I spend the long hot days chatting to the women, helping to clean the house, washing and feeding my youngest as she crawls around the floor whilst my eldest Eleanor is playing in streets. Eleanor disappears after her breakfast – a hastily consumed egg and a roll – running down the street to call on a prima. She reappears periodically, rosy cheeked to beg for water. She can be easily rounded up for lunch but by early evening has to be found and bought home (kicking and protesting) to be bathed before her dinner. By then she’s usually rosy cheeked and black with dirt. Her clothes are unrecognisable from all the dust. Cubans are strong believers in bathing before eating and virtually never bath afterwards for fear of it stopping their hearts.
Eleanor is four and I genuinely have very little idea where she is for most of the day. The lifestyle here allows me not to worry, just a quick enquiry and she’s located. She is passed from house to house visiting friends and neighbours’ kids. Once school finishes the street is filled with kids from all ages playing together, the older kids looking after the younger ones. They make up games, play races or hide and seek. They find sticks and bottle tops to play baseball. They make sand castles out of the dirt streets and carve their names in it with sticks. They play in a parked truck to shelter from the sun. They take turns on one of the boys bicycles. The older kids holding it for the younger kids and running them up and down the streets. One day they find an old cassette tape, take out all the tape and use it as a skipping rope, they stretch it the length of the street in a game that only they understand. They decorate a tree with it. The thin black threads fluttering in the breeze catching the light of the sun.
At midday, when the sun is at it’s strongest they retire to someone’s house. All the kids have a few toys, a small bag with random things in such as an old plastic doll, a kinder toy, a fake plastic gun. The plastic here is flimsy. All their toys are flimsy. They sit and play or they watch a bit of tv. Because of the sun tv is an integral part of their day.
When we first arrived Eleanor begged to go to the park to play on the swings but after a few visits she’s stopped asking. There’s no shade in the parks and the equipment is metal. By 10.30 everything is too hot to touch, burning your feet and your hands. What would have been a daily trip back home to pass a few hours is an occasional trip if we are up early enough.
After a few months Eleanor is approaching a feral status. She is like a scruffy bandit, running around dirty faced in the street. But it’s a wonderful thing. She’s learning freedom. She’s learning to imagine – to play with thin air and make it a game. She’s learning to look after those younger than her. She’s learning everyone, young or old, should be included. She’s creating games. We could never have this at home where I barely know my neighbours and there are too many cars to allow them to play in the street. The weather isn’t warm enough for people to sit on their front step keeping an eye either. I think this, as an education, is the best she could have.
But in counter to this freedom she has, this wonderful social interaction that allows her to be a child and learn to play amongst others, there is another side to this culture that stops her being independent and learning to be herself. I have worked hard to teach her to dress herself, brush her teeth, wash in the shower and feed herself. She takes enormous pride in doing these things picking out her clothes with care, showing me her brushed teeth. With two kids I need her to do these things to help me out. I always check her teeth and advise on bits she may have missed. When she says she’s done in the shower I ask, ‘have you washed your face?’. ‘Have you washed your feet.’ She replies sheepishly, ‘No’. Then she washes herself properly. This way she learns to be independent. So she is rightly outraged and upset when everyone here insists on washing her, feeding her, dressing her and brushing her teeth. Her frustration is taken for a troublesome streak when in fact she’s fed herself since she was weaned at six months, dressed herself for several years and loves a shower. But they cannot grasp this. Her seven year old cousin is washed, dressed and has her hair brushed by her mum, a five year old neighbour is still washed, dressed and spoon fed by her Abuela. Eleanor’s cousin is five and spoon fed, washed and dressed. They have everything done for them. The idea of food being spilled, water being wasted, good clothes being ruined is part of it but kids are not allowed this independence. The idea of teaching them to think for themselves simply not cultivated.
In havana I often pass an ice cream man, he likes chatting. He tells me one day not to education my kids here. He shakes his head sadly telling me, ‘It’s not an education it’s a doctrine. No-one here learns to think for themselves.’
I can see what he means. My aunt proudly talks about how well her grandchild is doing in nursery, he is a bright young boy and is quick to learn. He knows his Cuban history perfectly. He knows about the revolution. He knows what Cuba stands for. He does not know how to count, identify letters and shapes, or know any common nursery songs and games. He can’t do a jigsaw puzzle or solve a shape sorter. But he can name the important figures in his countries political makeup and the important movements that got them there. I know my daughter does not, and will not for a long time, know my countries politics and history – choice perhaps leading to apathy. She can however count, recognise and write all her letters, speak English and Spanish with some French and she knows all her shapes. The balance isn’t correct in either country, there is in both cases too much and too little.
What I see burn so bright in youth is lost in adults. I wonder where this spark goes. The ability to dream either forgotten, suppressed or not daring. No one here has big dreams unless it’s of leaving. Why dream when you don’t have any real choice. When everyone has the same and all are equal, dreaming really has no place. They are not taught to be entrepreneurs or to create new things. In a life where so much is controlled there is so little they can change and even if they could they’ve no idea how they’d go about doing it. Dreaming leads to sadness and disappointment. A life spent on pills or staring into an empty bottle. Dreams need fuel. Stories of conquests, adventures, possibilities in the stars, to be able to build a path of your own.
An education is many things – social, academic, reason, ideas, experimenting, information. These element shape your ability to manage life, using information to make decisions, come to conclusions, move forwards. The more you know, the more you can imagine. Endless possibilities. I watch the kids running down the street cassette tape streamers held high, glimmering behind them and I see all the possibilities and dreams. I see them bursting with this richness of culture and community of youth. I am proud to be part of it. But I am a cheat for I am taking the best of both worlds. For I will not send my girls to school here. I will choose freedom and I hope one day, as adults, they will have dreams.