Children of the World
I am lying in a ger in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, listening to the wind and rain as I reflect on the children whose lives I have seen over the last couple of months.
All over Kazakhstan and Mongolia we have seen children collect water for their families, dragging heavy urns to and from the village tap or even a nearby stream. Sometimes not even having an urn or a trolley but collecting water in old plastic bottles and carrying them back home in their arms. The older children help the younger ones and then carry the heavier bottles themselves. Children working together as a team to get their chores done.
In a small village in Mongolia, we stopped to ask directions. A man called over a child, no more than seven or eight, and told him to get in our car and show us the way to the village shop. It was several streets away. Another time an older man of the village called a little girl of about the same age over, she then ran ahead of us showing us the way to the café, her face beaming as she looked back to make sure we are still following. They expected nothing in return.
Up on a distant hill we spotted two horseman shepherding a flock of some 400 sheep. One of them galloped towards the road we were driving on, heading us off. We slowed down and waited, only to realise as the first horseman reached us that he was only about 10 years old, competently riding bareback. He, along with his 14 year old brother, appeared alone in charge of the family’s precious flock. They were entranced by the camera screen showing their image in the photo we have just taken. Of course they were not entirely alone in the vast expanse of the Mongolian savannah. We could not see their fathers but their fathers could see them. Powerful monoculars allow the nomadic tribesmen of Mongolia to watch over their flocks and families from vast distances.
At other times, we have seen fathers and their teenage sons working together.
After camping in a dry river bed for a few days we set off to cross vast open lands of Mongolia. The Mongolians are a naturally curious people and many of the local men stopped to talk to us on their way to and from work, harvesting hay in the swamps, ready for the winter feeds for their animals. They were very clear that we should not try to drive our heavily laden Land Rover through the bog.
But we got it wrong, we made a wrong turn, we couldn’t imagine just how big a bog could be. It turned out to be nearly the size of our home town in England. Perhaps that was why we ended up stuck up to our axles in soggy mud. As we looked around the bog appeared deserted, apart from the swarms of mosquitoes anticipating a tasty meal as we got out of the car to survey the extent of our problem. Then men appeared from nowhere, ambling towards us. These were the same men who had been openly curious and checking out our campsite over the previous few days. Now they laughed at our predicament before they began working as a team to dig us out of the hole we had got ourselves into.
Because we had met this group of men before we knew that one was only sixteen years old, but already with the build and strength of a man. Watching their interactions we saw he was respected as a peer amongst peers as a worker, but we had also seen the shy youth in him. None of the men minded or teased him, but just acted as if all behaviours were normal. Another young man was in this same group, slightly younger in years at about 14 or 15 but much younger in maturity and physical strength. He was accepted but protected by the men he was with. It was encouraging to see how each ‘child’ was treated according to his ability and experience.
Before we left England we spoke to children in schools about the work of Water Aid in Africa, where children also collect the family’s water from the tap or stream. One child asked us why the parents weren’t collecting the water. There was no concept of children doing chores. In Central Asia there is no concept of children not doing chores.
So, as I lay in my Mongolian ger my reflections leave me wondering if we are doing our children a disservice. I ask myself the question: In our collective desire to purge the memories of the child labour that haunts our memories of Victorian England, do we expect children to be launched from childhood into adulthood, full of book learning and theory, with none of the practical experiences of the responsibility of citizenship?