I hunched my back to fit through the doorway of the mud and thatch hut, my baby in my arms. The woman inside welcomed me with a “karibu,” her own baby suckling at her breast. The hut was dark with only light spilling in from two small windows but my eyes adjusted quickly. It was decorated with free calendars and unsmiling photos of family members hung high on the mud walls, like so many other homes I’d entered in my two years in Kenya. As we spoke, through a translator who knew the local Luyha dialect, chickens wandered in the hut and were shushed away without a thought.
I had spent the past two days living with a family in a rural village with my baby and 3 year old son talking with local woman about their experiences as mothers. My son was outside playing easily with the children in the compound despite the language barrier.
The conversation was going well. Her 2 small children had entered the hut and sat quietly during our discussion. But at some point my son came rushing in, insisting emphatically, in only the way a 3 year old can, that he was ready to go. His whining was incessant. “Mama mama mama. Can we go? Can we go? can we go?!” The conversation stopped and everyone turned to view the spectacle. Summoning my best “parenting in public” skills, I lovingly (with an undercurrent of “you are going to get it when we get home”) told him to stop and that we’d leave shortly. This was met only with louder and more insistent, back arching whining.
I was embarrassed. I had done all that I could to avoid this scenario. Before we left for this particular visit, I got down on Caleb’s level, looked him in the eye and made him promise to behave if he wanted to join me (he had begged to come along). We agreed that if he couldn’t behave he would not be coming with me again. All of this to no apparent effect.
But here was an opportunity. I had never seen a rural Kenyan child throw a tantrum or refuse a request by their mother, and I wondered why. So, I looked at the other mamas in the room, pointed to my son (still pulling my leg and whining that he wanted to go) and said, “What would you do in this situation?” They laughed good-naturedly and said, pointing to their own children sitting quietly and looking puzzled at Caleb’s behavior, “but our children don’t do that.”
And then someone kindly offered, “Maybe he’s hungry?”
It wasn’t translated for me, but at some point in the following exchange I heard it: “kiboko” – a word I knew in Swahili that meant the kind of stick you hit a child with when they misbehave. And I know this is surely part of the reason his Kenyan playmates were sitting so compliantly. In fact, every single woman I had spoken to “beats” (that’s their word) their children with a stick as a form of punishment.
It sits a bit uneasy with me – the endemic use of corporal punishment. But I also understand it, and I have to admit part of me longs for the easy results it gets. I understand that in a village setting in which all children must help run a busy household and a life-sustaining farm, a premium is placed on obedience. I understand that the conventions that have replaced corporal punishment in our world – three strikes, loss of privileges, time outs, grounding – are difficult to impossible here where there are no real toys to take away and mothers have little time or energy to fight with a child to stay in a time out corner. A thwacking is quick and effective.
Still, it sits uneasy with me. So, while I understand the practice, I have to admit I don’t love it.
Back in the hut, the interview continued, amid the slowly ebbing tantrum. We turned to the subject of sleep. This mother, like every other mother I spoke to and like most mothers on the planet, sleeps with her baby. I asked her what she thought about the idea of a baby sleeping in another bed. She replied, like the others did, that it was “impossible.” It simply “could not happen.” When I explained to her that this is precisely what most American mothers do, she shook her head in disbelief, saying “but the baby must feel the mother’s love.”
So, this idea – of putting a baby in another bed, one that might to an outsider even resemble a cage, to sleep alone – probably did not sit well with her. She might even understand it as some strange practice that Wazungu (foreigners) do, but it probably did not sit well. Just as the kiboko did not sit well with me.
No one has a monopoly on the “right” way to bring up children. We all, individual and as a culture, do what we think is right and what works best given our own realities. This small interaction was a stark and visceral reminder of that.
Have you ever found yourself judging another culture? What does not sit well with you? Have you tried to make sense of it?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by our writer in Kenya, Mama Mzungu.
The photograph used in this post was taken by the author.