On the plane from Dubai to Dar es Salaam, there was a Tanzanian family sitting a few rows in front of us. It was a Dad, an older woman, possibly his mother, and three young children. The youngest was a little girl, probably about 18 months and she was adorable. Her father was playing with her and since she was facing our way, Arthur and I were smiling at her. Quite unexpectedly, the father just handed over the baby to us to play with and went back to watching his movie.
This was one of those cross-cultural moments. Most parents in Australia are much too protective of their children / suspicious of strangers to hand them over, even in a confined area like a plan, but this father did so without qualm and didn’t even watch us with her. We were a little surprised, but we went with it. We didn’t think that was bad, just different, and maybe even good. The air hostesses handed the baby back to the grandma when the food came around so we could put our tray tables down.
Not long after that, the father pinched the bum of one of the air hostesses as she went past. She was Australian and she was mortified – blushing and looking like she was about to cry. She told us it happens quite often in her line of work.
Here are my reactions and the lessons I learnt:
- My first instinct was racial. African patriarchy and maltreatment of women is a well known stereotype and that was what I immediately assumed – African men don’t have respect for women; that’s why he thought he had the right to do that. Of course, it’s wise to keep an eye out for culture, but that’s not necessarily the whole picture. Maybe it’s not a race thing. Maybe he was just an extra big jerk and other African men would be as angry as I was.
- I immediately read such disrespect of women back into the incident with the baby. I started to wonder whether he hadn’t just handed her over because that’s a cultural thing but because he actually didn’t care about her and wanted to get her off his hands. Obviously if he was disrespectful to women, he also wouldn’t care about his daughter. But that’s not a fair leap to make. People are full of inconsistencies.
- The post-modernist in me can make me naive. Wanting to be respectful of another culture, it didn’t even occur to me to see the father handing the baby over as anything but positive, or neutral at worst. But my positive assessment didn’t leave room for things to be a little more complicated than that. Sure, a more corporate approach to child-rearing might be a positive thing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers to it or behind it. Even a positive judgement is judgmental.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.