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Cross-cultural parenting at the plum stand and out of the sleeping tent

Elliot and I were at the markets, and plums had just come in. This is very exciting! There’s lots of fresh fruit in Dodoma, but it’s always the same ones – mangoes, pineapples and bananas, watermelon, passionfruit, sometimes guavas. Maybe that sounds wonderful and exotic to you, and much of the fruit is delicious, but there’s very little variety. (We’ll be back in Australia in a year and we’re already fantasizing about peaches, nectarines, cherries, apples, any type of berry, green grapes, pears, etc.)

So pretty much any variety is a big deal. Plums are only available for about a month, and at that point, only one seller in the market had them. I asked for a small bucket of them and as the lady was getting it together, Elliot was running his hands all over the others and messing up her system. I was taking his hands away to get him to stop, but he wasn’t listening.

The lady bent down to him, and told him, ‘Stop that or I’ll pinch you.’

Pinching is a common disciplinary measure in Tanzania, and discipline is not the sole domain of parents. I had no doubt that she would indeed pinch him. Elliot has never been pinched or smacked before, as Arthur and I are committed to non-corporal punishment, but that is very unusual in Tanzania, and even viewed as permissive. It’s a cross-cultural conflict.

I apologised to the lady, along the lines of, ‘Sorry for my naughty child.’ She rebuked me, ‘Don’t call him naughty, he’s just energetic.’

The question on the tip of my tongue was, ‘If he wasn’t doing anything wrong, why on earth did you threaten to pinch him?!’

Of course, that is the essence of the cross-cultural tension. To me, to pinch a child is a big deal, and it suggests that he has not only done something wrong, but very wrong, to warrant such a harsh punishment.

Yet to her, pinching a child is merely a warning, and doing it to someone else’s child is neither an indictment on the child, nor the parent.

In that moment, I have almost no control over how my child is parented, because he is not only being parented by me, and the other ‘parents’ don’t necessarily have the same values we do.

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While we were in Kenya over New Year, we had another incident like this. We were at a campsite and I had put Elliot down for a nap, in his sleeping bag in his sleeping tent. He normally and reliably sings to himself for a bit, then goes to sleep for about an hour, so I’d locked the room and headed 100m away to the cafe for a chat with someone.

10 minutes later I was mid-sentence when I suddenly saw Elliot, obviously not in his sleeping tent in our locked room. In fact, he was out of his sleeping bag, fully dressed and strolling around the grounds with a Kenyan woman I had never seen before.

I left my conversation and ran out to find out what on earth was happening. It turns out, she was the cleaning lady (so she had a key) and when she had come into our room, she’d heard Elliot singing, got him up, dressed him and had taken him for a play! And this was a perfectly acceptable thing in her mind!

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How was the plum lady to know that I felt she was threatening my child? How was the cleaning lady to know that I knew where Elliot was and that he was fine? Of course, they weren’t to know. My behaviours are odd to them.

The time when Mama Velo (our househelp) took Elliot out of his cot, I asked her not to do it again, but that was in our home, and she has ongoing involvement with Elliot. She understands that wazungu do things differently, though she is constantly bemused by us and telling us that we are wrong. In contrast, these situations are in common space, and the onus is on me to tolerate the difference, perhaps even to change to accommodate it.

So, in the first instance, I distracted Elliot from his plum game and sent him to say hello to a different seller; in the second I thanked the cleaning lady for bringing Elliot to me, figured we were obviously skipping the nap today, and went back to my conversation after depositing him with Arthur who took him for his first ever jump on a bouncy castle. (The things they have in Kenya!)

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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