Marc, aren’t you nervous about bringing your newborn baby with you to rural Africa?
When my wife Roxanne and I made it known we’d be taking our baby to Africa on a work-related visit, the polite smiles and dire warnings began. She’ll catch malaria or cholera or Ebola or dengue fever (the list was long), worried bystanders predicted.
And what about germs? Taking your four-month-old to Kenya is like letting her roll around on the bathroom floor of a bus station. So some said.
What if she gets eaten by a lion? More than a few expressed concern about famished felines prowling the savannah.
We have worked and lived in remote Kenya for 17 years, but even though we assured everyone our baby would be fine, we admittedly still brought North American sensibilities to first-time parenthood.
Following our daughter’s birth last November, like many new parents we outfitted the nursery with a very safe crib, a nursing glider, a Diaper Genie (to make those nasty baby bombs disappear), and standard-issue toys and teething aids. When we stepped off the plane into the warm Nairobi air last March, our daughter was strapped in a baby carrier with a safety harness and a triple locking system.
As soon as we handed her to a Kenyan friend, who passed her to another friend, and she disappeared into a crowd, we called the police. Kidding!
But we did realize we would have to let go of more than our daughter. We’d have to let go of our ideas of what it means to raise our firstborn in a different culture.
In North America, child-rearing is very personal and often private. Beyond immediate family, no one really gets involved or offers an opinion. But in Kenya, it’s practically a civic duty to lend a hand, and advice. A baby belongs to the community. It’s not “my” baby, it’s “our” baby.
We knew this in principle after years among the Kenyan mamas, but in practice, it challenged our supercautious first parents’ belief that our little girl should be in our view, if not our arms, at all times.
These were the easiest lessons. The hardest lessons in subsequent trips to Kenya have been heartbreaking.
Last week, Roxanne and Craig were at our medical clinic, Baraka. Nestled on the savannah in the southern Narok district, it is surrounded by several villages, each a long walk away.
We provide a full schedule of vaccinations at Baraka for newborns’ first year, including vitamins and supplements. We can hospitalize sick babies, put them on IV and nurse them back to health. Baraka offers the only ultrasound in the district (among 800,000 people).
A nurse scooped up our wee one, plopped her on a gurney, and they began to play. A mother arrived with a newborn tied to her back, a one-year-old in her arms, a three-year-old trailing behind. It was midmorning. She had been walking since dawn so her daughter could receive her first immunizations.
When the mother unwrapped the child from a shuka – a large cloth keeping the child snuggled to her back – and removed her baby’s diapers, made of rags, we could count her protruding ribs.
The nurse told the mother, also emaciated, to increase her caloric intake. Her milk wasn’t fortifying her child, and probably never takes away the gnawing hunger.
Nearby, our baby looked the way most North Americans babies do at eight months, plump, itching to crawl. Her first teeth are coming in.
We were hit by the simple yet stark differences between the two babies: each adored, each carrying the hopes of their parents, each with vastly different opportunities. In Kenya, 55 babies for every 1,000 live births don’t make it past the age of one. In Canada, that figure is five for every 1,000.
It’s impossible not to feel angry at the unfairness.
After the exam, the Kenyan mother tied her baby to her back, and she and her children began the long walk home.