.

There are good reasons for this. The first is that we simply don't have the budget to give them everything they ask for. The only clothes we consistently buy them are those required for school. Otherwise we are almost completely dependent on donations from their international sponsors and local churches for their clothes and toys.

The second reason is that toys don't last very long with this group. A few months ago we bought some cheap handheld games and decks of cards as requested by the Children's Office as entertainment. They didn't last the week. Buttons got stuck and cards were lost. Even good quality soccer balls have a maximum lifespan of a month here. Forget about the cheap ones. They spring leaks in a day and are completely useless by the end of the week. Except as hats. We had a checkers board for a week or two. By the end of four days, all of the pieces were broken or lost, and they resorted to using bottle caps. At the end of the week or two, they managed to split the stone board in two.

So the kids make their own toys and own games a lot of the time. They tend to do this with garbage. I appreciate that. It's rubbish. We don't want it anymore. They can break it all they want. I don't, however, so much appreciate the mess they make going through the bins and fire pit.

This the first game I can remember seeing them play. They would lay one stick across a shallow pit, maybe deep enough for half a pinkie finger. Then one child would flip it up with a second stick and hit it on the fall into a crowd of jumping kids. Sometimes one would catch it and cheer. Sometimes no one would catch it and they would cheer. If it landed on the ground, they would flip it end over end, counting until they got back to the pit. Then they would do it all over again. That's all I ever understood of the rules.

Marbles has been especially popular lately. I never played it when I was their age, but I only recognize a single variation. Four marbles or so are lined on the ground. A boy about a meter away would pull a finger back, balancing a fifth marble on the tip, and launch it, trying to knock the others out of line. That's about it. Once all the marbles are hit, they line them up and do it again. No one ever seems particularly put out in these games, though. Must be some of those where everyone wins.

Then there are the toys that the youngest, those who lack the dexterity to flick a marble or hand-eye coordination to hit a stick, play with. They make themselves, too.

Beside the chunks of scrap wood, you can see a car in Ben's arms. Yeah, that corn stalk with metal wire pushed through the end and plastic Vaseline caps on either side. That's their car. The boys will push those around for hours. They don't normally have corn stalks on hand, so the shaft is made from metal wire. I don't mind when they pull this wire out of a bin. I do mind when they pull the wire out of the toilet wells.

I've seen pictures and movies of kids playing with these in Victorian London. Never in real life. Until now. Except they don't use sticks. Just their hands. They'll chase around bucket tops as well. Anything round.

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