Travel tips

Learning From Indigenous People

Last updated 6th June 2017

Indigenous people can teach us a lot about raising children and letting 
them take risks, but playing with snakes is maybe a step too far. 

As I sat on the edge of a remote village in eastern Paraguay with ?a group of hunters from the Aché tribe, one of their tiny children started swinging a long, live snake around by the tail.

I had no idea whether the snake was harmless or poisonous, like many of the creatures that crawled and slid through the forests around the village. Instinctively, I coiled myself to leap towards the lad, pausing only when ?I realised at least a dozen Aché adults were already watching him closely.

Most of them were smiling at the?playful youngster, a tiny snot-nosed ?boy wearing ragged pants. Even the parents bit their lips and stopped themselves from interfering.

Compared with my own safety-obsessed Western culture, it was a dramatic illustration of the different ?view many indigenous communities ?take of risk and child rearing. My travels ?have taken me to at least a dozen ?remote communities in Africa, South America and Asia, where tots are ?allowed to pick up a knife, or jump around on sharp rocks.

Parents accept there will be accidents and injuries, and many tears, but they believe children need to learn tough lessons quickly in life to survive in an unforgiving environment.

‘If we don’t let children take risks in front of us, they’ll only do it out of sight, where we can’t help them if they’re injured,’ said Lucy, a sage-like grandmother from the Maasai tribe in Kenya, when I stopped for a cup of tea at her mud and dung hut last year.

It was wise advice that I tried hard to remember a couple of weekends ago while staying with friends in Sussex. ?My two-year-old son had found an ?open Leatherman knife (mine) and started waving it around. All at once I gasped in shock, leapt forward and clasped my hands in prayer to beg him to put it down.

The look of abject horror on my face convinced him to pause, and I was able to grab his wrist. But then I remembered Lucy’s advice, and I took him to strip some bark off a branch and cut an apple with the knife, so he could see the power and danger of a razor-sharp blade – under careful supervision.

Learning from different cultures

Travel has shown me that indigenous people have much to teach us. Their views on feeding, co-sleeping and caring for the elderly are generally magnificent. They raise children in the warmth and security of an extended family, and give them early responsibilities that help them to mature quickly.

But they don’t all get everything right. Often their lives are governed by strange taboos and ludicrous superstitions. And often, of course, not all of their children make it through their early years.

I can learn from indigenous communities, but I hope it’s fair if I pick and choose my lessons. Ultimately, ?I have to help my child adapt not to life ?in the Amazon Basin, but to the jungle ?of modern Blighty. He’s nearly three. ?If he wants to wield a blade or swing ?a snake, he’s going to have to do it ?under my beady eye.

To read more of Simon Reeve’s columns, visit

Broadcaster and author Simon Reeve is the presenter of the BBC TV series Indian Ocean, Tropic of Cancer, Pilgrimage and Australia. He is currently filming Sacred Rivers for the BBC.