Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tantrum trauma

While Caleb is not yet two, he's firmly in the "terrible toddler" stage and can already throw a mean tantrum.  Now, a powerful tantrum is not easy to deal with in any context, but when you're in another culture that doesn't necessarily see children and child rearing in the same way, you can add self consciousness to your frayed nerves during these outbursts. 

Maybe I'm missing something but I've never seen a Kenyan child throw a tantrum approaching the duration and fierceness of Caleb's, or a tantrum at all for that matter.  So, while we already attract an inordinate amount of attention simply because of our skin color, when Caleb is being ornery there's an even brighter spotlight on us.  Usually Kenyans are incredibly gracious and forgiving of his little outbursts.  When I apologize or try to make light of his behavior, I get: "It's normal" or "It's only this age," and surprisingly most Kenyans will just urge me to give in to whatever he's whining about.  "Oh, just give him the cookie" and even "Don't harass the child. Let him have the soda." 

All this indulgence comes as kind of a surprise as all my experience with children in Africa led me to believe that parents generally dealt with them rather harshly.  Maybe this comes at an older age or maybe they're making an exception for someone else's kid, or a mzungu in particular. But I've been led to believe that the seeming uncomplaining and obedient behavior among Kenyan children is the direct result of a healthy fear of a thwacking at home. Though I know from teaching in a Liberian school that this obediency unravels as soon as that threat is removed.

In any event, last night Caleb and I had dinner at a Kenyan friend's house, during which time Caleb threw a record amount of tantrums culminating in our early departure.  The only time he wasn't whining or complaining about something or telling a well meaning Kenyan adult "NO!!" as they tried to engage him was when he had nipple in his mouth.  To be fair, the poor kid was exhausted from an epically bad night and in no mood to socialize. But amid my attempts to quiet him and redirect his tantrums, it finally came.  This comment: "Is it true that in the US, people don't spank their children?"

So, I get it.  The implication being that if I simply "laid down the law" once in a while I'd have a much better behaved child on my hands.  Who knows? Maybe that's even true, but it's not the kind of relationship I want to have with my son or the lesson I want to teach him.  Coming from a culture that supports that decision and provides all kinds of advice and validation to one that seems to question it is disorienting to say the least.

And I'm really not judging the occasional thwacking. Hey, my own folks spanked us and we turned out pretty well adjusted.  And I'm sure there are plenty of American child rearing practices that probably seem cruel to Kenyans - like sleeping alone, letting them cry themselves to sleep or forcing them into a schedule.

To be fair, I'm not even sure if my main supposition is even true.  Maybe Kenyan toddlers misbehave just as much as Caleb - especially when they, like he is now, are sleeping badly and living in a new environment, and maybe I'm just not seeing it. 

I guess this whole experience is forcing me to finally, at the end of the day, tune out what everyone else might think about think about how I raise my little boy and trust my instincts.  That's a truly invaluable lesson.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Slowing down (or trying to)

As I was explaining to my sister what a typical day as a stay at home mom in Busia consists of (much like the last post), she listened patiently and then asked, "But what do you do when he's playing?"  That's a really good question!  I suppose my life is more Caleb-centered than it's been since maternity leave and I hadn't really stopped to think about my life here as independent from Caleb's. 

To answer her question: What I do is patiently watch him play, try to befriend any nearby adults, and practice some Swahili with the kids.  I take a photo here and there.  I come and go when I want.  I pretty much let Caleb and the weather set the schedule.

This attitude might seem totally type-B and carefree of me, but, trust me, it very much goes against my nature. I like having a schedule, detest feeling unproductive and am happiest when I'm busy.  But I'm slowly learning to go with the grain here.  I've had (and failed to keep) a New Year's resolution to "stop and smell the flowers" or live more "in the moment" almost every year, and this is the perfect opportunity to cultivate that ability.

And it's actually a lot easier to do here where the prevailing pace of life is just slower.

I just came back from a visit to the tailor who lives right around the corner. She was sitting on the stoop outside her shop with her children and nieces, much like I imagine people once did in small town America of the 1950s, just waiving to passersby who occasionally stopped to visit.  She's become a friend of mine and I joined her for a while and we watched Caleb play with the children.  There was a lot of silence, but none of it uncomfortable.  This too is a first for me.  The conversation was easy and free and I imagine we both just enjoyed taking in the scene, feeling the cool breeze and the delicious feeling of stopping for a while.  You know, smelling the flowers.  I might even get used to it for a while.

