I’ve acknowledged that I have stepped into life overseas with my own set of expectations and been smacked upside the head with some serious reality checks. You think that I would have learned by now to enter every new phase of my life with openness and without expectations, but alas I am still waiting to learn that lesson. This time I entered motherhood with yet another set of expectations… actually, a lot of expectations after reading 6 parenting books before my little one’s arrival! I had expectations about how I would feel about my baby, how he would react to our decided parenting styles, how Roger and I would work together as a parenting team, how I would balance work and life, etc.. All of which have had their series of reality checks. One of the most surprising reality checks was the reaction of the Ugandan culture to my new status as a mother.
I definitely had expectations about living in Uganda with a baby…. I thought that I would be rid of the embarrassment of your kid screaming in a restaurant or grocery store, cause no one would care and we’re always in open spaces. That I wouldn’t have to deal with the advice of others on how to raise my baby, since I’m not of this culture so they wouldn’t bother. That they would easily accept the way I was raising my baby, and let’s be honest, I thought they would want tips on how to do my awesome parenting style. Well I was wrong…and full of myself. One of my biggest shockers is that Ugandans HATE hearing babies cry. I know we all hate to hear babies cry, and when someone’s kid explodes at the grocery store we all give our sympathetic looks to the mom trying to help that little one. It’s not like that here… if you’re little one cries in public you get yelled at, lectured, dirty looks, or strongly worded advice a lot of which can be contributed to our cultural differences in child raising. So, here are some things that I have found to be
crazy weird frustrating interesting cultural parenting norms and beliefs…
- No matter the weather, your newborn is cold. Freezing cold. All the time. The first 2 months of my baby’s life was during dry season with 90-100 degree weather, I had him in a onesie and diaper and occasionally a musiln lightweight swaddle for sleep. I was advised, frequently, to layer him in more heavy blankets though we were both constantly sweating all over each other. The unfortunate issue with this advice is that the baby can become overheated, have trouble breathing or develop heat rash and blisters.
- Ugandan wind makes babies sick. I got a stern lecture from a lady in the waiting room, while I was in the hospital with a fever and the chills, about how my baby will get sick because Ugandan wind is different than “our wind” and it will make newborns sick. I should get him a pneumonia shot and cover him with thick blankets. I don’t even think they make a pneumoia shot….
- Babies need HOT baths. Not sure why this is the school of thought, but mothers bathe their babies in boiling hot water. I have a midwife friend from the US who watched a mother prepare her babies bath water, then instructed the mom to hold her hand in it for a minute. The mom couldn’t hold her hand in the water for more than a few seconds without squealing. Its a very sad practice and its unfortunate that its so common.
- Give them the breast! A sweet friend of mine actually had an old man shout this at her when her baby was crying at the market. Now, I’m all for breastfeeding, but they take it a bit farther than I am used to. Breastfeeding is THE solution to crying babies, no matter if your baby is hungry or not, if your baby is crying… give them the breast. Babies are often on and off the breast every 15 minutes or so. I encountered this one on one outing, because he was crying I was constantly told that my baby was hungry even if he just finished a 45 minute feed.
- Potty Training starts at 3 months. I’m actually a fan of this one, and we started letting our baby use the potty at 11 weeks old (and he actually uses it!). In the states this is starting to trend as “elimination communication” for some granola lovin’ hippy dippy parents… and us.. mostly because I don’t like washing poopy diapers. Around 3 months, when your baby can hold his head up, you can start sitting holding him up to potty over newspaper or a small toilet. I think they start this one so early here because getting diapers is so costly that its easier to get them potty trained asap.
- Wear your baby, but not your newborn. Again, another trend that’s happening in the states, is just basics here when it comes to baby wearing. And if you saw our roads you would know that using a stroller would be pointless. However, as constantly as they wear their babies, they do not ever wear their newborns. A newborn is wrapped in the heavy blankets and cradled in arms as moms walk around town with them. I actually had a friend send me a Moby wrap and I wrapped Holden on me for him to sleep while I was out. I got a lot of really strange looks both because I was carrying him in the front instead of the Acholi back carry and because he was so small.
- Get babies attention by snapping in their face. We all want babies to look at us and smile at us. Most westerners I know will coo the baby’s name and get their face near the baby’s face to get their attention. Acholi snap. They snap a lot. They snap inches away from the baby’s face to get their attention and make a lot of kissing noises while snapping. Turns out this one is a particular pet peeve of mine since instead of speaking to the baby they just keep making noises even when they have their attention. As a mother, I would rather people help develop my child’s language by speaking to them rather than noise making for 3 minutes solid (yes, I’ve seen this happen for 3 minutes straight).
