It was a typical scene. Khady and I walked along a sand track, our son strapped to her back, not a cloud in the sky, the sun beating down as we shuffled along, trying to keep in the shade of the cashew trees. Khady came to a sudden halt and beckoned for me to do likewise. Ahead, crossing our path, there was a creature like nothing I’d seen before. It was a chameleon, almost luminous green in colour, with an alien head and an odd circular motion to its limbs. Without missing a beat, Khady pulled out a breast and with a deadly aim fired milk at it.
“If I don’t offer it milk, our son will grow up to look like a lizard,” explained Khady.
Clearly I had a lot to learn about childcare in Africa.
It seems that everyone is having babies – in the past month, little Owen in California, Montgomery Wolf in London and several babies here in Abene. There’s more on the way – Khady’s friend Nanky had some hanky panky and is looking forward to the birth of Simon soon. Her sister is also expecting a Simon soon, assuming it’s male. That’ll be three little Simon’s – my cult is growing.
My only experience of raising a child is in Africa. Despite that, I’ve seen many friends raising kids back in the UK, I have a wonderful niece who I sadly rarely see, except on Skype and was once very nearly a father myself and therefore consumed a lot of information about babies and child care. That was not to be, but maybe these things happen for a reason and now I’m here.
I think there is a lot that Europe can learn from Africa and other developing countries about child care. And vice versa of course. I’ve always maintained that Gulliver is lucky in that he’ll be raised, hopefully, with the best of both traditions.
Thinking about the differences, I guess the biggest one is that I’m not surrounded by stuff or advice. Babies are so common here and once a girl reaches 3 or 4 yrs, she starts bringing up her little brother or sister. Gulliver has a few toys but not much – he has shown absolutely zero interest in them anyway – he’s far happier playing with a lemon or onion. There’s a money saving tip – save the cash for education. The only thing G loves is a little drum. There’s also a chair that he spends hours pushing around which drives me crazy.
I felt a bit lost at the beginning – I had one book and that was it. I pretty quickly relaxed and went with the flow and that seems to work well. If that’s possible in the West, I’d certainly recommend it. Fashions come and go and I’ve been reading about various theories from the past few years that have already been discredited. All you can do is what you feel is best and it probably will be. You’ll never be perfect and accepting that will be beneficial for you and the child in the long run.
I tried introducing a feeding schedule, but Khady just fed him when he was hungry and ignored what I said – and it worked fine. Most of these things are designed for the parents convenience in a very busy western work culture. That’s not applicable to us.
I’m really enjoying fatherhood now that Gulliver’s walking and beginning to talk – a little head strong character is emerging. The first few months were harder but it gets easier as time goes on. It’s all good though, don’t get me wrong. He stomps around to my music like a traditional Senegalese wrestler, which is really funny.
Because we were living in our small house and didn’t have much storage (lots of stuff on the floor), that was a bit of a nightmare. I left the camera on the bed and he threw it onto the tiled floor. Wherever you live, you need to get everything precious locked down before the child is 9 months old.
He’s also very inquisitive and puts everything in his mouth – I once found a frogs head in there – he’d swallowed the body. We have to be careful with various seeds and berries. One day I caught him on all fours eating from the dog bowl with Scrappy. But he’s never sick and has a very strong immune system now. Outdoor playing can’t be beaten. As most people of my age will say, when we were kids we’d leave the house in the morning, run around in the fields and woods all day, returning as darkness falls having gotten up to all sorts of mischief. It seems that’s increasingly difficult with peoples health and safety fears as well as those of attacks and so on. But those things have always happened, just look at al the pedophilia abuse emerging now from the 60s and 70s. I can’t help thinking that by being paranoid about something that is incredibly rare, despite the image given by todays sensational media, the children are losing out on something very special.
Happily here in Abene, kids play outside and in the forest. There’s barely any traffic and as long as they’re wary of snakes, there’s no big problems.
African women usually breast feed for at least two years and often longer. Khady’s still doing it. Bottles are not much of an option here (the formula isn’t good quality and sterilising would be a nightmare). Obviously, this is much easier when you’re not going to work (well, Khady works, but he’s there, trying to help).
Now that he’s 18 months he eats with us. We always eat from a communal platter in the local style and he eats whatever we eat unless it’s overly spicy. I’ve seen many African children and I’ve never met a fussy eater. Maybe we’ve got that to come, but for now, he happily eats all vegetables, olives and hummus. Maybe he’s already realised that if he doesn’t eat what he’s given, it goes to the dogs and there’ll be nothing else, aside from milk.
Babies always sleep with parents in Africa and many developing countries, at least for 2 or 3 years. At first I wasn’t too keen on this, but now it’s fine and I love it. Little G sleeps sound all night (I’ve been woken maybe twice in the night since he was born) as does Khady, as she doesn’t have to get up to feed him. I know a lot of westerners are against this, but it works fine with us.
When I asked Khady about post natal depression she seemed confused, then said women don’t have time for that in Africa. The reality is that they’re always surrounded by people and life continues much the same. Everyone helps out and baby’s are not such a big deal. I think that’s such an important point. In England, for example, the mother has months of attention while pregnant, a week or two’s attention once the baby arrives, and then that’s it. Get on with it. The dad goes back to work and she’s left at home with a screaming bundle of joy for days on end.
There are funny traditions in Senegal, as I’ve recounted before. I have to remember that some of them are no odder than the things we do in the UK. When his Gulliver’s hair was shorn during the naming ceremony, it was wrapped up in a piece of material that was tied around his wrist. My mother also kept a lock of my baby hair, which was pure white.
Mind you, she didn’t keep my umbilical cord tied around my neck for six months.