Bringing up babies and small children in Africa is great, thanks to year round clement weather making it always possible to play outside, but above all thanks to the fact that children here are not just tolerated but welcome and accepted.
It’s a great environment for children but on occasion, different approaches can be disconcerting for over anxious Western mothers (like me) unused to African ways. For instance:
Your new baby is carried off by an enthusiastic stranger in a shop, café or restaurant, sometimes taken out of sight completely to be paraded around friends and colleagues for a coo and a tickle. Generally the stranger is someone who works for the establishment, but it can still make your heart sink to your boots to watch your baby disappear out of the door. Refusing to let others hold your baby may make you appear rude, in the face of enthusiasm and kindness.
You are told in no uncertain terms that your baby is under dressed and should put more clothes on. Most babies here are covered up in many layers of knits and swaddled. A wool bobble hat seen on the head of a baby at the extremely hot and humid East African coast is a common sight in a climate where you might feel you are dying of heat when dressed in only shorts and camisole top. I was often asked: ‘is your baby not cold’ when living in Dar es Salaam, as sweat trickled down the backs of my legs.
You are frowned upon for giving your child a chilled drink, which is seen as unhealthy for kids and certainly the cause of coughs, colds, flu and other malaise.
Your child (normally toddler aged) is teased mercilessly by shop assistants and strangers. A two year old will often be subjected to the following repartee:
‘What are you doing with my teddy bear? That is my teddy, not yours. Give it to me’ Or ‘Whose juice cup is that? It is mine, give it to me. Why are you holding my cup. I want to drink this juice?’ Or ‘Who is your Mummy? That is not your Mummy, that is my Mummy, not yours!’ Or ‘Please let me have those car keys. They are mine. Shall I go in your car, then your Mummy can go in my car. Give me those keys.’ Or ‘Shall I take you to my home? You won’t go back to your home, you will come with me. Come with me to my home now.’
Although these remarks might sound sinister to a Westerner who is highly tuned to the threat of paedophiles, kidnappers and wierdos, in fact it is all meant in jest and intended to solicit a forceful; ‘No!’ from your child.
Invariably you have to watch as your child gets increasingly cross and agitated while you self consciously laugh along. Anyhow, the kids get used to the teasing eventually and by four years old can usually laugh at the same old banter. Getting teased is all part of growing up here. My eldest daughter turned it on its head in her pier group aged two, when she’d plonk herself on a little playmate’s mother’s knee and announce to a furious friend; ‘This is my Mummy!’ That one would always get a reaction.
Overstaffed shops and restaurants mean that there are always people watching and looking out for your children when they are running around or being boisterous and unmanageable. You can let your guard down a bit as a shop assistants or waitresses may offer to chat, carry or entertain your child in order to give you a moment’s peace.
This may not be a very politically correct blog post in light of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and may come across as being a little naïve, but there is an element of trust here that seems to have been almost entirely lost in Europe and the States. I think that almost all of my friends here who are bringing up small children would agree that we are very lucky.