This week, our Motherhood Around the World series goes to Nairobi, where Tara Wambugu lives with her Kenyan husband, Jesse, and two daughters, Claire, 4, and Heidi, one and a half. Here, she explains how Kenyans refer to their elders, the pleasure of outdoor bathing and 18 other surprising things about living in Kenya…
Jesse and I always planned to settle in Kenya. When we started dating 10 years ago, while working for the humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières in Uzbekistan, I told him I wanted to live abroad long-term, and he said he hoped to eventually move home. Luckily for us, raising our family in Kenya met both of those goals. I now stay at home with my girls and write a blog about my life here.
We live in Kilimani, a neighborhood with a suburban feel, where we rent a house. When we first moved here in 2011, I was struck by all the beautiful tropical flowers. The gardens are teeming with jacarandas, poinsettias, hibiscus, frangipani and nasturtium. Nairobi is known as “The Green City in the Sun,” and it’s full of bright, leafy neighborhoods. For me, the smell and sight of flowers is quintessential Kenya.
On culture shock: Despite having worked and lived before in very basic conditions in Africa, we both experienced some culture shock when we moved to Nairobi after spending a year in England. During our first week, we had power outages, a water shortage and a massive ant infestation in our bedroom. Both of us were kind of freaking out because we’d quickly become accustomed to well-established infrastructure and services in Europe. I remember waking up for one of Claire’s night feedings, and realizing there were thousands of ants crawling all over my feet and up my legs!
On being a multi-racial family: Even though mixed-race couples in Kenya aren’t as rare as they used to be, people are surprised to see a Kenyan man married to a white American woman. We sometimes get double-takes. Usually it’s just curiosity, but it can be unpleasant. For example, security guards occasionally assume Jesse is my taxi driver.
It’s really important to us that our children see plausible versions of themselves in their toys, TV programs, books and schoolmates, but it’s not always easy to achieve here. We once saw another family with mixed-race children in a local restaurant and our older daughter, Claire, was so excited she jumped out of her seat and shouted, “Mommy, look, that girl looks like me!!!”
We were astonished by how hard it was to find black baby dolls for our kids. You’d think it would be easy in an African country, but the stores here are stocked full of only blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls. (I wound up finding a black doll on Amazon.)
When we go to visit our Kenyan family in their village, Claire falls right in with the local children, even though she looks different and can’t speak Kikuyu, Jesse’s tribal language, or Swahili as well as they can. However, they’re fascinated with her hair, which is a different texture, and curlier, and every time she comes home she has a GIGANTIC Afro from all the children running their fingers through it!
On addressing elders: It’s discouraged to address an elder by his or her first name here. But, rather than calling someone Mrs. Smith, you call her by the name of her first-born child. I am known as “Mama Claire.” I think this is such a sweet way for children to address adults respectfully, but without feeling too stuffy or strict. It also makes it much easier to remember other parents’ names on the playground! I always remember the children’s names, so I can easily just call a mother “Mama Mya,” if I forget her first name. It is a sign of respect to be referred to as “Mama Claire,” and I love it. (Somehow I expected to dislike this tradition, thinking I’d feel a lack of personal identity, but I found I adored it from day one.)
On superstitions and sayings: Many Kenyans I’ve met semi-believe in superstitions or enjoy repeating the quirky wisdom of proverbs. For example, in some tribes it’s considered bad luck to talk a lot about an unborn child, because it can leave the baby vulnerable to bad spirits. A friend told me her family feared bad luck when they saw baby clothes she’d washed on the clothesline before her baby was born.
Owls are also considered by some to be bad luck. If you hear an owl hooting near your home at night, it is believed that you will soon suffer a death in your family!
Apart from superstitions, I’ve heard many Kenyan proverbs about parenting and motherhood. Claire is really tall, and my mother-in-law looked at her one day and said, in Kikuyu, “Mwana ndaigirirwo ihiga!” I asked her what that meant, and she told me, “A child does not carry a stone on its head!” I wondered what it could mean, and she explained: Children will always grow, no matter the circumstances, even if you place a stone on their head.
On corruption: Even though it’s not at all uncommon to encounter demands for small bribes in the regular course of life here, Jesse and I have a family policy of never paying bribes of any kind. A few years ago, a city servant responsible for collecting parking fees confiscated my car keys and threatened to put a boot on my tire if I didn’t pay him a bribe! I asked what law I had broken and demanded to go to a courthouse so I could settle any legitimate fines the legal way. He became very angry with me and threatened that a court-administered fine would be exponentially higher than the small “cup of tea” he was asking for. I was furious and stood my ground. Ultimately, he returned my keys and left me alone. I was shaking with anger and frustration at the end of the exchange, but proud of myself for not contributing to an inherently corrupt system.
