In a country where 80% of the population is under 25, interacting with youth is a large part of my daily life. Some of the most striking and oftentimes difficult cultural differences I’ve observed here have to do with children.
The parenting style in the States versus in Senegal couldn’t be more different. Parents in the States generally have a desire for their children to have a rich and nurturing childhood, filled with play dates, toys, and organized activities. Children here, on the other hand, are treated like adults before they are even speaking full sentences.
The responsibility of caring for the younger children in the compound usually falls on kids that are just slightly older. It is not uncommon to see the 6 year old in the compound with the newborn baby strapped to his/her back. If a kid starts crying for any assortment of reasons, it is almost always another kid that rushes over to comfort him/her. The parents, if they are around, usually don’t bat an eye. Kids are more or less left to their own devices. They are free to wander around town alone or with other kids. My family keeps much closer tabs on me, a 24 year old woman, than they do on any kids in the compound. I guess there aren’t the same safety concerns for children here because of the community aspect. Everyone knows each other and looks out for each other, so there’s not much of a chance of something happening without someone seeing.
In the States, parenting is the responsibility of, well, the parents. I have a vivid memory of standing in line at a grocery store with my mom as a child, and an older woman telling me that something or other that I was doing was wrong. My mom spun around and firmly said, “She’s my child. Let me be the parent.” This is an idea that would be completely foreign to a Senegalese person. When adults do decide to parent, any child is fair game. I guess the adage “It takes a village to raise a child” really is the best way to describe it. It’s common to see adults yelling at, hitting, and ordering around kids that they have no familial relation to.
There’s also a practice here in Senegal that we PCV’s refer to as “small-boying.” Basically, anyone younger than you can be “small-boyed” into whatever errand you don’t feel like doing yourself. Adults in my compound send kids to buy a wide variety of items on a daily basis — from breakfast sandwiches to tea and sugar to cell phone credit — I’ve even seen 4 year olds sent to the butik to buy cigarettes. When I first got here, I thought the whole practice was a little questionable. But now I’ve realized that the kids actually like it. They are usually so bored that any activity is welcomed.
My fellow volunteer and friend Barb has been trying to introduce American toys to Senegalese children, with little success. Kids here don’t really have toys — except for things that they fabricate out of garbage. So Barb’s mom sent her some toys made for toddlers. I’ve seen Barb break these toys out with various groups of children, and the response is telling. The kids that are actually in the target age group usually cry and try to hide/run away from these mysterious brightly colored objects. Older kids usually swoop in and before you know it there’s at least 10 kids trying to play with one toy. Adults, also bored, usually get involved as well to try to show the kids the “right” way to play with the toy.
In some ways, this is a funny and entertaining sight, but in other ways it can be really hard to watch. I can’t help but think of my childhood, filled with an abundance of toys and structured activities, as well as the opportunity and privilege to be told that there was no “right” or “wrong” way to play. I’m sure this furthered my creativity and critical thinking skills, which are both highly undervalued in a place like Senegal. Here, where life so often comes down to whether or not the family is going to eat that day, there’s not really the time, resources, or energy to expend on cultivating children’s creative development.
Another major difference is the number of kids parents have. It’s common for a mom to have 5 or 6 kids, and in more affluent families where a man has multiple wives and that many kids with each one, well, you do the math. I was talking to my older brother Djiby, about this one day. I asked him how many kids he would want to have, and he said he only wants 3. He said he knows this is not a lot for a Senegalese family, but he thinks it would be better that way so he could actually take care of them. He turned the question back on me. I said maybe 2 or 3, that I thought having just 1 would be hard. I was about to explain why: because I think that often only children get spoiled or aren’t the best at sharing, etc. but before I could say anything he agreed and said, “Yeah, if you only have one kid and they die, then you won’t have any.” This explanation, so vastly different from the one I had formulated, left me speechless. Death is something that is so common here, so embedded in everyday life, so unavoidable. It is spoken of so casually. Djiby didn’t even know that what he had said was shocking to me. I realized that almost every family I’ve come across here has lost at least one child. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that that’s not as much of a concern in “my” world.
No matter how integrated or comfortable I feel in my community, I imagine that these differences are realities that I will continue to struggle with throughout my time here. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake the feeling of being an outsider. For obvious, tangible, reasons like my white skin, but also because my experiences and privileges of my life up until this point will always be dramatically different from those of people here. I have seen such a different side of the world that most, if not all, of the people in my community will never see.
A world full of toys where parents don’t live with the constant fear of losing their children.