“Simama watu wote, say yes for children…” sang in the beautiful and youthful voices of Talia, two other girls and a bunch of other kids filled me with awe when I listened to it as a child. Still does to be honest, now that I think about it. But as a child, seeing other children out there, advocating for our rights, that was huge! Writing this piece made me think about that song. I’m not a child now but am echoing their message. Tusimame! Let’s all stand up!
I’m busy shepherding my nephew and two nieces off the bus when one of my nieces asks me, “Why were we getting mean looks in the bus?” I’m horrified! What the hell? How did I miss that? How did I not protect them from that? Now I really want to get right back into that bus and start knocking around heads. But before I do that, I have to know whose head to bash in.
“You were?” I ask, beast momentarily reigned in. She then tells me about these women that were standing in the bus and who were the source of the aforementioned mean looks. I remember those women, they got in a few stops after the main stage. It all makes sense now, doesn’t erase the ire though – I’m still irked! I’m very much irked! Hence the ranting now. So I explain to my bewildered niblings as am explaining to you now.
Growing up, there was this thing that adults had. In public transport and social gatherings, children were not allowed to sit if there was an adult present who didn’t have a seat. It was more than frowned upon. The backlash for being such an “entitled brat” was severe. They’d make you fit right back into your britches. How dare you sit while an adult stood? You’d be shamed, harassed, reprimanded! Where was the respect? The reverence due to that adult? They were the watu wazima after all – literally translated as “full people.”
Did that make us half people? I often wondered. It sometimes felt like it. Like adults mattered more than we did. Especially with the “children are to be seen and not heard” mentality that pervaded our childhood. I look at my niblings now and all the opinions that they have on lots of things, opinions that they freely share, sometimes to an embarrassing (for us) degree. But they share with no fear of repercussions. They know that their opinions are valid. They have never had cause to question that or to imagine a time when children couldn’t freely share. But we too had opinions; we weren’t blank blobs that after a number of years on this earth, transformed into opinionated adults. Some of us were lucky enough to have adults in our lives that encouraged us to be ourselves, to have opinions and to share them. But there was backlash for those adults too. Didn’t they have any self-respect?
Take for instance this one time, that I, a child in church and tired of lagging around my jacket, that I had taken off because it was obviously hot. Plus the church was too small for the number that congregated there, making being in there unbearable especially in hot weather. So what do you do as a child, when you no longer need a jacket or a sweater? Remove it and leave it there, it’s no longer useful after all. I have seen that happen a lot, lots of parents – or parent-adjacents like I am – know what am talking about, as they keep buying or trying to find stuff that has been lost or left at some unknown place once it’s no longer needed, the children not thinking about the fact that it will be needed later on.
I don’t know if I was usually that mindful of my things, or if it was just that one day, but I decided to give the jacket to my dad. Only my dad wasn’t sitting with the rest of the congregation, no, he was sitting at the front of the church with other members of the church’s pastoral council. And I think the Nairobi Archbishop at the time, was also visiting; probably had something to do with making the church less of a sardine can. I do pick my moments, there’s no doubt about that. In my defense though, the occasion did make my dad easier to find. Anyway, so I walk up to my dad and toss the jacket at him, saying, “chukua hiyo daddy” and mission accomplished, I walk off to do whatever it is kids did, having no thought as to the implications of my actions. But it turned out to be a big deal. It was deemed a lack of respect, not by my dad, he didn’t mind at all, but by others. And his not minding also became an issue. How could he let me be so disrespectful? How was he okay with such behavior? How was he okay with being treated thusly?
Years later and his grandchildren find themselves in a similar position. They have been deemed disrespectful because they didn’t get up and offer their bus seats to adults. Something that didn’t even register with them. They don’t know that it used to be a thing, or that it apparently still is. For growing up, we got used to that constant refrain, “amka, patia mtu mzima kiti.” – get up, let the full person have the seat. It was one of the soundtracks of our childhood. But what my niblings do know about is sitting and having their seatbelts on during drives, for safety reasons. It has been drilled into them. That is one of their soundtracks. They, my nephew especially, get worried when we use public means and that particular bus or matatu has no working seatbelts. He’s conscientious that way. Now telling them about children standing in buses, that’s scandalous. How safe is that? They wonder.
I wonder the same too. I have been like those women after all. Not giving mean looks to innocent children, but getting onto a bus when it’s full because am running late and don’t want to wait for the next one. There are bumps, potholes, unceremonious brakings and swervings – as some of those bus drivers seemingly audition to join The Fast and the Furious crew – and you have to hold onto the seats or the bars at the top of the bus, or risk ending up on someone’s lap, or worse, getting hurt. It’s hard enough as an adult, standing up and trying to stay that way until someone gets off the bus and we quickly move – like hungry chicken being fed leftovers – to get to that freed seat. Yet we expect children to somehow manage it. And then there are these well-meaning – probably, I hope – people who offer to hold our children for us. No offence but I don’t know you and I don’t want you holding my niblings. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t consider that safe either.
So, then I go with what I consider safe and comfortable. I choose to pay for the children’s seats, having waited for an empty (or emptyish) bus where we can all seat on the same row (or is it column, I get confused). I sat with my nephew on one side, and my nieces sat together on the other side of the aisle. And a few stops later, these women get in, and not finding any empty seats, expect the three children in the bus to give up their seats. But no one held a gun to their heads and made them board that bus. Yet these children, busy minding their own business and in their paid-for seats are expected to pay for those adults’ choices? They expected the children to know that they should stand up and give up their seats. And when that didn’t happen, my niblings, the innocent souls end up being the recipients of mean looks. What the hell?
These kind of full-people really do need to get with the program. For as my niece, rightly said, after I explained the not-so rich history of children and seats, “But that is so unfair!”
There endeth my ranting. Until next time.