On the magic of safaris: We love taking safaris (in Swahili, safari simply means “journey”) to places off the beaten path, and Kenya has so many amazing spots that are largely untouched by tourists. When our older daughter Claire was about 18 months old, I took her camping at Lake Elementaita in the Great Rift Valley. We decided to take a walk around its perimeter for a picnic lunch. I brought my travel hammock with me, and we strung it up between two acacia trees on the far side of the lake. After lunch, we climbed into the hammock for an afternoon nap. An hour later, we were woken by the sound of cow bells. We peered over the edge of the hammock to see that we were surrounded by cattle being herded by the Masai tribesmen. It was one of my most magical moments in Kenya.
On appreciating animals: Our children are lucky to be growing up in an incredible environment for appreciating wildlife. At four, Claire can tell the difference between a gazelle and an impala and can spot a giraffe from miles away. Jesse takes the kids outside every day after work to put out birdseed in our garden. We have bronze manikins, streaky seed-eaters, variable sunbirds, bronze sunbirds, olive thrush, hadada ibis, and firefinches who all come to eat at our feeders. Claire can already identify dozens of East African birds.
Because we have a national park nearby in Nairobi, we can go on a game drive whenever we want. Giraffes, zebras, elephants and rhinos are all typical animals for our kids. I remember once when visiting our family in the U.S., someone asked Claire to name an exotic animal. She thought for a while, and then said, “A squirrel!”
On family rhythms: Living so close to the Equator, the sun rises and sets at almost the same time every day in Kenya, no matter what time of year it is, and it becomes part of your daily rhythm. Our kids are very early risers, often waking around 5:30 a.m., and our day starts early.
One of our favorite family traditions is giving our kids an al fresco “bush bath.” We bring a plastic basin whenever we travel in Kenya, and treat them to a nice soak overlooking a river, or the savannah, or the Great Rift Valley. I love letting them splash around, surrounded by nature and spectacular landscapes.
On pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are treated like goddesses in Kenya. You never have to stand in line, you never have to wait for a seat and and you never have to carry anything. Perfect strangers will always offer to help you!
Also, all the women in my mother-in-law’s village fussed over me as a new mother. Everyone made sure I was drinking enough liquids, and offered me njahi (black-eyed peas) and uji (fermented porridge) around the clock. These foods are believed to boost milk production, so they were encouraging them morning, noon and night and would even send me to bed with a thermos full of uji, so I could drink it all night long. I felt very pampered.
On childbirth: Our family is incredibly fortunate, and we aren’t confronted by the kinds of struggles faced by many Kenyan families. For example, maternal mortality is very high in Kenya. The World Health Organization has said that for every 100,000 live births in Kenya, 400 women die from complications during childbirth. To put that in perspective, in the U.S., that number is 28. These vulnerabilities in Kenya are due to lack of access to decent prenatal care, good hospitals and obstetric services. Claire was born in the U.K., but we had Heidi in Nairobi and we were so lucky to have an amazing doctor and to deliver in the top hospital in Kenya. I had every confidence that my baby and I were in the best possible care. Many Kenyan mothers do not have that privilege.
On picking a baby name: There’s a lovely naming culture in Kenya, and particularly in the Kikuyu tribe, where the first-born daughter is named after her paternal grandmother. We decided to adopt this tradition for our girls’ middle names. Our eldest’s is Naymbura after my husband’s mother, which means “born during the rains.” She was born in the U.K., so we think it’s beautifully befitting! The second-born daughter would traditionally be named after her maternal grandmother, but we wanted both girls to have Kenyan middle names. When Heidi was born, we decided to give her the middle name Makena, which means “the happy one.” Her name also fits her perfectly.
On breastfeeding: Breastfeeding is the norm in Kenya. Public breastfeeding is welcome everywhere and actively encouraged. In fact, if you’re in public and your baby starts to fuss, strangers will say to you, “Mama, give your baby nyonyo, she is hungry!” (“Nyonyo” is the Swahili word for breastfeeding.)
There’s a beautiful, slow Swahili lullaby that Jesse and I always sing to the girls when they’re tired that speaks to the role of breastfeeding here:
Lala, toto lala
Mama anakuja, lala
Lala, toto lala
Alete maziwa, lala
Lala, toto lala
Maziwa ya toto, lala
It means, “Sleep, baby sleep… Mama is coming, sleep… She is bringing milk, sleep… Baby’s milk, sleep…”
On the community village: The adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is taken very seriously in Kenya. As such, your children are seen as everyone’s children, and everyone’s responsibility. Those in your generation will be known to your children as “auntie” or “uncle,” whether or not they are actually related. I had always known about this, but I learned after we had our own kids that this also extends into the grandparents’ generation! When we first introduced our baby to my mother-in-law’s sister, I said, “Claire, this is Auntie Salome!” Salome frowned at me, and said, “I’m not her auntie! I’m her grandma!” It made me laugh that everyone from my mother-in-law’s generation was to be known as “grandma” or “grandpa,” because there is no way my own mother would ever agree to share her title with anyone!
