Imagine living in a place where the government monitors your every move when it comes to your children. When your child is first born, they send someone into your home to check the child’s health – and to inspect their bed. They tell you in no uncertain terms how your baby must sleep. By no means are they ever to sleep on their tummy. They will probably die if they do. They give you a bag of books and instruct you that you must read the books aloud to the child every day for 20 minutes. Even though it’s you reading, not your child, this will help the child to read. This practice, not the child’s natural ability, will determine how they fare in 5 years time at school.
I’m describing Australia of course, as it must sound to Tanzanians. Every day I’m asked to explain Australian parenting practices and every time I find myself thinking how ridiculous they sound. There’s reasons for all of them of course, but trying to explain them often just digs the hole deeper.
Of course, I’ve just spent the last 6 months in Australia trying to explain Tanzanian parenting to Australians. That’s been tricky because I don’t understand everything about Tanzanian culture so I’ve been worried that I’m misrepresenting it. There’s always more to learn, and already, having returned, I’m learning new dimensions and layers to Tanzanian parenting.
For example when speaking about Tanzanian parenting in Australia, I’d been saying that Tanzanian parents don’t play with their kids in the same way we Australians do, but I’d struggled to explain why, because they do bounce babies on their knees and goo and gaa in their faces and sing to them. Today I had a moment of clarity. It was when I put Callum under a mobile we’d brought and a mama said to me, ‘You wazungu like your children to play with things a lot.’ [emphasis mine] I realised the difference is that while Tanzanian babies are played with, the difference is that they’re not often left or encouraged into independent play.
This makes sense within the worldview of each society of course: Tanzania are a corporate society, so even play takes place in the context of others; Australia is individualistic, so we encourage independence even in babies.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.