Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Customs and Controversy

We Muzungus (white people) are accustomed to standing out in a crowd and sometimes attracting comments as we walk in the market or the bus station. But mostly these are stares of curiosity or attempts to get our attention so we will purchase something. Today was different. Clearly we were causing a commotion by our behavior. I soon realized it was the baby.

My daughter Cathy and her three children were with me in the open market. El'ad is 7 and Noa 4 years old. They were walking beside us. Cathy carried a heavy backpack. The baby, Matan, 7 months old, was in my arms, held in front of me, facing forward. This was causing distress among the Zambian women. Finally, one came up to me and turned the baby so he was facing me. She also pointed to all the Zambian babies being carried on their mothers' backs, tied on by a chitenga (colorful traditional multi-purpose cloth used as a baby sling, a sarong-style skirt, or a cloth to spread on the ground and sit on.)

A few days later, Cathy was in the market again, in the company of a Zambian friend, Violet. This time, she had Matan in a sling, but positioned so he was in front of her. Violet spoke Bemba and understood the comments being made by the women and comprehended their distress. She took a chitenga out of her bag and used it to tie the baby on her back. This satisfied the market sellers, and Cathy and Violet proceeded in peace.

When we went to Livingstone to visit Victoria Falls and a game park, we had the same driver for several days. After observing us with the baby, he told the following story: There are two kinds of rhinos in Zambia, he said, the white rhino and the black rhino. Both are fairly rare. Both form families. In these family groups, the adult white rhino walks behind its young, while the black rhino adult walks in front of its young. The white rhino is vigilant, protecting them from attack from behind and seeing what problem or opportunity might be ahead for the little ones. The black rhino, on the other hand, goes ahead of its young, watching for danger in front of them and keeping them close behind for safety and security. Interesting to consider differences in world view about how to accomplish the same goal in different settings....

We had a conversation a few days earlier with three African friends we had invited to share lunch with us. They commented on the way that we would listen to the children and converse with them when we were together. They didn't think this was typical of families here. Children are largely left to themselves. Expecting children to be seen but not heard carries over into education, as well. Schools in Zambia have huge classes (often 45-50, or more, with one teacher) and no individual textbooks, so students learn by memorization. Children are seldom asked for their ideas or opinions. The guests were speculating that this difference in child rearing and schooling had an impact on development.

Cathy has been practicing putting Matan on her back with a chitenga. He finds it soothing, and when he is comfortably settled she can work or shop with both hands free. There is a soft fabric carrier in America that fastens the baby in front to accomplish the same goal, but the baby faces out--and here that would not be familiar, or acceptable. When in Rome, as the saying goes, do as the Romans do. And it works!

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