My kids are big now but a friend made me laugh when she referred to the mums of toddlers and babies nowadays as ‘app mums‘. I wish I had been an app mum. I remember vividly that when you are a mum, and not just a first time mum, you are literally a sponge thirsting for information. Am I doing this right? Why won’t she sleep? How much should she eat? And even with a groaning pile of mother and baby books at my bedside, I never got the sense that I was doing it right.
No, not really but the odd app on how to get my baby to sleep instead of driving my newborn up and down the seafront road with the windows wound down in Dar in 2000 because there was no electricity at home (so not even a fan, let alone air conditioning, and soaring temperatures) – might have helped. My first car in Africa was a little bit, shall we say, wobbly. Among other things, the passenger door of my Suzuki was faulty and, terrifyingly, had a tendency to fly open when I drove around corners – but anyhow, we got our air conditioning one way or another.
Having given birth in UK then left for Tanzania after an action packed 10 days at home which included a delivery related illness, shopping for at least 1 year’s worth of baby clothes (I hadn’t discovered Mitumba at that point and didn’t want to buy too much in advance of the birth in case it was bad luck) and even gliding in a daze through a full blown church christening on day 7 – Just some simple tips on mastitis, sterilizing bottles or weaning would have been fantastic. I was so afraid of not being able to get anything sterile in that hot and humid East African coastal environment, that I breastfed exclusively for more than 6 months. I nearly had a nervous break-down when, after a morning out, I found my husband and mother-in-law giving the baby (her first!!) bottle of formula. This experience was on a par with my mum handing the baby a chocolate covered biscuit aged 7 months, and when I protested my mum said ‘What? Do you want me to take it away from her now? Wouldn’t that be cruel? It looks like she’s enjoying it!‘
But helpful parents only visited briefly and if it hadn’t been for a househelper/ayah at home who had her own children and the experience to guide me, then I would have been on my own, app-less, and relying on information from new found baby group friends (which, to be honest, was a lot like the blind leading the blind at that time). By baby number 3, this time born in Nairobi, I was far more relaxed – though again, largely because I had the reassuring hands of Gladys and Florence (both of whom still work in our house) who were always only too willing to take, or watch, the baby.
I read Alexandra Fuller’s ‘Leaving before the Rains Come’ and her malaria soaked, technology deprived lonely first months with her baby in Zambia make my experience in Tanzania look extremely tame.
It’s often said that you will recognise variety in your baby’s cry and will be able to interpret it – hunger, tiredness, boredom and frustration, or illness. Well after 3 babies, I could never distinguish a difference between their cries – only that the sound drilled down into the very core of my being every time it broke out, driving me to distraction and certainly impossible to ignore. Fortunately latest technology is at hand. Nowadays there are bluetooth pacifiers, smart baby bottles and crying analysers. Read more here: Baby, baby. The tech that rocks the cradle
Kate Middleton with baby Charlotte
But in truth, East Africa has been a fantastic place to raise small children. Why? Because there time for babies and small children here. They say it takes a village to raise a child and certainly, some incredible people have been on hand to help raise our x3 children, thank goodness for that. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay at home full time and so have my kids (no need for nursery or day care). While I dabbled in part-time writing work, or felt the need to nip to the shops without a baby or toddler in tow, or to take time-out to do some semblance of work on my computer, or spend hours cooking up some baby gunk that was supposed to be a month’s worth of perfectly nutritious baby lunch or even take an afternoon nap, our babies were rocked to sleep in prams or pushchairs or even strapped onto backs for sunny walks in the garden. And when they were toddlers, there was never a shortage of people to keep them company as they played in sandpits, or splashed in a paddling pool, or painted messily on recycled cereal packets. They were watched judiciously as they tottered around the garden, made their first forays on bike, scooter or trike, or made their way up to the gate to see a passing herd of cows.
Better still, when the children were off-colour, I always had a sounding board. ‘Is she sick?‘ I would ask. ‘Yes, I think so. She’s definitely not herself.‘ And off I would trot to the doctor. There were no troops of unfamiliar babysitters for the children to endure while growing up. Instead, there was continuity and familiarity. What a privilege. It was and still is, idyllic (apart from the odd peril thrown in).
Read more here: Raising children in Africa – Every day is an adventure.
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