On baby wearing: I completely fell in love with baby wearing here, where it goes back for generations upon generations. Everywhere you go, you’ll see women carrying their babies in a leso or kanga, traditional African cloths with Swahili proverbs written on them. Kenyan women usually wear their babies on their backs, and it’s a beautiful and practical way to carry a little one — the ultimate multitasking mother tool.
On food and drink: Kenyan cuisine is all about meat and starch. Ugali, a doughy mixture of boiled cornmeal, is the favorite staple for all Kenyans. It’s often eaten with a meaty stew and some sautéed kale. Kenyans seem to intuitively know when it’s ready, though I’ve been told that I always undercook it. My sister-in-law told me to throw a bit of the ugali against a wall to see if it sticks, but I haven’t tested out that method yet!
Tea is a really important part of Kenyan culinary culture and one of the country’s major crops. People love to drink tea at breakfast, throughout the day and after most meals.
Many Kenyans hate cold drinks, so when you order one in a restaurant or bar, the waiter will ask you if you want it warm or cold. Everything, from milk to beer, juice to soda, can be served warm in Kenya. This is a habit that starts at birth, because Kenyans fear that children will fall ill if you feed them cold things. When our niece comes over to play, we heat everything for her, even ice cream! And whenever our kids have colds, our housekeeper tut tuts at us for serving them cold juice, straight from the fridge!
On eating manners: You’re only supposed to shake hands or eat with your right hand here (Kenyans traditionally eat food with their hands, not with utensils.) This is because you’re supposed to use your left hand in the loo, and many traditional Kenyan loos don’t have toilet paper, but rather a bucket of water for washing.
On American culture shock: While our kids seem to be cultivating American accents, they stick out a bit culturally when we’re visiting family in the U.S. On a recent visit, my mother asked Claire to put her plate in the dishwasher. Claire looked puzzled, and replied, “What’s a dishwasher?” She is also completely unaccustomed to air conditioning, and can’t stop talking about how freezing it is whenever we are inside. A woman in a Starbucks once asked Claire why she was shivering, and I said to her that Claire had never felt air conditioning before. The woman looked at me like I was crazy.
On gender differences: Boys and girls, at times, are treated differently in Kenya. Teachers and nannies have often told our daughter, “Claire, you should not climb that tree. Girls don’t climb!” Or, if she breaks into tears over something, people have told her, “Claire, don’t cry. Pretty girls shouldn’t cry.” I’ve never seen anyone tell a boy not to climb, or that handsome boys shouldn’t cry. There is definitely a double standard.
President Obama visited Kenya this summer, and in his speech, he talked about the treatment of women and girls in Kenya, and about the fact that some Kenyan girls are not sent to school. He encouraged Kenyans to leave behind their traditions that treat women and girls as second class citizens, saying, “Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women… is doomed to fall behind in a global economy.” I’m looking forward to see if his message has impact.
On play: Some Kenyan parents arrange play dates for their kids, though it’s not as ubiquitous as it is in the U.S. In more rural villages, however, children are free to roam about the neighborhood on their own outdoors, and play freely without any adult supervision. Whenever we go to visit Jesse’s family in their village, we find bands of children roaming around together and having a ball.
Soccer (or football, as Kenyans call it) is THE most popular sport, mainly played by boys. Even in the poorest villages, boys will make ingenious homemade soccer balls out of plastic bags, rubber bands, and twine. Or they will make themselves elaborate toy cars out of scrap wire and bottle caps [pictured above]. Jesse has tried to teach Claire how to make these toy cars, but she has already become too accustomed to store-bought toys. I fear this art will be lost on our children.
On discipline: There’s a fascinating paradox I’ve observed in Kenyan parenting. I’ve never seen a Kenyan child throw a tantrum. Ever. I’ve often wondered why Kenyan children seem so much better behaved and more respectful to adults than a typical American child (or, at least, my own children!).
Part of the reason is that Kenyan children rarely hear the word “No” from parents or caregivers, so they have nothing to throw a tantrum about. You’ll see parents offering young children exactly what they want in order to keep the peace — a soda, candy, a toy, a snack, dessert before dinner, TV until long after bed time… you name it. Jesse and I, on the other hand, sometimes engage in epic battles with our girls over tiny things, usually because we’re trying to teach them they can’t have everything they want.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s unclear to me whether one approach is more effective than the other in the long run.
Thank you so much, Tara!
P.S. The full Motherhood Around the World series…
(All photos courtesy of Tara Wambugu, except close-up of baby on mother’s back and Tara reading to her daughters, by Natasha Sweeney; eating ugali, babywearing women in the street and boys with handmade toys, by K. Kendall.)