Growing up in a Third World nation and Federal Way | Guest Column

Gitau Wanjiku - Contributed
Gitau Wanjiku
— image credit: Contributed

When I was growing up in a Third World country, (I still wonder where the other two worlds are), I used to wonder about all those foreign places that we’d read about in the geography books or see in the open air community movie show.

The great prairies of Canada, the wild, wild west of horses, lassos and gun-slinging cowboys, of sophisticated people who drove huge cars and drank beer like it was water, of a people who had a lot of wealth at their disposal.

I was in awe of the disparity of the choices we had, versus what I observed and heard. I had not the slightest clue that later on in life I’d be part of the next generation’s comparative anecdotal character.

As I look back and contrast life then and now, striking similarities and differences exist between the Third World kid that I was, and the kids I’m raising in the places that previously only existed in the movies and television shows.

Take the matter of going to school for a start. When I was five, my mom took me to the closest nursery school, which was 10 kilomenters away from our home. There were no buses, no shoes and no packed lunch for me either.

And to make sure I got there, I had to run my small feet with my brothers who had to be in class by 7 a.m. come rain or sunshine and be back home after 5 p.m. To compound it, the admission qualification was to touch your ear by passing your opposite hand over your head. Woe to my big head. I couldn’t reach it so I had to repeat my nursery class for a second year.

Having lunch was the rare occurrence; we just didn’t have anything to spare and when we had some leftover supper, I wouldn’t carry it to school and be labeled a baby. No sir.

In comparison, for my kid’s school admission here in Federal Way, a birth certificate was the determinant factor. The kids take the bus right from my front door at 8 a.m., take snacks to school, have lunch at school, and are back home by 3 p.m.

They can choose from a variety of meals and spend most of the day coloring or doing other crafts. To me, some of the strange activities they participate in do not make effective use of time and resource use, such as going to school in their pajamas or spending the day coloring cartoons. It seems such a waste of a day by my school day’s standards, though they can read, do math and speak better English in first grade than when I was in third grade.

On the flip side, my kids cannot walk a mile without complaining and for any small scratched elbow, they want the emergency room now. Only a total limb disability could have kept me away from school. All said, we all learned to read and write, despite the contrasts.

The other aspect regards how I spent my spare time while school was out. Whereas my kids now get three consecutive months for the holidays, we had one month of holiday for every three months of school.

By age 8, I could make a toy car replica from soft wire, essentially and remorselessly stripped from a neighbor’s pasture fencing. Serious time was spent trying to outdo each other in creating flamboyant car styles with shiny wheels from tin cans, closable luggage hatches, or miniature drivers from rags.

Our games involved playing soccer from homemade balls made from polythene shopping bags salvaged from the garbage dumps, nicely wrapped up with twine by a specialist kid. A considerable amount of time was also spent hunting small wild game, such as hares and gazelle, picking delicious wild berries in the forests or sometimes raiding neighbor’s fruit and sugarcane gardens.

Many a day would end up with a communal discipline meted out by our parents. I have wonderful memories of successful raids, botched operations and close encounters with angry neighbors.

For my kids, they spend most of their free time playing online games with their friends and watching TV shows. They talk about Rango, Tom and Jerry, Pink Panther and Dora cartoon characters like they are our next door neighborhood kids. They have to have cartoon-branded bedspreads, a Rango brush and toothpaste and so forth, items I consider as conspicuous consumption.

Occasionally and weather permitting, they also play soccer in the synthetic grass field with their branded balls, shin guards and bright uniforms. They just cannot fathom how we managed our free time without having a TV, cell phone and other electronics and believe I make up my life story of abject poverty as justification to denying them their pacifiers.

They claim to know that they are protected by the Child Protection Act against real or perceived parental harms and thus believe I am not justified in meting out punishment. I insist to them I do not care about the act and anyone who misbehaves by my standards, I will punish and then ship them back home to my village-based watch and punish system. For now, this seems to be working.

At the end of the day, they have their satisfaction when they win an online PS3 game, just like we did after a successful sugarcane raid.

I sometimes wish we had all the stuff that they have, though if I was to choose, I’d bet we had more fun than they have growing up. We had our contraptions and a lot of fun; they have their custom made goods and less fun. But like they say, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

Federal Way resident Gitau Wanjiku is an immigrant from Kenya. His sons, ages 8 and 14, attend the Federal Way school district.


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