Busia playdate

Some shots of Caleb playing with his age-mate/BFF Isaac.
Caleb actually shares his things. But on his terms.

playing with the curtains at Msafiri

Caleb and Isaac attract another friend

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mama Caleb

Mama Caleb. That's what people call me.  Not only because they think my name, Kim, is weird (which they do) but because this is what's done in East African culture. You call a mother by the name of her first born.  I learned this the last time I was in Kenya, at age 20, and I remember thinking that this was just a sad, subjugating, anti-woman thing to do.  It stripped the woman of her identity and replaced it with something that put her squarely in a domestic role, defining her importance only in relation to her progeny. 

But now that I am "mama Caleb" I have to admit kind of loving it.

Coming from the US, where I felt my role as mother did not elevate me, but instead kept me from engaging fully in the activities - mainly work and the like - that seem to count most in society's eyes.  As much as folks will tell you that motherhood, like teaching and nursing, is among the most noble and  important roles, it seems like just a bunch of lip service at the end of the day.  There's little recognition for the intellectual and organizational skills and sheer intestinal fortitude the role requires.  No one's impressed at dinner parties when you say you're a mother, and the more children you have the less intellectual ambition you're assumed to possess. 

So, I guess I like that a spotlight is thrown on my role as a mother here.  Hell, the best and hardest thing I've ever done is to take care of Caleb, and I like that it's so inextricably linked to my identity here.  Maybe my 20 year old self would shake her head at that remark.  But what does she know anyway.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Typical day

Waking up with a long but empty day ahead of you, an active and temperamental toddler and in a foreign town where you know no one is daunting to say the least. So, I've been eager to settle into some kind of a routine. After only a week here, we've actually found a bit of schedule. It goes like this:

6:00 AM - (though this is often pushed back to 5:00 AM depending when the little monster starts crying) We wake, nurse, dress, have breakfast, play with trains and read books. At 7 AM I'm amazed to learn it's not actually 10 AM.

7:30/8:00 AM: We walk papa to work at IPA. We do the rounds of hellos. Caleb is usually pretty intimidated by the office staff and I sheepishly apologize for all his "No!"s when they and interact with him. But as soon as we leave the office, he lights up. He runs up to say "hi" to the security guards and tries to get them to play ball with him. Then we go to play with his little friend Isaac whose parents own a duka (shop) right around the corner from IPA. He's almost exactly Caleb's age, and it's a joy to see them follow each other around, and imitate one another.

9:30 AM: We head over to the one and only Busia daycare for an hour of playtime with some other little friends. The children range from ages 6 months - 4 years old. The kids his age play inside in a tiny room with almost no toys, but the older kids (3-4) have their outdoor play by the time we arrive and he usually joins with them. They indulge him and all seem to enjoy the novelty of a giggling white child stumbling after them as they run relay races, but I'm not sure how long this will last, or if it should. After outdoor time, he joins them for a snack of porridge (ugi) and biscuits, and then we make our departure.

This daycare situation is a bit tricky. I'm paying them 1/2 the months fee for our one hour visits. I'm trying to give him some social interaction, which he acutely craves, but I don't want to leave him there all day since I'm actually home all day. But I also don't want to reinforce the idea that he's special or different by making all kinds of exceptions for him. So, it's not perfect, but I'm trying to balance a lot.

Daycare is a new concept here, but born of necessity. The town is growing quickly and fast becoming more cosmopolitan. Many of the women work and can no longer rely on extended kin for childcare. Most who can afford it, hire full time caregivers, but they also bemoan the difficult of finding reliable help. So, Hope, this enterprising young woman who is trained in child development, opened up a daycare, which has quickly filled to capacity. It's lacking a lot, but the women there work really hard and the children generally seem happy when we're there.

11:00 AM: We visit a nearby pre-school during their outdoor time. Both the teachers and the children adore Caleb and they've begged me to leave him with them for the day. I keep insisting he is still too young. They turn some of his antics into lessons for the children. He was throwing rocks into a bucket of water one day and saying "oooh!" as he did it, to which the other kids would respond "ooh!" and laugh hysterically. The teachers said, "yes! You see? A, E, I, O, U. Ooooh, is the U sound."

11:30 AM: We return home to play with toys, read, color, sing songs with Jane and then eat some lunch. Usually an egg or some pasta and some fresh fruit. Papa tries to join us most days.

