Should we be nice to children?

In Britain, children are worshiped and considered the most important members of the family. The parents exist to provide for and guide the children, their own needs being second place to fulfilling their children’s needs (or wants).

In Madagascar, children justify much less respect and sentimentality.

Here are some examples of how children are not on a pedestal:

  • Any adult (not just family) can instruct any child to do, fetch anything and the child will do it straight away
  • Children must never walk in front of adults who are sat talking
  • Children don’t join in the adult conversations
  • Children are expected to do domestic chores (and not just the nice ones)
  • Parents don’t spend much more time on their children than is necessary – playing is something done by children amongst themselves.
  • Parents don’t intervene much in children’s disputes (unless it disturbs the adults)
  • Children are the last people to be greeted when visitors arrive
  • Smacking children is normal
  • Children are not encouraged to express their opinions or ask questions
  • Children are not comforted if they hurt themselves – it is either pointed out why it was their own fault or someone distracts them by doing something humorous
  • Physical affection is kept a minimum
  • Children are rarely praised
  • The normal mode of parental conversation is barking instructions, correcting negative behaviour (criticising or telling off) or mocking (Malagasys from other towns tell me this ‘mickey taking’ is particularly a Diego trait)

If you are a sensitive Anglo-Saxon reader (British or American), you are probably sobbing quietly into your hanky by now. I frequently come up with plans to protect my child from unfeeling Malagasys such as raising him alone in my living room, setting up an orphanage where children can be raised in my way and distributing copies of the poem ‘If a Child lives with’ in French and Malagasy (I confess I’ve already translated this to put up in my own house).

I should note that, despite my initial concerns, the two people who have looked after my son, his Dady (Granny) and Zakia, have both been lovely with him.

How is my parenting perceived?

Remember that all Malagasy parents were raised as Malagasy children and so see this as the right way to raise children to be functioning adults. And they’re right because that’s the way society works here. It would be unacceptable for children to impinge on adult lives and Malagasy adults also talk to each other in ways more critical, more directive and more mocking than we consider appropriate.

So far, people aren’t too critical (to my face) about my parenting but I know there will many opinions about over indulgence, over sentimentality and lack of boundaries.

Is it about money?

Boys at RamenaIn England, families spend a fortune on their children – not just toys but food, education, activities, holidays, electronic gadgets, baby equipment – I could go on and on.

The difference in parenting isn’t directly about money – people also don’t see why children need much more than food, basic clothes and a place to sleep. Children make their own entertainment and toys and certainly don’t need after school activities to keep them fit – all the 10 year old boys are ripped with six packs and biceps.

Is it about time?

In England, adults invest inordinate amount of time into their children. Manic middle class mummies attempt to create a constant environment of stimulation with visits to petting zoos, coffee mornings with other mums and children, playing classical music, reading, putting on child friendly videos etc. etc.

People have argued with me that Malagasys are too busy looking for something to eat for their children to be ‘playing’ with them. However, anybody who has visited Coastal Madagascar will know that there’s a fair amount of ‘down-time’. Britain has the longest working hours of any country in Europe – maybe that’s why we make so much effort in the hours that we are with the children.

Son and ducksIn Madagascar, real life is going on all around and children get a lot of stimulation just from watching real life. There’s no need to visit petting zoos when animals are all around. And who needs videos when the adults are carrying on their lives around them. And there are always plenty of kids around providing the best form of entertainment.

However, looking at Madagascar with my English eyes, I do feel that children here lack something by not doing some structured activities lead by adults. My natural reaction is to be depressed by the lack of effort put into encouraging children to have inquiring minds. I heard a resident Vazaha say the other day that ‘The problem with Madagascar is the lack of a stimulating environment for infants.’ It’s an interesting thought although may say more about different cultural approaches between Vazahas and Malagasys than whether they lack a stimulating environment.

Less children, more effort?

