Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Soothe a Baby? Easy: Bembeleza.

There's a lot you can learn about a culture through its language.  For example, there's no word for "bored," as we understand it, in Kiswahili.  I suppose, in a traditional Swahili setting, if you found your self with little to do, you would simply be relaxing, "pumzika," enjoying the lack of work, not thrown into some kind existential malaise.  The modern world, and maybe affluence, have probably created boredom.

I love the window into another culture's experience that language provides.  And I love what it tells us about the human experience overall.  It can tell us that concepts, and even feelings like boredom  we once assumed were human universals, are not. It can tell us how much value a culture places on something.  Most of us have heard that the Eskimos have something upwards of 8 million words for the "snow" - the stuff of their life.  And it can show us wisdom we may have lost or struggle to understand.

My favorite Kiswahili word - bembeleza - has no exact English translation.  It's not really a deep concept, nor is it something very specific to East African culture.  It's a what you do when a baby is crying.  You "bembeleza mtoto."  

Bembeleza is something between rocking and bouncing and gently jostling a baby to comfort him.  There might be swaying and singing if it's required, but it's all in the repertoire of bembeleza.  I've seen Kenyans of all ages and both genders do this expertly and with confidence.  

The online dictionary translates it as: to soothe, or caress or coax.  But that's now how people around here understand it.  It's a specific baby soothing dance, one that everyone seems to know.

I'm more astonished that we don't have a word for it. I've seen new parents in the US anxiously hold their infant baby, sometimes like a porcelain platter, afraid to crush it or jostle it or shake to too hard. Afraid that the slightest wrong movement will cause the newborn head to fall off. 

Not quite sure what to do, we reach out for advice from professionals like Dr. "Happiest Baby on the Block"  who invoke this ancient wisdom and repackage it in nifty heuristics like the 5 S's (shushing, swaying, sucking....).  We buy devises, like swings and bouncy seats and vibrating chairs, which are all designed to.... what?  Soothe, yes.  That's the end result.  But, in essence, they are bembeleza-ing your child.

To be fair, Kenyans are probably better at this baby-soothing business because they are generally part of more deeply co-dependent extended families, and are simply around more babies -- babies they are all expected to hold and soothe.  And there's usually not decades of non-child centered existence in which to forget the baby care and enthusiasm of their younger years before they get around to having their own children.

But, it also might just be because have a word for it.
This little "bembeleza-er" is barely out of baby-hood himself, but he soothes like a pro.

8 comments:

  1. The more we become disengaged with those things that ensure a happy existence (be it ours or others) will ultimately lead to an unhappy family, culture, or society. We are just now seeing the affects of not cultivating our own food. A disconnection to the fundamental need for healthy organic plants and animals, has led to what? Rampant obesity, cancer, and so many other issues associated with poor food choices, in the name of convenience. I believe that we as a species need to be directly connected to things that make us or others happy.
    If a baby is left untouched after birth will die from a lack of interaction. Yet if he cries at bed time "they" say don't coddle him or you may spoil him? And so, then whats the butterfly affect of that? Insecurity? An inability to be intimate? or serial killer Who can say? I also believe that most forget that we are animals, and as animals nature has provided for us for millions of years. So when we arrogantly try to make things easier, we lose something, somewhere else. Cars and planes=pollution, 50 year shelf life spam=diabetes, heart disease, world wide Computer communication=lack of human interaction, Cell phones=well you get the point. So the lesson in all this, seems to be that in our efforts to make this a better planet to live we have failed. And that, to me seems to be the reason for an ancient wisdom, like the one you describe here is profound in it simplicity. I will venture to say the baby held and sung to, will be better adjusted as time goes on, than the baby in the swing with the twinkle, twinkle little star being played by a wind up bear.

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    1. Ah yes. So, many trade-offs to modernity! THanks for your thoughtful comment DJ!

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  2. The more we become disengaged with those things that ensure a happy existence (be it ours or others) will ultimately lead to an unhappy family, culture, or society. We are just now seeing the affects of not cultivating our own food. A disconnection to the fundamental need for healthy organic plants and animals, has led to what? Rampant obesity, cancer, and so many other issues associated with poor food choices, in the name of convenience. I believe that we as a species need to be directly connected to things that make us or others happy.
    If a baby is left untouched after birth will die from a lack of interaction. Yet if he cries at bed time "they" say don't coddle him or you may spoil him? And so, then whats the butterfly affect of that? Insecurity? An inability to be intimate? or serial killer Who can say? I also believe that most forget that we are animals, and as animals nature has provided for us for millions of years. So when we arrogantly try to make things easier, we lose something, somewhere else. Cars and planes=pollution, 50 year shelf life spam=diabetes, heart disease, world wide Computer communication=lack of human interaction, Cell phones=well you get the point. So the lesson in all this, seems to be that in our efforts to make this a better planet to live we have failed. And that, to me seems to be the reason for an ancient wisdom, like the one you describe here is profound in it simplicity. I will venture to say the baby held and sung to, will be better adjusted as time goes on, than the baby in the swing with the twinkle, twinkle little star being played by a wind up bear.

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    1. Thanks for the correction Anonymous! I changed the post. I'm an illiterate kiswahili speaker. ; )

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  4. I think to bembeleza is downright innate if we let our natural impulses come through. I never saw anyone do the kind of gentle jouncy swaying that I did with my babies. I saw babies put in all sorts of fancy baby containers (swings, rockers, bouncy seats) rather than held. I wanted nothing to do with those containers, preferring to hold my baby against my body. I just read a fascinating article the other day that described just how valuable that is to the baby's physical and intellectual development (while those "containers" can be detrimental). Here's a link. http://www.bobafamily.com/research/strollers-baby-carriers-and-infant-stress/

    Funny thing is, I've engrained a tendency to bembeleza in myself now. If I'm at the market and hear a baby cry, I find myself starting to sway. Pretty silly.

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    1. Oh, I so know what you mean! I find myself swaying just as soon as I'm in the presence of another baby - and it's amped up when they're crying. You're probably right that this tendency is ingrained. But I'm guessing that having a culture which supports it - and names it - helps reinforce our natural instincts. Thanks for stopping by Laura! I've been spending way too much (but highly enjoyable) time reading your blog and other writing today!!

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  5. Love that word and I can so relate to Laura's comment. I would start to sway as soon as my youngest started crying and my husband would be like stop that - you're not even holding her - I am!

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