From the story of Tarzan, you know that he is a little boy. He was born being a little boy. But then he was raised in a completely different culture that was foreign and different to him.
When I was younger I learned how to fold towels. I folded them the way that my mom folded towels. But then when I got married Luke folded towels differently. I had never doubted or wondered why I folded my towels that way. I just always did it that way. I really hadn’t thought about, “Oh, there are different ways to fold towels.” or that you could fold towels I different way. I just did.
Over the last few years I have had to really think about so many things in a much different way. I have had to think about why I wear pants and not skirts. Why do I eat the food that I eat? Why do I take communion the way I take it? And I also have had to think about why I believe what I believe?
Many times we believe what we believe because that is the way we were raised, it is who we are. Over the last 2+ years in living in Africa. I have had to examine all of those things. When I first got here I really tried to be like a Malawian in every way. But now I am just trying to be who I am, which is an American that loves the people of Malawi. So that means sometimes I do things the way I always have and sometimes I do it the way they do it here and most times I do something in the middle.
Sometimes I admit, I feel like I am raising Tarzan. So how do I parent when everyone around me is parenting so differently. Is the way I parented Mark the right way? Is the way they do it here the right way? I have learned that just because someone does something differently, doesn’t always mean they are wrong it just means they are different. Many things I do the same as I did for Mark and some things have changed because he is a 3rd child and some have changed because we live here in Malawi. But I am here to learn this culture and relate and love the people of Malawi. So, if it is safe and doesn’t go against our beliefs, we often do it the Malawian way.
I am going to share with you some cultural differences in raising children so that you can see a little more of the picture of Malawian life.
Everywhere you go they carry their babies using a Chitenje, a two-meter piece of fabric. They use this as an apron, they use it as blanket, they use it on there heads, and they use it to carry a baby. Their babies, from the time they are born until they are about three years old, are carried like this most of the day. They work with their babies on their backs and they put them to sleep like this.
This is something that has completely changed from when I had Mark. Breastfeeding is done everywhere and is completely acceptable in all environments and without any cover. I still tried, if I could, to do it privately. But I admit. I have breastfed in the middle of meetings, restaurants, and many places I would never have done before. I have learned though, sometimes you have to get over yourself and your own pride in order to bridge gaps. I admit I still don’t like it, but when I breastfed in front of a group of women it helped me be just like them. It helps bridge that gap that is so often there because of the color of my skin.
This is probably one of the greatest differences between the American culture and the Malawian culture. Malawians eat about the same thing every day so their children and babies do the same. When babies start eating food the most common thing they eat is porridge. They normally eat this porridge twice a day even when they are older. Aaron does love to eat the porridge but he pretty much just eats everything.
One of my favorite memories here was when Aaron was about 10 months old we took a trip to one of the villages to do ministry. While Luke was doing ministry, I went to the car to feed Aaron some homemade sweet potatoes I had made. All of a sudden there were about 20 women surrounding me. They only spoke Chichewa but I was able to communicate what I was feeding him and how babies can eat sweet potatoes and how it is good for the child. Aaron has always been a big boy so they were very interested into what he was eating differently. I love the memory because there was no judgement, just learning about each other and how we do things differently.
For us hearing a different language is normal for us. It surrounds us constantly. One of the major differences for Aaron is that he is very used to that. When we visited the states, he only heard English for 3 months except the Chichewa we spoke to him. His talking seemed to just completely stop for about a month, his little brain was trying to figure out what was happening. Today when he speaks he normally speaks English but he also speaks Chichewa sometimes. He can completely understand most things in both languages. I love that he loves the Chichewa and when he gets upset, we just need to play or sing some Malawian music and he calms right down.
Crying and Pacifiers
Their culture here is that their babies do not cry and babies do not use pacifiers. This is something I needed to get used too. One time we were in the doctor’s office and Aaron was crying for about 1 minute. Someone came over and said he needed to stop crying. But Aaron is a little boy that will definitely cry more than a minute no matter what we do. That is who he is. Another person told me that if you use a pacifier the babies will not talk. We still use the pacifier to shorten his crying and we are happy to report he is talking just fine, in two languages.
Dust and Dirt
Toddlers get dirty no matter where you are. But my little boy, he looks like Tarzan most of the time. He has dirt caked on him, no matter how many times I wash him. He almost always refuses to wear shoes. And for some reason his hair refuses to lay down, it just sticks up. I have just resided to the idea that he is going to look like that no matter what I do or how many times that I change his clothes (which is still at least 2-3 times a day).
You cannot buy baby gates here. We use cardboard boxes, bottle crates, and anything we can find to prevent him from getting into everything.
Like Tarzan, he is curious, he moves, he falls, he climbs, he bumps into things, and he loves to find the way to touch the things he isn’t supposed to touch. I know that one day I am going to have to write a note to Mark’s teacher that says “Sorry the baby ate Mark’s Homework”. I have been tempted to buy a bicycle helmet and put it on his head and make him wear it all the time.
My mom tells the story often that when she was 3 or 4 years old, her place in the car was standing up in the car next to her dad as they traveled. This is not the culture that I grew up in. But here, they cannot afford car seats. Babies do not use them at all. We had a wonderful bucket baby seat that my friend gave us, we just carted him everywhere in it. That is very common in the states. Here it is not, people would say, “Oh, he is sleeping, is that comfortable for him?”
I actually have loved raising Aaron here. Yes, it is different. Yes, it is challenging. Yes, the kid is covered in sunscreen, dirt, and bug spray continually. But my eyes have been opened up to the bigger picture. I mess up a lot, I pray a lot, and I am so very grateful for this wonderful Tarzan that I get to raise.