Because Children Know No Cultural Divide
It never ceases to amaze me how children’s friendships cross cultural boundaries so effortlessly. We spent the Idul Fitri holiday in the Togian Islands, off Sulawesi, Indonesia, at a little guesthouse on an idyllic beach.
Amal, the son of the family, is thirteen years old. He was born at home, no midwife in attendance.
His father is from the Bajo, or sea gypsy, people, who still dive for pearls and sea cucumber off these islands: when he was three days old, his own father took him diving to introduce him to the sea. Amal’s mother is Bugis, from a family of sailors, from further south in Sulawesi.
Z is nine. He was born in a London teaching hospital, midwife in attendance, a machine strapped to my stomach to confirm that his heart continued to beat.
Were he attending school, he’d just have entered Year 5, the year that Amal, too, is in. His father’s Australian-British. My heritage is Polish, French, English and Romany. None of Z’s family has worked on land or water for four generations.
Amal’s ceremonies and rituals are Muslim: gifts and cookies at Hari Raya (Eid al Fitri), the party which marks the end of Ramadan, fireworks at Idhul Adha (Eid al Adha), the end of the month of Haj. Z’s are secular Christian: chocolate at Easter, presents at birthday, stockings at Christmas.
Neither Amal nor his family has ever left Indonesia, or, for that matter, travelled far from this little cluster of islands, three hours from the little port of Ampana, twelve from the larger port of Gorontalo on the other side of the gulf. Z had visited fifteen countries before we started our journey in January.
Electricity came to the Togians fairly recently. On Pulau Kadidiri, Amal’s island, the generators only run from sunset to sunrise. There are no computers in the household. None, apparently, in the school the children attend on the larger island. The guesthouse has a book exchange but, with the dubious exception of the Koran, books are not a part of family life.
Z’s family has been on grid for four generations at least. He’s grown up with computers and owns his own laptop. His parents and grandparents own shelves upon shelves of books. And before we left England, Z’s own books covered fifteen feet or so of shelves.
Now. As we’ve travelled, Z’s made friends with children from all around the world. He’s played Beyblades and hide and seek in Hanoi’s Temple of Literature with two Vietnamese brothers; he’s made clown pictures on his mobile with rural Cambodian kids; he’s captured chickens with Hmong children in rural Laos and played with a silkweaver’s daughter in Luang Prabang; he’s kayaked and snorkelled El Nido in the Philippines with a kid from Ukraine; he’s toured Malaysia’s Penang with a little Swiss girl…
But I loved the happy, contented, physical way he played with Amal. And one thing that really struck me was how much he learnt.
Aka, Amal’s dad, was finishing off a new boat and building a new beach hut for the guesthouse while we were there, at the sort of leisurely, tropical pace that makes life in the Togians even slower than the rest of rural Indonesia. It’s rare, in the developed West, to see a boat built from start to finish, let alone a house.
So Z, naturally, wanted to help. He wasn’t much cop with the hammer. His sawing was hopeless. And he had no idea what a plane was for. But Aka let him help. And Amal helped him help, too.
Then Amal made a gun, from scratch. He sawed it and planed it from wood offcuts which didn’t make the grade from the boat, using strands of inner-tube for the mechanism. The result fires wire bullets when you release the “firing pin”, functioning, essentially, like a spear gun.
He made Z one too. Then, with several hours of painstaking struggle over a couple of days, Z made his own.
And the boys charged around the beach, shooting each other. As boys do.
Other games they played?
They made fires on the beach; improvised Ramadan fireworks using match-heads and a rock; blew up nearly every cigarette lighter on the island in the cause of fireworks until someone spotted them; wrestled underwater; snorkelled; swam; and, erm, played the Puppy Olympics.
Rules of the game? Chuck the family’s (remarkably compliant) puppies in the sea and race them back to shore. A game that inspired Z sufficiently for him to actually use Indonesian (normally he prefers to wait till I’m struggling then come out with the correct word) to suggest they play it again.
When we left, Amal filled Z’s arms with pomelos, the gigantic and delicious citrus, from the tree in the garden. Z gave him a toy gun he’d bought in Rantepao. And Amal gave him a dolphin pendant.
God knows how their lives will pan out in the future. But children around the world have far more commonalities than differences. And watching the boys charging around the beach I could only wish we adults could find the same.
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