Every so often the opportunity to develop greater understandings of children’s play in different parts of the world comes along. In recent months I’ve been fortunate to have had correspondence with a fellow writer, Val Cameron, an experienced teacher who’s now based in South Sinai. Val has taught widely overseas in places I can only dream of visiting, and her angle on children, their play, and the socio-political frameworks in which they play and engage with one another is just one of those opportunities to take up.
The following is a guest blog written by Val, as requested by myself, and interspersed (i.e. edited in) with further notes from our various communications (published following the author’s final approval). I trust I’ve sewn everything that she’s written for me together in a way that best represents her extensive experience.
Valerie Cameron has been teaching English language for 35 years, mainly overseas. She considers herself lucky that her ‘career’ has been a protracted working holiday. She started in Europe and then travelled around West Africa for three months. Crossing the Sahara desert on a sheep lorry, Val says she found peace in its silent emptiness. A year after ‘the Wall’ came down, she worked in an industrial town in north eastern Hungary. Afterwards — in Salalah, South Oman — she was able to camp out with Bedouins, observing their disappearing way of life. More recently she has spent two years teacher training in a large government school in post-revolutionary Egypt. When the job was suspended due to unrest, she moved to Dahab in South Sinai, where she volunteers in a local nursery. She is interested in traditional cultures: particularly desert tribes.
Children’s play in South Sinai and Alexandria
Dahab, on the south east coast of the Sinai peninsula, is far from the unrest of Egyptian cities. Previously under Israeli rule, it became popular as a hippie-hangout. Today it is one of the Lonely Planet’s top ten places to chill. Traffic is light and most drivers never reach fourth gear.
I pick my way over the stony ground in the lane that leads to my house, past children playing marbles: this is their playground. An occasional truck stops play, otherwise goats keep to the fringes. These games make me feel nostalgic. They are reminiscent of Britain in the 50s, before cars took over. The lanes are quiet and safe; every child is known to the community. Commercial toys are unusual and children make do with what’s there.
Left to their own devices, Bedouin children in South Sinai play with bits and pieces that Western children might ignore, e.g. bicycle tyres for rolling, rocks, cardboard and wood. There are games with stones.
They go swimming here, boys and girls together, running around in bare feet. It’s certainly freer than the Gulf countries. In the Middle East, after puberty, girls have to stay at home and must be accompanied by their brothers or another male family member if they go out: so no playing outside, or going out with their friends (hence the popularity of going to college — escape!)
Egypt is more liberal than the Gulf countries and teenage girls can go out in groups like the boys. Since the revolution though, the teenagers in the street can be menacing and threatening. You don’t see many children playing on the streets. I never saw young girls on the street playing. Fights are commonplace among boys. Rarely you see them playing football due to lack of play areas. In the Gulf countries, boys play football since there is space. You do not see girls playing on the street, only boys.
Sinai is a poor region and has more traditional play than petro-rich Brunei (below). Favourite games in Sinai include sega marbles. This is played on level ground in side streets or lanes. Equally popular is kika: children throw stones at a target of a pile of stones. Depending on the number that fall, the player must hopscotch along squares in the sand. Each square is numbered. When they get to their number, they have to jump 360 degrees and return. The winner has the most stones down. Smaller children play hide and seek. At the edge of tarred roads, a popular game is rolling a hoop or bicycle tyre.
There is a difference in behaviour between the Bedouin children in South Sinai (who come from largely illiterate backgrounds but have the run of their areas) and the children in Alexandria, Egypt. I was often shocked by the roughness of city boys, pounding each other on the ground, bullying; crying was very common (at school too). School playgrounds are battlefields. Classroom assistants control fights by hitting the children with rubber pipes, sticks or even kicking them. Teachers do not often interfere since they are afraid of being injured.
The majority of urban Egyptians live in tower blocks and the streets are choked with traffic. Undoubtedly, the combination of being cooped up all day in school and in a flat with no garden leads to frustration. By contrast, Bedouin children in general do not fight so much with each other. They come from large families where the average number of children is ten. Relatives tend to live nearby. They swim in the summer and play outside all year. Alexandrian children who can afford computers spend hours surfing the net. On the other hand, the Mediterranean is a resource for swimming, fishing, and for boys to climb over concrete breakwaters: not so the girls. Children visit each others’ homes or go out to the city’s Royal Park along the coast. They play hide and seek, tag, and ball games. There are some private beaches where it’s safe to swim.
In Sinai, the weather is benign except for a few exceptionally hot weeks in the summer. The local population is poor, relying on tourism which shores up the south, sidelined by the Egyptian government. It was taken back from Israel after the Camp David Treaty in 1979. Since the revolution, businesses have gone under and financial difficulties are widespread. Children use their imaginations and each other to entertain themselves.
Children at play in Brunei Darussalam, Borneo
I also spent three years in Borneo among Muslim Malays. Brunei Darussalam is a small country in north west Borneo, on the coast of the South China Sea. It is a multi-ethnic society with three main groups: Malay, Chinese and tribal. The Malays are Muslim, while the Chinese are Buddhist and Christian. The tribal groups of Iban, Dayak and Kelabit traditionally live up-river and are animist. The groups, to a large extent, fall into two categories, namely: tribal and town-dwellers.
Tribal Borneans tend to live in longhouses along the country’s rivers which are its roads. The settlements are permanent. Children play outside in the river and jungle. They keep unusual pets such as monkeys, lizards or birds. At a young age boys go hunting with the men, who use blowpipes, while girls help with the cooking, which is played out in ‘make-believe’ games. They play with woven and wooden toys and objects found in the river or forest.
In these rural areas, where there is less money to buy the latest high-tech gadgets, children are more likely to play traditional games such as congkak, getah, spinning tops, ketingting, wau kites, and marbles (guli).
Ketingting is similar to hopscotch. It cannot be played on grass, which is unsuitable for marking with chalk. Sometimes children play on the veranda of a longhouse.
In getah children jump over an elastic band held across the floor. It is raised gradually by two helpers on either side. The winner is the one who manages to jump the highest without touching it.
Wau kites are made from bamboo sticks soaked in water for up to two weeks. Paper is placed over the frame; rice paper is cut out and stuck onto the wings of the kite.
Congkak is a game for two and popular throughout south east Asia. It consists of a board which has seven holes on either side, ‘houses’, and two larger holes, ‘storehouses’, at either end. The objective of the game is to gather as many congkak seeds into the ‘storehouses’ on the player’s side. Each ‘house’ hole is filled with seven rubber seeds or cowrie shells before the game. On a turn, a player removes all pieces from one of the seven holes on his side. He then distributes them clockwise — one in each hole to the left of this hole — in a process called sowing. Sowing skips an opponent’s ‘home’ but not a player’s own ‘home’. If the last piece falls into an occupied hole, then all the pieces are removed from that hole and are sown in the same way (clockwise from that hole) in another round. This player’s (current) turn ends when the last piece falls into an empty hole on the opponent’s side. The game ends when no pieces are left in any hole on both sides of the board. The players now count the number of pieces in their own ‘home’ and see who has won.
Brunei Darussalam has a high per capita income. Expats from Europe and Asia work in the oilfields. Children living in air-conditioned townhouses have adopted more modern pastimes such as Playstation and computers. Ideas for reviving traditional games include games showcasing at weddings and school games clubs.
The Chinese are freer and tend to have more extra-curricular activities like music or sports lessons.
(Author’s note: these views have been recorded after personal observation and are not based on academic research).
Valerie’s blog can be found via www.valcam55.wordpress.com