I saw Bill and Melinda Gates talk about setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’s biggest medical funding charity, trying to cure the world of big nasties, such as malaria and HIV. They commented that the West has been allowed to develop a different parenting model because of our increased confidence that our children will grow up to achieve adulthood. We can confidently invest all of our effort into our precious 2 children relatively safe in the knowledge that they will thrive. In poorer countries, the child mortality rate is still very high and people have more children.

I asked the woman I bought fish off this week how many children she has and she said 8. With 8 children and little money, you have little choice but to let them raise themselves whilst you search for money to feed and clothe them. She could have saved money by investing in condoms but that’s a whole other debate.

Or is it just more French?

After I’d written this piece, I found the following article in the Telegraph by Janine di Giovanni called, ‘Is Maman mean or magnifique?

It describes the difference between Anglo-Saxon and French parenting styles and seems to sum up the situation here perfectly. I’ve yet to work out how to evaluate the effects of French colonialism (only 60 years) on Malagasy cultures. But, by coincidence or learning, the Malagasys are definitely quite French in their approach to children.

Who’s got it right?

Little Robin HoodsAnd Malagasy children do grow up (usually) and they grow up very respectful of authority and rules. And they learn to fulfil the main tasks of life. Could they achieve more if they were given more attention? Probably? Could they benefit from some praise and tenderness from time to time? Well, I’m British so I’m going to shout ‘Yes, show me the love – let’s all hug’.

But could British kids benefit from having a bit less of everything they want, a bit more time freely running outside with other children and a bit more hard graft to do? I think they probably could.

What about me?

I am British and middle class and the child of Anglo-Saxon educationalists. I fulfil my demographic clichés nicely. I devote my time to making my son feel loved and stimulated, monitor his progress against developmental milestones and ensure he is my priority in life (and everybody else’s if I get the chance).

However, I hope that he will benefit from a more physical life here (will he be the one fetching coconuts?), he will have more chores to do (keeps them occupied and gives them a sense of responsibility) and will spend time running around outside with other kids (I’m more nervous about this one when I see what some of the kids get up to but you can’t have it all ways!).

I believe in discipline and boundaries in theory though I’ve yet to demonstrate I can do it in practice. But I had an idea that punishment comes from showing disapproval contrasting with the usual positive atmosphere of praise and love – disapproval isn’t a punishment if it’s the default mode of interaction. I’ve also been watching TV programmes like Supernanny (and anyone else peddling the same ideas) since becoming a Mum so I’m all up for (again in theory) giving the child choices and explaining consequences and following up on them.

But, I know I sound like I’ve swallowed an ‘Earth mother’s guide to raising your child’ and even I have a horrible fear that’s a recipe for a wilful little prince to develop.

Can I learn to be a little more Malagasy and a little more French so my child doesn’t get horribly confused or take his mother for a sucker against all the other bossy adults around him (surely any approach needs to be consistent and in context)?

We’ll wait and see. For now I will go and wrap my son in my arms protect him from any stray harsh words or mean looks that might be blowing around on the hot Malagasy breeze.


Having a baby in Madagascar

My partner’s step-sister had her 2nd baby today at Antsiranana hospital It has been interesting to see the similarities and differences between her Madagascar experience and my British one.

Complicated birth

We were all a little nervous leading up to this as she lost a healthy baby last year due to strangulation by the cord during the birth. She’d gone well past full term again this time and her belly was still very high and didn’t show any sign of the baby dropping into position.

It sounds like she had to take control of the situation herself. She waited until the day that ‘the good doctor’ was at the hospital and went with her bag and money (for treatment and medications) all packed. She took herself to the testing centre, in town not connected to the hospital, for another ultrasound which told her she still had a week to go.

Dissatisfied with this information she went back to the hospital for another ultrasound (remember she has to pay for all of these and they’re not cheap) and was told that there was only a little bit of amniotic fluid left in the womb and that her baby had probably been suffering for some time (not sure this was helpful information).

They wanted to induce her but she insisted on a caesarean, mindful of her experience last year when she was also induced. The surgeon agreed. She was offered epidural or general anaesthetic and opted for general – didn’t want to hear the clinking.

I went to visit her in the evening.

