Three weeks ago, we packed up our belongings and travelled to live and work in an African village. We left the cold, dark, British winter, and widespread preparations for what seems to have become an increasingly commercial festival of materialism, excess and superficiality (Christmas!). We have replaced a fast pace of life for one where small errands can take a whole morning, walking down dusty paths, stepping by to let the donkey carts pass, exchanging increasing numbers of greetings with the new friends we are making. Instead of Christmas excess, we hear both tuneful and not so tuneful prayer calls five times a day from the nearby mosques, and purchase only the essential items from the local market. In many ways, it is a different world entirely. The change is refreshing, peaceful and beautiful. The children seem so free. From morning to evening, they spend hours running outside, playing intricate games with various kinds of stick or leaf that they have found, and really using their imagination. They come home grubby and hungrily eat some basic, unrefined food, then return to their adventures. Ironically, I am a little more worried about their ‘culture shock’ on returning to the UK than I was about bringing them here!
But perhaps a bigger surprise has been how similar our life is here to that back ‘home’. Since having children, we have consciously examined our lives and sought to provide a solid foundation for them encompassing every aspect of their education. We have stripped away unnecessary clutter, and sought to avoid excessive exposure to unhelpful influences. We take care to live simply and within our means, so that one parent can always be at home, and this too has influenced many of our day to day lifestyle choices.
Freedom to play. Do many children have that these days? Or have we replaced freedom and imagination with structured activities aimed at developing certain skills in our children? Do we stifle one of their most basic needs? And do we make a rod for our own back by not allowing children to develop their imaginations and resourcefulness?
Walking many miles, keeping physically fit and therefore eating and sleeping well. Do we take time to walk, or does our hectic schedule force us to use cars or public transport as we rush from one activity to the next? Do we fret about rising rates of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, yet feel compelled to follow the current trend?
Greeting others in the neighbourhood. Do we get to know those who live near us? Do we stop to spend time? Do we patronise local shops and services rather than travelling further, and so build the sense of community? Does it really matter? Do our children know any others than their own peer group? Could we make simple changes to increase their security and confidence in relationships with a diverse range of people?
Simple, basic food. Do we buy seasonally? Are we resourceful in the recipes we choose? Do we ensure the children receive excellent physical as well as academic nutrition? Does our lifestyle allow time for this?
Time with the children. Do we need to be as busy as we are? Are there any things which are unnecessary clutter in our lives? What are the greatest priorities in our lives? Is there anything which does not help in reaching these aims?
Living within our means. What is most important? Is it a certain house, lifestyle, holidays, other expensive things? Or is it really true that the ‘best things in life are free’? We cannot have it all. Choices, at times sacrificial choices, need to be made for what is most important.
A holistic education. There is nothing my boys lack here. Every aspect of the sketchy ‘curriculum’ we follow is provided for here. (I use principles similar to those outlined by Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education as an atmosphere, a discipline and a life, and basically try and make sure that we read every day, do Bible every day, and then keep a balance between other things throughout the week). Language comes from reading, and colourful descriptions of their surroundings, the landscape, the birds, the smells, the sounds. Social interaction is a part of daily life. Arithmetic and stewardship are achieved by visits to the market. History and geography are met in response to the many questions they ask. Cooking and craft, other creative arts, can be achieved through the imaginative use of local resources. And so I could go on.
Here, in the village, I feel content. The boys are thriving. Life seems whole and balanced. I pray I can keep the same sense of purpose and priority in the face of many conflicting clamorous voices back in the UK.