By SAMHITA BAROOAH
My recent revelations about rural children in Nagaland have been very fascinating. I would really wish them to be children and not be in hurry to grow up. Agrarian societies consider children as productive labour for any kind of domestic and farm related work. In tribal societies, though children embodies the traditional customs, values, skills and identities from a very tender age. It is almost ingrained into their upbringing to be resilient to limited resources, rough terrain and adopt survival strategies to withstand all kinds of vulnerabilities. In rural Nagaland, children do not play with fantasy and fairy tales; they play with realistic toys, natural spaces and work hard while playing. I noticed how children wanted to grow up as soon as possible to be able to help their parents, earn a living and also to be independent. When I say realistic toys, they are playing with bare minimum resources within their household spaces. Some children go to school but during their holidays they work very hard in their farmlands and also collect herbs, fodder and firewood from the forest.
Young boys goes for hunting very early while the older ones goes for fishing as well in the river below their villages. Young girls are mostly bound by household chores and sibling sitting while their parents are working in their fields. A five year old is supposed to look after her younger sister, guard the dry paddy from chickens and also attend to guests and neighbours. A few children work in small tea shops and also carry head loads of firewood in the villages where I visited during my field work. Once a young man who wanted to start his own tea shop shared that he would rather employ children and look after them like his own children as adult workers cannot be trusted.
In a recent conversation with a young parent, he shared his worry of how his three-year-old second daughter was not contributing to household labour and only eating food. He doesn’t want to send her to school as she does not work. She is a liability for him as he is already supporting the education of 2 of his older children in a missionary school. But since the fees is too high for a farmer like him whose livelihood depends on daily wage and subsistence farming he cannot afford to educate his third child who is a daughter chirpy and eager to learn English alphabets. This year the child was supposed to go to school along with her older siblings but she has been denied the opportunity due to cash hungry agrarian livelihoods. Wonder when education will be free, fair and fun for children and their parents to access, afford and avail the benefits of education.
Children enjoy their childhood in bamboo stick games, trucks made out of rubber slipper wheels, broken tins, wood chips and other such wastes. Toys for boys are sometimes plastic wrapped footballs and wood carved guns. Girls are happy with strings, stones and mud. Some children climb trees, play with cats, chicken, pigs and dogs in their household spaces. Only a privileged few in rural Nagaland get to touch and feel toys which are thrown after a single use in urban areas. Being a child seems to be expensive and difficult in some homes. There is a constant struggle for seeking attention of the parents and also for getting an extra morsel of delicacies and special eateries. Basic food supplements are provided within the homes and neighbourhoods. Children also enjoy the taste of seasonal fruits like gooseberry, wild apples, grape fruits, oranges and bananas from the fruit trees in home gardens and also in the nearby forests. But nutritional food supplements from state run agencies are sporadic and occasional.
The local market also provides an attractive spread of sugar coated confectioneries which lure children in a tremendous way. Some families can afford such comfort foods for their children while most children are satisfied with their family foods. Children are forced to adapt to adulthood at an early age. Strictures of respect, regard and restraint are ingrained into the child rearing practices from an early age.
In another interaction with a village youth, I enquired “who is a perfect boy in your village?” So the young boy said, “When a boy does not complain about hardship and hard work then that boy is a perfect boy.” When I asked a girl about the perfect qualities of a boy, she said that the boy should respect women. When I asked a girl about the perfect girl she said, “A girl should be respecting others and do her work well”. When a boy was asked about a girl, he said, “Girls should socialise in community programmes and take care of the household and also help her mother.” These are some of the expectations which define childhood and adolescence in the context of rural Nagaland.
How I wished that children enjoyed their childhood without getting the pressure of growing up. In this struggle to grow up some children also gets violated, abused and remain silent for their entire future. Children witness both the joy and pain of their families, but if there is no social support mechanism to encourage children’s freedom of expression, then being a child will be forbidden forever. Childhood prisms are figments of complex rural realities where the children suffer much more than they can express. I wished the children could play an hour more, eat a little more and enjoyed their toys some more and kept remembering, ‘Spoil the rod and spare the child.’