KAMPALA, UGANDA I’m in the heart of Africa, at Kampala International School, with other parents having morning coffee. We’re talking about fun.
Actually, we’re talking about lack of fun and political correctness, that fear of one’s shadow, something we’ve left behind in our homes in the U.S., Europe and Canada.
“In Canada,” I say, “there’s a chain of coffee shops called Tim Hortons.” Blank stares. “And I ordered a chili. You know. Ground beef in tomato sauce.”
“It was room temperature, just terrible. So I returned it and asked if it could be heated. The gal said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’ ”
“I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. I said, ‘I’ve just paid four bucks for this.’ So she asked her manager and finally got permission.”
This, thanks to the killjoy culture of litigation now spread from the U.S. The chili might be too hot, you know, and if it spills on my lap I may sue the pants off Tim’s.
Kurtis Peterson, a Torontonian who is principal of the elementary wing of this international school, recalls how in B.C. he wanted a sandwich cut in half. Just a little cut. No sir. Nope. Can’t risk it. It’s the knife, you see. Might be dirty. Might spread salmonella or something. We roll our eyes.
Peterson then shares how certain Toronto schools removed playground swings some years ago, fearing they were dangerous. Swings. Swings! Have we gone insane?
The discussion moves to a seven-year-old Dutch boy who just broke his arm in this school’s playground, for the second time. I reminisce about my own broken arm from a gym vaulting horse. We agree, for children a broken bone is better than a broken spirit.
Maybe we’re just extra-hardy, my lot and I. After all, we live in a risky place like Africa, where it takes my family 45 minutes for our daily school commute on mad roads that are by far our greatest threat.
No, in fact, we’re just who we are, doing our thing with what’s available, which in this case is an international school that’s comfortable but necessary because Uganda’s impoverished system has few alternatives.
But back to fun. When you get out in the fresh air of the world, you’re awakened to how Western countries have lost it, this ability to run barefoot in the grass. The fun-busters now rule. We’ve let them. And so kids are fat and afraid, covered in body armour if they do venture out, preparing for life, or not, in the ways of fear and anxiety.
I later see Peterson in a corridor. It’s nonsense, I say, all this monkey business spread by the no-no-sayers. It spills into all of life. Kids don’t learn trust in relationships.
“I agree,” he says. He shares about a four-year-old hugging a teacher who, in many Western schools, would now have to say, “Let’s just shake hands, OK?” God help us.
The culture compensates. American TV has more Xtreme shows than ever. Eat your worms. And now there’s a fad for a kind of imposed fun. Red Bull’s London office has a big slide. Google’s staff has games and a yellow brick road. Twitter has hired a team to “make” its employees happy.
Fake fun. There’s something to make us engaged and creative and relaxed at work. There was a day when, for office types, a small lunch drink might do the same.
The reality is that a little risk never hurt anyone. OK, maybe it has.
But the trade-off is well worth it. Because a shot of risk with real-life rewards so often does lead to that deeper trust. And joy.
If you’ve forgotten what the blessing of joy is, think of a boy screaming down a back-yard hill on his new bike.
Or think of a girl on her scooter, hair blowing in the breeze, at peace with the world knowing that it’s been given just to her.
That’s more like the childhood of my own generation.
In these days of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that my own kids are enjoying something similar here, so far from our home, in a place that is, in truth, often more free than dangerous.