Monday, August 20, 2012

Village Home Stay

Even after having lived in Kenya for almost 2 years there's a lot I don't understand.  There's a lot I may never understand. It's hard to step into another culture and unwrap all its mysteries.

At the same time, there's a lot about your own culture that you don't understand or even realize exists until you step outside of it and view it from another lens.  I just finished reading "Bringing up Bebe," a book in which an American ex-pat in France tries to make sense of French parenting. She often gets no where by asking French mothers directly.

Par example, when she tries to unlock the secret of why French infants seem to sleep through the night at such an early age, French mothers tell her, in an oh-so-French manner, that you must simply "fait attention" to the babies, and even ask the babies to sleep and they will understand.  It's not until she visits a French pediatrician working in New York, that she discovers the secret: French mothers train their babies from day 1 to self soothe by refraining from picking them up immediately when they cry, something she calls "la pause."  The babies are thus given an opportunity to figure out how to calm themselves, an opportunity that others who are immediately consoled are denied.

The French mothers weren't just being "French" by evading her questions. I'm guessing they couldn't quite see the answer because it was so second nature.  They might not have known that other mothers don't do "la pause" so it was not something that seemed worth mentioning when the author asked.

Point is even as I feel clumsy about my ability to understand another culture, there are some things that I might see with more clarity as an outsider.


As a mother of two little ones, a lot of my befuddlement living in another country centers around parenting.  When I first arrived, my head swam with the cultural differences and had me question much of what I thought I knew.

For example, I had never seen a Kenyan child throw a wild tantrum in public, like Caleb often embarrassingly did eliciting concerned and puzzled looks from astonished Kenyans.  And I had yet to meet a child who would say "no" to a request by an adult.

Yet, I kept getting messages that toddlers were indulged: when I tried to discipline him in public I was told on several occasions to "let him have the cookie" or even "stop harassing the child. Just give him what he wants."   Also, the Kenyans I met had no nap times, bed times or even dinner times for toddlers.  But bizarrely, despite going against everything I had learned about structure and discipline, Kenyan toddlers were better behaved than my Caleb.  Why?

Also, many mothers here have it rough -- rougher by any measure than moms in the US.   Everything is done by hand, with river or well water, firewood and sweat.  They struggle to find school fees and worry that a sickness could wipe out any meager savings.  And yet, I've never seen a Kenyan mother lose her mind the way we do in the US, when a baby wakes frequently at night or a toddler keeps tugging at your skirt for attention.  Motherhood does not seem to put them as on edge as it does for us, and I've more often seen women laugh off the same thing that would make a US mother burn with irritation.  Why?

When I would go into the villages for work, I saw that common village tableau of young children helping to cut potatoes with knives the size of their arm and caring for baby siblings. How could they be competent at such things when Caleb could barely put on his own shoes?

And even the mundane: How does everyone manage enough sleep to be functional when they are sleeping in the same room or even bed? When and how are children potty trained?  Given the conspicuous absence of playgrounds and toys, how do children entertain themselves?  How is it that any girl above the age of 4 will immediately pick up Caleb when he falls and dust off his behind?

I've come to have a better understanding of some answers - hello, ball of twine for amusement and a the threat of corporal punishment for obedience - but I still feel I've only scratched the surface.  And sometimes the answers I get lead to more questions.

But sitting behind my computer pontificating and making a whole bunch of assumptions is only satisfying for so long. I want to have better answers.

So, here is what I'm heading out to do:

I'm going  a "home stay" in a nearby village.  You know, like the kind a semester abroad student might do.  Except this time I'll be doing it as a mother and with my two children.  I'll be staying with a family that has their own small children.  I'm hoping to learn a lot simply by living with them for a few days, talking to other mothers and watching how people interact with my children.  Ala, the next time Caleb has an unreasonable tantrum, I'll turn to my village mamas, and say "what do you got?"  Hopefully, I'll get more than laughter in return.

Hopefully, this whole thing won't be a disaster. When I was 19 years old I stayed with several families in rural areas in Kenya as part of a semester abroad program.  I stepped all over myself to be humble, polite, unobtrusive and grateful.  This time I'll have 2 little X factors that could quickly undo my efforts to be a gracious guest.

At the same time, having 2 little ones might also humanize me and help women open up to me through the common bond of motherhood.  I might not know how to wash clothes with well water or make ugali, but I can breast feed like a champ.

So, here's to hoping I learn more than I'm laughed at.  Here's to hoping I'll have some new parenting insights for my next blog post.  If not, I can almost guarantee I'll have some anecdote, like I had from my last village stay, in which I slip and fall face first into cow poop.  Except this time, my own children will join their voices to the laughter.
Yeah, she looks pretty innocent.  But that shit is a real menace.


  1. I think you will have a wonderful time. Safari njema!

  2. Looking forward to your follow up post.

  3. Whoa, Kim! Awesome! Can't wait to hear what you find out!

  4. Fascinating! Looking forward to reading about your experience.

  5. I wish you best of luck! Your toddlers may grow up to become agile Kenyan sprinters or long distance runners at some future Olympics!

  6. I don't even have kids, but I can't wait to hear about your homestay! I've noticed all the same things about children in Kenya, and I'm so curious to hear about what you learn.

  7. I too can't wait to hear about the experience. And your willingness to wear the other moccasins makes me think that when I'm back in AD, I'm buying an abaya and wearing it around, just to see what life is like (a little bit) from inside. you get some tips on that tantruming thing, you WILL pass them along, won't you?