Sunday, May 31, 2009

Children's Games

Reading some passages from Moritz Thomsen's Living Poor more critically, I can see differences between the people living in Rio Verde, Ecuador, and those living here in my Philippine barangay, that have tempered and solidified both my understanding of poverty and of Thomsen's Peace Corps experience. He wrote that he "began to be aware that in the town there was scarcely a moment when a baby's crying didn't fill the air. . . . Like a revelation, I suddenly realized that these screams were the screams of human beings learning about poverty. They were learning about sickness and about hunger; they were learning in a hard school what they could expect from life, learning to accept their destiny and the futility of revolting against it. They were being twisted and maimed. They were being turned from normal human beings into The Poor." After growing somewhat inured to the sound of screaming children here, I am more convinced that screaming is what children do - it's their only means of communicating anything. I hear laughter, too, and screams of pleasure from children as young as two and as old as ten. But there is sometimes an occasional forced note, as if they were trying too hard to have fun.

My experience of poverty here has been more varied than Thomsen's. The Peace Corps would never send a volunteer to my barangay. It simply isn't that far gone for such assistance. Thomsen wrote about the children of Rio Verde: "After the age of six they are ready for life, and as for being poor, they know all about it; there isn't a thing they don't know. There are no more tears. They play quietly, gravely in the dirt before their houses, and there is something terrible in their eyes, a kind of blindness."

Part of the sadness of childhood, for the children that I see every day, is how they notice what life has done to their mothers and - when they are still around - their fathers, and how they begin to realize that the same life is waiting for them as well. But there is still time for them to be children.

Watching poor children play is a revelation, not of the desperate shortage of toys, but of how necessity is the mother of invention. For all those Americans who contribute to the U.S. Marine Corps' annual Toys for Tots campaign, I would like them to see how these children create games out of nothing, out of thin air, out of cupped hands, out of rubber bands, aluminum cans, whatever they can lay their hands on. I have watched them find a flat surface, dirt, cement or stone, place an object like a scrap of paper or plastic in front of them, cup their hands together, palms down, and slap the ground beside the object so that the displaced air blows it a few inches away from them. The children gather in groups of two or three and slap the ground in unison to see who can move the object the farthest. The sound of their hands slapping the ground can be heard from twenty or thirty yards away.

Or they will put stones inside an aluminum can and make it into a percussive instrument. Making noise becomes a game. But seeing how rusted the cans are, and the jagged edges of their open lids, I wonder sometimes if the object of their play is to see which of them will contract tetanus first. Some children have actual toys, like hula hoops, plastic guns that make clicking noises when you squeeze the trigger, and toy trucks. But since there are too few to go around, and since these children always play in groups, the toys are soon broken or abandoned.

Around the age of ten, something happens to the children. They are halfway between childhood and adulthood, and they pause, as if on a brink. They grow more serious, more aloof from the others, less spontaneously joyous, but also less prone to tears or cries. If they are boys, they play basketball or work more with their fathers, fishing or chopping firewood. Their play becomes rougher, more violent. But mostly they act as if nothing in the world could possibly relieve their boredom. They have lost the faculty of discovering wonder all around them. It is painful to watch.

But if they are girls, they will spend more time with their mothers and sisters, cleaning, cooking and washing clothes. There is always work for women to do here. And you will never see them with a doll. What use are they when there are real babies that need to be fed and washed and loved everywhere you look? And unless the girls are lucky enough to find something else to occupy them like school or a job as a maid in the city, they too will be having babies soon enough - as soon as some boy, who cannot even afford a condom, in a country that should be airlifting them to these provinces by the millions, can overcome their fear and fill their ears with lies and their minds with fantasies of love. The worst thing about it is that every girl knows there really isn't much of a choice.

But their childhood is still there, and will always be something so much more for them than what it was for some of us from more privileged circumstances (even if it may not have felt so privileged when we were living it) - a time of heedless days, of endless play, and games that are never so serious that the rules cannot be changed so that even the losers can sometimes win.

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