20 March 2017

parenthood in a different hood.

We have this new human being in our house. I'm not sure who decided we were allowed to leave the hospital and be entrusted with her life but, here we are! Eight weeks later and we're all still alive, though Fiona seems to be faring the best of the three of us. Funny how that happens.

In the midst of the spit up and diapers and midnight feedings, though, we've watched and listened as our Tanzanian friends and the culture that surrounds us have reacted to our new role as parents. Unlike the United States, new parents don't continue with their old selves and identities. No no, they take on a new mantle of respect and wisdom. And who doesn't like a little more of those, huh?

The first Tanzanian I spoke to upon our return to Mwanza after the birth in Nairobi was the young woman who helps hand wash our laundry, Jackie. Jackie is in her early twenties. She doesn't have children herself so I was surprised to observe how excited she was to meet Fiona. When I sent her a text message with the date of our return, she wrote back, "I've missed you! I have a great desire to see Fiona!" Before I had kids, I honestly was not that pumped about other people's kids. (Sorry to all my friends who had kids before me. Now you know that the enthusiasm was a tiny bit faked.) But Tanzanians love kids. There's a Tanzanian saying that states, "Children are the wealth of the family." And they mean it.

Some would argue this is because Tanzanian children are a source of domestic labor and future retirement income. While this is perhaps partially true, I would also point out that children (and the amount you have) are a matter of pride, for both adult men and women. I knew this was a cultural fact but since I have had Fiona, I have watched in awe as a new level of respect is given to me and to Michael.

When Jackie met Fiona, she looked at me with complete seriousness. "Now, you will be called a mother." In the United States, becoming a mom is not necessarily associated with any change in your social status. If anything, your single and childless friends bemoan your new state. "Guess we won't be seeing any more of so-and-so anymore," they whisper to one another woefully. (I know, I was one of them.) Plus, it's a sign that you're getting older, a big no-no in American culture.

In Tanzania, the act of procreation commands a new level of respect amongst your peers - and again, unlike in the States, this respect will increase as you get older. This fact was compounded when I saw our night guard, Faraja, for the first time upon returning to Tanzania. "Congratulations," he said to me. "You are no longer a young woman. Now, you are a mother."

I used to scoff at the respect paid to women in Tanzania. "Why won't they let these women have their own identities?" I thought, as I heard everyone referred to as "Mama" while I continued to be referred to as "Dada," which means sister since I didn't have any children at the time. Now, I see the beauty in the change and after going through pregnancy and delivery; I want the recognition of being a mom!

So to signify this immense change in your life, you gain a new name - the name of your first born child. For example, Michael and I are now known as "Baba Fiona" and "Mama Fiona," respectively. I joke that you better like the name you pick for your first born, because it will also be your new name for life! Again, this change is to demonstrate to you and to the folks around you the recognition that you are someone to be listened to - you are a parent.

Once you become a parent, you have license to parent any other child in Tanzania. I'm serious. There is absolutely no sign of helicopter parenting here, folks. To prove how much they believe in the whole "It-takes-a-village" mentality, I can tell you this even extends to beating a child as a form of discipline.

One day, children were pounding incessantly on our gate and throwing rocks and pieces of broken glass, simply to annoy our dogs. This is a daily occurrence but that particular day, it went on for far too long and I was losing my temper. When I went outside, I saw Antigon, our landlord and neighbor, nearby. I went over to complain to him about the oldest boy who was the instigator. "No problem," Antigon said as he started walking away. "I'll go talk to his parents so he will be beaten." There was no doubt in his voice. It's a given that what one parent deems appropriate discipline or upbringing will be accepted and acted upon by almost everyone. Not the outcome I was looking for here. 

That's a rather negative example, but the pendulum swings in an extremely positive direction as well. Since you can discipline others' children, you are also required to help care for others' children. This applies mostly to your extended family but I have seen it reflected by neighbors and friends as well. If your best friend has day labor and needs someone to care for her children for the day, you'll volunteer to do it. If you are a woman and your sister needs to go work on the farm today, guess who's watching her kid? You are. This is a daily occurrence and does not have to be paid for, with money, favors or anything else. It's part of being a parent in Tanzanian society.

Michael and I were speaking to Faraja about the energy and time involved in taking care of Fiona. "When you go back to the United States, who will help you raise her?" he asked. We laughed. "No one," we said. "There's not usually extended family around to help." "What?!?" he asked. He was visibly shocked. "You mean, raising a child is only the work of the mother and father?" When we confirmed, he just shook his head, almost as if to say, "Yeah, that's too much work for two people." When we tried to explain that you can pay women to help you raise your children (i.e. daycare or nannies), I think we only confused him further!

I am looking forward to returning to the States to introduce everyone to Fiona but I have to admit, I have had a lot of fun observing the cultural changes and norms that come with being a parent. I mean, who wouldn't want to take an elevated place in their society if given the chance? R-E-S-P-E-C-T, man - these Tanzanians know what's up.


  1. I think that sounds wonderful, the village notion of raising children and mutual interaction and responsibility among parents. As much challenge as our children have posed as infants, by far the most difficult thing has been the isolation. Everyone sends excited well-wishes those first couple of days, then they disappear and it's just you in your household, every day for weeks or months. People come to bring you dinner, which is like being brought water in a desert, and you think, "Thank God - someone to be with us for a couple of hours, to talk to and share at least part of the evening with," and then with nervous exaggerated excitement they say "Bye!" and take off, and you are left eating alone, almost literally in tears. I am not complaining, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive and I think the world of our friends, but I wish we had that culture that you describe in Tanzania, instead of the household isolation of America, which really can compound the more difficult periods of the infancy. And grandparents - where would we be without them? I had learned in the past that the norm for most families around the world is an extended household with three or more generations living together, but I did not fully appreciate how much sense this made until children came along. It allows the parent so much more flexibility and a pressure valve, as well as being better I think for the kids. Anyhow, all the best to you and glad to see that you have such a great community environment! (And... are you sure you want to come back here??)

    1. Before Fiona, the thought of living in an extended multi-generational household was confusing and scary. Now, it not only makes sense, but also is somewhat attractive. The "village" approach is enormously helpful and distributes the challenges of parenthood among the community. Just one of many things we will dearly miss when we leave!

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