For all my talk about cultural differences in parenting just being different, without attaching judgemental labels, it breaks my heart to see the way kids react when they see a picture book.
Last month was the commencement service for the university and a number of children from the neighbourhood attended. I was outside with Elliot and had brought a couple of books to amuse him – a book of animals and some Susie Poole board books. Before I knew it, I had an audience of maybe 15 fascinated children, ranging in age from 2 to 12. I started translating the books on the spot in Swahili for their benefit – I hope I made enough sense so they at least got the drift!
My internal monologue was asking questions such as:
- Are they just bored and I am the only entertainment around?
- How often do they see (children’s) books?
- How often do they see books read for pleasure?
- Is this intense interest in being read to because they come from less educated families?
- Is their interest more about seeing a white lady and her baby than about the reading?
I talked to one family of 4 girls (including twins!) whose mother and father have died and who live with their grandmother not far from where we live. They came to visit later that day. We had some biscuits and juice outside in the yard and Arthur read to them from our Swahili children’s Bible and then they had a go on our swing.
They were such polite little girls, taking turns beautifully on the swing, watching the eldest for cues about when to eat and drink, and giving me greetings from their grandmother. They all fell over themselves trying to help me to clean away the dishes (though I suspect that was partly to get a look at the inside of our house as well!)
My instinct is to feel sorry for these little girls. I feel like boredom plays a big part in the lives of Tanzanian children. For some, it manifests negatively, like the boys over the back fence who beat their dog and try to throw rocks at our goat or who call Elliot names. For these girls, I could see it in the way that even the oldest ones were delighted with stories aimed at toddlers. However, I’m conscious that the tendency of any person is to read other cultures negatively and so I’m not comfortable with my interpretation of these girls’ reactions. At any rate, they asked if they could come back the next Sunday and we said they could.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.