The maternity ward

Diego hospitalTo get into the maternity ward in England you had to get past the security coded doors, the disinfectant hand pumps and the reception desk staffed by midwives (in fact a host of different staff in different uniforms that I never worked out who they were).

In the Maternity ward at Diego General Hospital, you just walk in to a room with open windows to some regulation hospital beds and people sat around everywhere.

In Madagascar you have to supply your own food, linen and anything else that the mother or baby needs (this is the same for any hospital stay – or prison stay for that matter). So, by default nothing is sterile.

She’d been advised not to breastfeed until her milk came in, which is contrary to the emphasis that the UK midwives put on the importance of the baby breastfeeding the minute it pops out and getting that colustrum over the first 3 days. So, a friend of the mother was feeding the baby sugar water with an unsterilised spoon which she put in her mouth before giving to the baby.

As with many things in Madagascar my immediate reaction is horror and then you realise that the world doesn’t fall apart when things aren’t done the vazaha way. This isn’t to downplay the infant mortality rate here or what I suspect is a poorer rate of healthy outcomes from hospital stays but, in general, everybody stays alive. And, they’re not worried about our super hospital infections here – I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not here or because it’s more pressing to worry about cholera and amoebic dysentery.

I experienced more horror the next day when half eaten food on the bedside table was teeming with ants.

The Mum doesn’t have a nice electronic bed to raise her up so she’s lying prone unable to do much with her baby. He opens his eyes for the first time whilst I’m there so I raise him up for her to look at. She’s very slurry so I presume she’s still on some kick arse pain killers.

But despite the differences I was strongly reminded of being that new Mum with my own new little baby. As I heard the newborn cries and the mother turn her head away into the pillow a bit emotional, I felt tears well up in my eyes. And she looked so happy as the baby stopped crying just because he was laid next to her. And I felt myself falling in love with the little baby, just as I saw other experienced mothers do when I was out in public with a very small Fred. We really are programmed to love little babies.

You need family

There are nurses but the primary care of the mother and baby are done by friends and family. A woman has stayed with the new Mum all the time. Although I think that it would be great to have more midwife and nurse care, the system doesn’t work well in England either, due to the same shortage. I would have loved to have had a friend or family member with me who could help me out with all the little things. Pressing a button and waiting 40 minutes for a frazzled midwife to turn up once the need has passed didn’t provide me much support.

Coconut oil, cradle cap and connectivity

My child no longer smells of olive oil which I was using to treat his cradle cap (and which my mother hated for making her lovely grandson smell dirty). Now he smells of coconut oil extracted by his Malagasy granny from coconut trees planted by his Papa.

So, now he smells like a tropical, Indian Ocean boy.

How to make coconut oil
Incidentally I have discovered how to make coconut oil. Coconut milk is heated for a long time until the oil and the cream separate and the oil is spooned off the top. For those coconut novices, coconut milk is not the liquid which comes out of a fresh coconut – that’s coconut juice and is a refreshing sweet drink. The milk comes from grating, soaking and squeezing the flesh of the coconut. Mmmm – just the thought of coconut sauce is making me hungry,

Quick aside that it was quite confusing deciding what terms to use for Fred’s family members there because Granny in Malagasy is Dady which is what we’re calling her.

To connect or not to connect….
When we talk about slow connection speeds in developing countries, people in the West may not realise just what we’re talking about. I had to wait around a minute just to switch between internet windows or to scroll up the screen. I was in there for 90 minutes and I sent 2 pre-written emails, updated my Facebook status and left 1 message on a friend’s Facebook wall.

This does not bode well for my internet related ambitions….

Stu (ex-Frontier staff who has been in Diego as long as me) has pointed out that it would make sense to get a phone line put in to the flat and get the internet. I think he is wise and have started investigations.

White woman breastfeeding in bar

Breastfed in public today and I’m still trying to interpret all the social signals to see how appropriate it was. I went into a bar (usually frequented by girlfriends looking for boyfriends and vice versa, and the odd tourist group attracted by the terrace).

