Ugandans love children. As a culture they celebrate them fiercely. Everyone seems willing to smile and get down on their knees to say hello to a child. Babies are cooed at and admired. For women, bearing children is a sign of prestige and of strength. I have earned a respect through motherhood that I tried futilely to gain for the duration of the time I lived in Kamwenge.
When I speak of African children, the oft quoted proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ comes to mind. In my imagination, this phrase conjures up exotic images of intricate networks of beaded half-naked villagers working together for the good of the communities’ children. Our over-use of this saying in the West highlights the exoticism and idealism with which we frame our discussions of child rearing in Africa. I’ve heard it said that in the developing world, child–rearing is somehow a more ‘natural’ process, beyond reproach.
To confess, I have many times scoffed at this idea.
While I believe wholeheartedly that a village – a community if I may use a less exotic term – is essential for raising children (given how exhausting and monumental such a task is!) it is also true that if everyone is responsible, than in a sense no ONE person is responsible. My time in Kamwenge exposed me to some of this –children neglected and uncared for, malnourished and left to be looked after by young siblings or distant relatives. I think I saw the worst of this, working at the referral health centre in Kamwenge.
There are many great and (in my opinion) not-so-great things about parenting ‘Ugandan style’, as there are in any culture. I don’t need to thrash them out here.
But one of my greatest reservations about moving back to Uganda as a family were some of those ‘not so great’ bits to Ugandan child-raising, especially when I plan to be a working mother here and have other women look after my son for chunks of time. I would think of all the opportunities that I perceived our son would be missing out on, not living in Australia; that I, as his mother, would be denying him, by making the choice to live here, away from his culture and community.
Before we arrived here, when I was super-stressed or having a moment of doubt, all the marvellous moments of my own childhood unravelled before me, as a taunting list full of red crosses, marking the experiences my own son would not have. The freedom of playing in parks and exploring creeks, running through sprinklers in bathers on lazy summer days in our backyard, the safety of playing with neighbourhood kids, the amazing quality of suburban kindergartens and playgroups, and most significantly, a community of friends and family that were invested and involved in my upbringing. I feared that we wouldn’t find a community for him to belong to here.
Slowly and surreptitiously
Without any intention or expectation
And in the midst of my concern that this could not happen…
A community has begun to form, winding its way around my son and through his little life.
After all, community is something that Ugandans know how to do.
I see it when I take Dave to our clinic, and he immediately squirms out of my arms into the arms of one of our staff.
I see it when he waltzes into the reception area at Maranatha, climbs onto the receptionist’s lap and begins to play with her phone.
I see it when he hears a cow moo, then searches for and is picked up by our security guard at the clinic, in a successful attempt to be taken to see the cows grazing nearby.
I see it when our landlady at the apartment where we stay buys him bunches of bananas so she can watch the ecstatic little dance he does every time he is given a banana!
I see it when Dave shrieks with excitement and then runs outside to play every day when his 6 year old neighbour (adopted by our American friends that live upstairs) arrives home from school
I see it when we take him to the shop where I buy most of our consumables, and the staff greet him with a big smile and call his name ‘Mandela!’ and produce a ball for him to play with while I shop.
I see it when we attend church on Sunday, and his Sunday school ‘teacher’ cuddles him and jokes that he is now her child, while I hold her little girl of the same age.
I see it when the cleaners or groundskeepers in the apartment block where I stay rush to help Dave down the steps on the compound where he continues to attempt death-defying acts.
I see it when we sit down for lunch and after polishing off his own g-nut stew and rice, he looks to see which woman on our staff will feed him some of theirs.
All these moments are small, but they remind me to take a breath and be thankful for the village here that is helping me to raise our son.
scoff at the proverb a little less.