12:00: Caleb takes his first bath of the day. He needs it! And every Kenyan has told me to bath him during the day and before his nap to help him sleep. So far, it's worked really well!

12:15 PM or so: Caleb takes a 1.5-2 hour nap. This week, I've been taking this time to meet with some of the IPA staff and learn about their projects to suss out possible future work. I've learned loads and enjoyed the adult conversation immensely, but it's definitely enough to fill another post, so I'll leave that for now.

Afternoon: These are less structured. We'll usually have a little adventure, like heading to town on a matatu or to the market or simply searching for new friends. This is VERY easy. We just step outside our house and we find children walking home from school in their brightly colored school uniforms. In case they don't notice him (no threat of that), Caleb typically runs in the direction of anyone under 4 feet tall screaming "hi! hi" and he has instant playmates for at least 20-30 minutes.

6:00 (sometimes earlier): Papa comes home for dinner. These have consisted of anything I can scrable together with vegetables, eggs, rice, flour and pasta using two burners and a toaster oven. Mainly, it's stir fries, pasta, scrambled eggs and pancakes. Sometimes Colin will bring food home from "Msafiri" the little ... 'restaurant' is probably conjuring the entirely wrong image... It's more of a food stall with some tables and a hand made poster menu taped to the wall. We usually get chapati, rice, sakumu wiki (greens), kachumbari (tomato/onion salad) and lentils. All cooked in fat and delicious!

We can pretty much expect the power to cut out at some point in the night, so some of the eating, cooking, storytime, we'll be done by lantern light. When the lights go out, it usually terrifies poor little Caleb, but he's never far from our arms and we quickly reassure him and find a new light source.

7:00/7:30: Caleb finally falls asleep. We put him in his pink crib, make sure his bednet is secure and pray for a restful night.

Colin and I don't stay up too much later since we're both so pooped most days. We don't have a TV and streaming videos eats up a lot of expensive bandwidth. We read, catch up on emails and with each other. We've gone to friends houses twice, one time we even left Caleb at home with Jane. And I, for one, soak in and relish the adult conversation. But nightime is pretty tame most of the time, which is
a good thing considering our days are so full.

This is probably more than anyone wanted to know. But now you have an answer to the "What does a typical day look like?" question.

I'm guessing a "typical" day will evolve as I find work, but so far I'm really enjoying my stay-at-home mom typical day in Busia Kenya.

Monday, October 11, 2010

First Impressions

How do I feel about living here? When I'm in a good mood, everything is an adventure. Every exchange a chance to learn about another culture and practice Swahili. Every harrowing journey a good story for the folks back home. Not having any work to go to (and, with domestic help, little to do at home) is freeing and means I can enjoy precious time with my rapidly growing Caleb.

But when I'm feeling down or far from home, it all feels a little too alien and I feel a creeping purposelessness. Walks around the neighborhood and to IPA become reminders that I'm the only one here not working and that I have no one who I can truly call a friend to visit.

I know that these things will change with time and I try and remind myself that my enjoyment here is in good part all about my own perspective.

While we don't have easy access to old friends and modern conveniences, we live in close proximity to abundant natural beauty and people who are curious and eager to know us and who will teach us new things. I miss the convenience of getting around in a car, predicatable access to hot water and consistent electricity, but our lives here leave a much smaller environemental footprint. I miss cooking (and eating) any of our favorite foods and the ability to decorate our home to suit our tastes and lifestyles, but I have to admit I enjoy never having to make our bed or do our laundry.

Caleb seems incredibly happy for the most part, looking for goats and chickens and playing with the neighborhood children. He doesn't quite understand what all the excitement is about or why the children come running from all directions once any of them have spotted the "mtoto mzungu," but he's sure something fun is going on and he lights up around the children here. As trepidatious he is around the adults - many of whom want to grab him from my arms - he's doubly excited around all of the children. In fact, he runs towards them enthusiastically waving his oustretched hand and screaming "Hi! Hi!" which just about melts my heart.

The kids here think everything he does is hilarious (and I totally can't blame them). I overheard one of them saying that the "mtoto mzungu" .... "kama ngombe" (the white kid walks? like a cow) since he's not yet as good as most of the kids at navigating the craggly dirt paths. But mostly they're charmed by his brazen enthusiasm and chuckle at his excitement over chasing cows and chickens. So, he's still an anomoly and ends up looking like a tiny pide piper when we try and walk anywhere, but I know as the novelty wanes he'll find some consistent little playmates who stop seeing him as diiferent and just play together as children.