I have been following my husband’s Writing Safari blog, he is recording a tour he has arranged and is running for 16 of his pupils. and it reminded me of this piece I wrote last year April while on a family holiday in Paris.
When I was young my family holiday was a drive to the sea punctuated by picnic stops to eat egg or polony sandwiches by the side of the road. But I wanted to be like other kids, whose parents weren’t as wholesome as mine – they stopped at the Golden Egg for toasted sarmies and chips.
I didn’t have any friends who went overseas, the Golden Egg and the Durban beachfront being about as good as it got. Now, as I write this, my own family and I are sitting in the Marais district of Paris, around the corner from the city’s oldest house (dating from the 1200s) and surrounded by new and ancient culture. It makes me think about how fortunate some of us are to be able to travel to faraway places and to expose our children to the wider reaches of the world.
Sometimes that means a journey from the KZN heartland in a dilapidated school bus to the coast, a trip that the woman who works for me was never able to make when she was a child, despite living only 200kms from the ocean; at other times it means a drive across the border or a flight over the ocean.
I’d like to believe, perhaps romantically, that exposing my son to French culture and history, having him greet waiters and shop assistants in his limited French, climbing the Eiffel Tower with children of all nationalities, standing on the spot from which thousands of Jewish French children were sent to concentration camps, spotting cannonball damage from the French Revolution in the Bastille area, helps to start conversations about freedom, dignity and humanity from a different angle. And that all of this broadens his mind.
But it’s also true that the children of fellow tourists and residents in Paris all look rather the same, dressed in Nike trainers, sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of American colleges, tapping busily on iPhones, chewing gum and sharing iPod headphones.
Perhaps there is another message in that. When I was young the wave of other cultures, whether from overseas or across the hill in the nearby township, was barely a ripple by the time it washed up on my shores. Now culture flows ceaselessly backwards and forwards across the world and some of the unique differences might have been lost.
Nevertheless, under pressure people fall back on cultural differences and old hates rise up again very quickly. We see this in South Africa. One politician’s use of the word ‘refugee’ can arouse fierce, historical hurts, while a rise in bread prices can lead to stoning of Somalian shopkeepers.
That’s why I believe that exposing your children as much as possible to other cultures in your own country and across the world serves a powerful purpose – to see the connections we have with other cultures and tie our humanity to them. The choice is then theirs as to how to live their lives and create an ethical system, although it’s likely their values will still largely work off yours.
There are also those who argue forcefully for raising children within their distinct culture, with rules and rituals for how to dress, speak, what to eat, when to perform particular actions, and even whom to marry and associate with.
Whatever approach you take, here are a couple of questions that I think are worth asking of your children as they grow up:
- Do some of your friends and acquaintances expand you as a person, sharing different ways of life with you and giving you access to interesting new ideas, making you more curious about life; or are they always just the same as you, do they narrow you down and support your prejudices and stereotypes?
- Do your beliefs and lifestyle encourage or at least allow you to connect with other groups different from you, willing to see a common humanity, or do they alienate you from others and demonise others?
Here are some things that parents and schools can do to broaden children’s minds and open their eyes:
- Teach children a second or third language,
- Allow children to learn about cultures and religions different from their own,
- Explore other African countries (an academic or cultural school tour doesn’t only have to go to Europe – what about Namibia, Ghana or Kenya?),
- Set up exchange programmes with schools and communities in your own country, and
- Go to national monuments and museums that acknowledge the histories and experiences of the diversity of people.