- Don’t tell them no. Since my little guy is only 3 months old, I haven’t encountered this one personally yet, but I’ve had an American friend get a lot of weird looks for this one. Babies (any child that cannot speak well counts as a baby) are never told no: if they want that candy they can have it, if they don’t want to nap they can run around, if they want to pull your top down to breastfeed then so be it. So when do you start telling them no? You don’t really, the first time they have to deal with being denied something is when they are in school and the teachers tell them no…. Think you have it hard American kindergarten teachers??? I can see why the preschool and primary level teachers give up on trying to discipline around here!
- Co-sleep with your baby. I think the official advice I got from a midwife who works with many Acholi is “co-sleep with your baby, unless you’re drunk”. Not sure how common being drunk is for new mommies here, but I know that co-sleeping is the way to go. I think a lot of this is less than a choice, but more of a lack of cash flow to buy multiple mattresses and since most everyone sleeps on fairly thin a mattress on the floor there’s not a lot of danger of baby rolling off. For us, Holden slept in a “side car” his first 3 weeks and napped on a floor mattress in his room during the day. At 4 weeks he started sleeping nights on his own floor mattress in his own room, mostly cause co-sleeping kept me up with his little settling noises and I needed some more restful sleep.
- Babies should sleep without a diaper on. I got this lovely piece of advice from an Acholi friend. He said his doctor gave him the advice so he was passing it on to us. Apparently, the baby should get some fresh air for his bum at night while he sleeps. I asked about them peeing on the sheets and he said just wash the sheets in the morning. I think this piece of advice was for babies who are actually put in disposable diapers all day and possibly get diaper rash so I can see that the fresh air concept would be good for a diaper rash. However, try to imagine that most share a family bed, aka co-sleep with their newborn, and they don’t have a waterproof mattress cover… ick… not for me thanks.
- For the first 3 days of life, mom’s do not carry the baby and baby’s can’t leave the house. This one is just for the Acholi culture and I don’t know why this tradition started and when I ask an Acholi no one seems to know either, its just their tradition. For the first 3 days of life Moms do not carry their babies, anyone else can carry them but not the mom. Mom’s especially cannot touch the low back of their sons as its believed that they will “ruin” the baby. Not leaving the house works out at some level since as soon as you return from the hospital the baby is not allowed to be carried out of the house for 3 days if its a boy and 4 days if its a girl.
- Grandparents name the baby, not the parents. This one is a tradition that is starting to change a bit with our generation of parents and younger starting to buck the common names that babies are given, but traditionally the baby is named by the grandparents once they have emerged from their 3 or 4 day stay in the house. There’s a lot in a name, Jesus re-named people all the time because he knew the power of a name. Often in America we choose a name based on its meaning, family legacy or just how it sounds with our last name. Acholi choose a name for a baby based on the circumstances surrounding their birth or how the grandparents feel about the parents, which can get you an interesting group of names like: “Sun” if it was a sunny day, “Rain” if it was raining, “Bothersome” if the birth was particularly challenging, “good” if the parents are good people, “poverty” if the parents are poor, “Painful Death” yes, I actually have a friend named painful death… he doesn’t go by that one.
- Just put your baby on a motorcycle taxi… its fine. We’ve seen enough motorcycle taxi, aka Boda, accidents to refuse to put our child and especially one as young as he is on one. Unfortunately, that’s one of the cheaper modes of transportation here, so its extremely common to see tiny babies strapped to their mama’s backs or carried in their arms while on a Boda. Roger once saw a woman riding side saddle on a Boda and breastfeeding her child simultaneously! Our car has been in the shop for about a month now, so our baby can only get out if a friend picks us up in their car and we can install his carseat. So, we’ve been absent from a lot of events lately. A Ugandan friend asked me why I’ve disappeared and I said our car was broken and I didn’t want to take Holden on the boda. She responded, “yea the dust is too much on a Boda”. Sure… lets go with its a “dust issue”.
So that’s all I’ve noticed so far, though I’m sure more will spring up as Holden gets older. So my dear American moms, when you are given advice in the grocery store about how to soothe your crying baby, I’m with you. Let’s all pray for patience and endurance together!