“It’s 11am in the morning! You can not be watching TV at this time. It seems like you watch TV all the time!” I shrieked at the kids.
They barely looked up. “It’s almost done,” one of them responds, as I hear the familiar intro track of one of their favorite shows.
“I will get rid of the TV!” I threatened unconvincingly. I sighed. Parenting is hard. I felt quite hypocritical as I recalled a similar incident involving a much younger version of myself.
The school year was over. No more early mornings, school days marked with lessons I would rather do without and homework. My siblings and I attended an elementary school (also known as primary school in our parts) which was legendary for its pursuit of academic excellence by all means necessary. Spankings were common for high crimes and misdemeanours too. Late attendance, messy hair and poor results could earn you one. Holidays were days with no cares except the pursuit of pleasure. Chief of these pursuits was watching endless hours of TV. Specifically, digital satellite TV.
Digital satellite TV had just been launched. It provided 24 hours of media content to deprived souls. From sci-fi to comedy, animation to drama, thrillers and cooking shows it was all available at the touch of a button. This was revolutionary.
When we were growing up, before the introduction of 24 hour TV in Kenya, TV viewing started at 4pm with the national anthem. I was always unsure whether I should rise or stay seated. We then had an hour or two of cartoons. Our favorites included Duck Tales, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Danger Mouse, Thundercats, The Muppet Show, Flash Gordon and Button Moon. My sister, an expert in mimicry, spoke like Minnie Mouse for weeks. She nearly drove Mum crazy. Kids shows coincided with activities such as homework, bath time and meal time which intruded on this precious time. We tried to explain to Mum that cartoons were necessary for our general wellbeing. Food, homework and a bath were not.
With or without notice, the TV content would then change, in our opinion, to the dullest, most boring content that the broadcasters could muster that inevitably scared children off. This continued on until 10pm at night when the screen went blank until the next day at 4pm in the afternoon. On and on it went until satellite TV arrived.
‘The best in television entertainment at your fingertips. Watch international news, shows, the latest movies, series and sports.’ Our parents subscribed. TV guides were received monthly in the mail, their covers featuring the latest Hollywood celebrities. The guides detailed upcoming shows. We were zealous converts.
We watched hours and hours of TV. Our parents did not approve of course. We promised daily to adhere to a modicum of discipline and watch only after some homework was done and for a specified time. Obviously, as soon as they left for work, every pledge and promise was broken within minutes. They were none the wiser we surmised in our childish minds. Besides, TV was educational. Once in a while we learnt something about nature or geography .
Our parents let us know their reservations about our increasingly obsessive viewing, as well as some of the content which was not age appropriate. This was before parental control settings were easy. We would behave for a while and then come undone.
‘Service is scrambled as your account is not paid. Please settle your account’. Black blank screen. They simply forgot to pay, we concluded on day one. On day two, three and four, we turned on the screen with increasing anxiety longing to see those beautiful images that connected us to our entertainment universe. Nothing. Black, blank screen.
“Service has been disconnected,” we said to Mum as though she was unaware of the TV and the message on the blank screen. She shrugged. She should have been a poker player. The higher the stakes were, the more unreadable her expression became. She did not say a word.
A few days later, I opened the bedroom door to see a pile of mean looking books. The thick kind, with no pictures and lots of text. I looked around. Was this a mistake? I picked up the books, carried them into the room and began to look through them. Robert Ludlum, Fredrick Forsyth, Long Walk to Freedom: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi. I was in disbelief.
At this point, it was clear that our parents were up to something. There was a conspiracy of silence amplified by the message on the blank screen. Like addicts in withdrawal, we had periods of anger, frustration, dejection and desperation. They could not sever our ties to our digital paradise. Could they? It was unthinkable.
Once boredom mounted to the point that it was unbearable, we started to flip the pages. It was painful. Small text, too much detail and no background music. We gave up many times. We lived in a pretty secluded suburb and there was not much to do. We had to fill our days.
After a few weeks, we had read through the stack of books. Before we could celebrate, another stack appeared. Jeffrey Archer, Guy de Maupassant and an endless supply of Time, Newsweek and Reader’s Digests. At least there was humor in the ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ section in Reader’s Digest. On and on it went. Eventually, as we worked our way through the piles, we started to scour the shelves on our own. We leafed through Britannica and Collier’s Encyclopaedia collections, previously ornamental pieces to us.
Our parents were members of a nearby library. We ventured in unsure of what to expect. The quiet was unsettling. The dour, bespectacled stern looking librarian was even more unsettling. The rows of books seemed endless and the shelves daunting. We did not know where to start. We began with titles that seemed interesting. We borrowed three to four books every two weeks. Pretty soon, we were regulars. We read everything. History, politics, fiction and nonfiction. We read many really good books and some which we were hard pressed to push through a few pages.
Hundreds of books later, a much older version of myself looked over at my kids. Today, I will give in, I thought, sympathetic to my younger self. Tomorrow, my kids have no idea what they will be in for.