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Circular conversations about parenting

I think Elliot has passed some sort of Tanzanian developmental milestone. Where before I had to ensure that he was wearing socks, and field questions about whether he was cold, now that he’s walking the discussion is about whether he’s talking yet.

This is also possibly because he’s twice the size of Tanzanian kids his age, so people always think he’s older than what he is. Perhaps it’s just the standard conversation starter about toddlers.

Now that he’s walking, his autonomy and active exploration of the world are highlighted even further. Take this conversation from 4pm in the afternoon:

Madudi: Your child must be so tired.

Me: Not really! He only woke up from his sleep a bit over an hour ago.

Madudi: But he is walking. He must be tired.

Me: He likes to walk around. He wants to see and inspect everything.

Madudi: You walked here from home. [500m] He must be so tired.

Me: [remembering that most Tanzanian kids are carried because their mothers are headed somewhere, not just out for an idle stroll like we were; trying not to think that this is an accusation of me being lazy for not carrying him.] He likes to walk to play. He gets to follow lizards and birds and look at leaves.

Madudi: He will need to sleep soon because he has done so much exercise.

Me: Well, he goes to sleep about 6pm.

Madudi: When will he wake up?

Me: About 7am tomorrow morning.

Madudi: [surprised] He sleeps so long? All night?

Me: Well, yes! He uses up all his energy during the day and then he sleeps all night.

Madudi: So long! He must be very tired from all that walking.

There are cultural values behind this conversation.

I’m orienting Elliot’s life towards education and exploration. It’s good for my child to have a good night’s sleep so he’s happy and energetic the next day, and I appreciate the peace and quiet in the evenings. A child who is tired out at the end of the day is a good thing because it means he’s played hard!

But education takes a very different form in Tanzania, and playing with and stimulating babies — like we westerners do with toys and books — is considered odd if not indulgent. In Tanzania, children slot into place as part of a community that is going about its business and often go to sleep when their parents do. How heartless I seem to a Tanzanian that I so exhaust my child he has to go to sleep when the sun is going down!

Despite the fact that we parent one way, I’m loath to see our way as ‘better’. Its advantages, like parental time and building foundation for critical thinking, are geared toward our own values. Different values require different approaches.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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