I sat in front of the TV, facing only the two bar women. I also covered myself up so no bit of breast was ever on show. However, I was aware this was unusual if nothing else. A young man came and sat down next to me afterwards without smiling once. Was this a classic Malagasy indirect way of saying that I shouldn’t be doing that? Or did he just want to look at the motor racing? So hard to tell.

Jean gulped when I told him but wouldn’t tell me it was actually wrong – not good though I’m guessing.

Malagasy women can be seen breastfeeding fairly often. I think a key difference is that women here take their children with them on errands a lot less than we do in England. The children are always left with someone else. And if women do have to be out of the house for a long time, they are usually relatively poor and selling either fruit from the market or bits of food by the side of the road. The other place I’ve seen it is outside the hospital when women are waiting all day if someone is sick.

So, maybe me breastfeeding in public doesn’t fit with my status as a white woman with a nice apartment not far away. And, from experience I’ve learnt that life is easier in Madagascar if my behaviours fit with people’s expectations of my status.

Settling in ups and downs

A relaxed English morning
I wake just before 6am to feed Fred. Jean is up and about to leave for his driving practical test.

The morning is spent in surreal suspended reality with BBC world on for two hours 8-10am and the place to myself. The charms of the apartment are definitely outstripping the negatives and I’m delighted with our (my) decision to get our (my) own place. I go back to sleep next to Fred for yet more lovely sleep.

Jean is out till 1.30pm leaving me time to look after Fred, to unpack, to enjoy my morning ablutions free from prying eyes and convert music files on my new laptop. I even sit down to read at one point. Despite my concerns about being here, it feels like I might just have a relaxing time and as if this is real life starting after the limbo of the time in England.

A unsettled baby afternoon
Fred is unsettled and fractious all day, my best guess being the heat because he seems to calm down when stripped off and when outside with a breeze. It makes the afternoon particularly unpleasant with Jean impotent to help and us being unable to do anything except keep him calm. Sleeping seems especially difficult for Fred during day which is just like many people when in hot countries for the first time.

A depressed evening
Fred finally fell into a deep afternoon sleep at around 5pm in his buggy. Jean was concerned about mozzies but, with the fan on, I thought it was OK. But suddenly everything went black. A power cut. We thought we were by the hospital so we couldn’t have a power cut.

By the light on my mobile phone we found a candle and, with a bit of effort, put the sun/bug mesh onto the buggy. Fred slept right through the whole thing and looked snug all wrapped up in his darth vader –esque vehicle.

Once he woke up, he was fractious again for the next hour. Sadly, we had to put him in a full baby-gro to protect him from mozzies, which he hates in the heat.

We took Fred outside, sharing the lack of light with our neighbours also outside. Does it matter that my baby is screaming? Doubt it – Malagasys are very tolerant of noise, not realising that right to peace and quiet is considered sacrosanct in my homeland. Fred was somewhat calmed by the passing wobbly beams of yellow light as the taxis rattled past.

The darkness of the power cut burdened the hearts in the house. Jean is annoyed that he is paying good money for a flat with power cuts when he has a house for free not far away with the power still on.

Thankfully Fred went to sleep relatively easily. Jean and I had a depressed supper of boiled eggs, chorizo that I brought from England and bread. Sleep did not come easily and I lay in the blackness listening to the sound of a room filled with mosquitoes. We under our badly fitting mosquito net and Fred in his travel cot cocoon. I resent Madagascar for not allowing me to see and touch my darling son from my bed. I resent Madagascar. I shed a tear and push Jean’s hot heavy body gently away.

Night time calm
At 11pm I awake still in darkness and listen to the mosquitoes and Fred stirring. When I realise Fred is not waking up but I am not sleeping I get up – just to escape from the claustrophobia of the mosquito net. By candlelight I start tapping away at my laptop on battery power, writing an account of my stay in Madagascar so far and planning future writing.

The power came back on at midnight. My mood quickly lifted as the fan blew the mozzies away and light allowed me to move freely. I could charge my phone (so having emergency light) and charge this laptop.

Say what you will about development, all hail electricity.