According to the United Nations Population Fund, the average Ugandan woman is estimated to have approximately 6.3 children in her lifetime. This value seems enormous when one thinks about how difficult it can be to simply feed yourself every day here. Limited access to and education about contraceptives are an obvious piece of the puzzle, though strides are being made to improve this throughout the country. Some might also argue mothers in developing countries have more children because mortality rates are higher. I believe there is truth to both these explanations, and that reducing the number of children born in the developing world is crucial to their rising out of poverty, but being here has made me see this issue through yet another lens.
Every day I walk by hundreds of makeshift homes made of sheets of steel, with dirt floors and garbage all around them. Mothers surrounded by half naked children boil water over charcoal to have a few sips of safe water. This morning, I peeked into one of these nearby homes to see a father with his three young children crammed into this tiny space. One of the children had an awful cough, but all four of them smiled out towards us, and the kids waved in our direction. The look on the father's face said it all: he loves those children with all his heart, and no financial issue will ever change that.
Many parents here (refugee women especially) have no jobs. They are often confined to their homes, plagued with thoughts of what they once had or whom they lost in the war that forced them to flee their motherland. For them, struggle is already the primary theme in their lives. A child, on the other hand, brings a struggling mother a new sense of hope and purpose, a full-time job, someone to love and be loved by. Perhaps this newborn son or daughter may have a feature that skipped a generation or two: the nose of a grandmother that was brutally murdered, the laugh of an uncle who didn't survive the journey. When it comes to starting a family, it seems that what they have to lose is nothing compared to what they have to gain. Here, the energy of a mother with her child is unlike anything I've ever seen before.
Charlotte, a fellow volunteer and I laugh at how valid the expression "it takes a village to raise a child" is here. Even the children of our executive director (a two and four year old) run rampant around our compound and even sometimes outside its gates. Strangers hold and console crying babies, and often, it is hard to tell which family a child belongs to. Women certainly do not feel alone when it comes to raising a family–in fact, they have dozens of helpers at their doorstep.
Just like any other children in the world, kids here play with anything and everything they can get their hands on. They dance, sing, shriek, and resist doing their homework just the same, and it makes me wonder whether we really do hover over children excessively in the states. Nature seems to prevail when it comes to a child's behavior, but nurture plays a huge part in who we become as adults. Would we be better off if we were raised to entertain ourselves and be held accountable for our own well being? In my opinion, probably, but I also think there is a fine line. I cannot help but cringe watching toddlers play by the edge of the road as motorcycles (boda bodas are what we call them here in east Africa) speed by, just narrowly avoiding the preoccupied children. My thoughts go back to the numerous kids at the clinic suffering of seizures-–symptoms potentially onset by some kind of brain trauma. These statistics do have the potential to be related, though there are many accidents waiting to happen all over this village, regardless of parental supervision.
I have been reading The Poisonwood Bible in my downtime here. Juxtaposing the fictional epic based in the Democratic Republic of Congo with my immersion in the Ndejje community has made me hyperaware in many of my experiences here. This different method of child-rearing is touched upon by the author, through the eyes of a young American girl living in Congo:
"It struck me what a wide world of difference there was between our sort of games - 'Mother May I?,' 'Hide and Seek' - and his: 'Find Food,' 'Recognize Poisonwood,' 'Build a House.' And here he was a boy no older than eight or nine. He had a younger sister who carried the family's baby everywhere she went and hacked weeds with her mother in the manioc field. I could see that the whole idea and business of Childhood was nothing guaranteed. It seemed to me, in fact, like something more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up life like a frill on a dress."
While children here maintain their uplifting and innocent energy, they are born a part of the work force. They follow their own seemingly innate intuition about safety and obedience and frown not at whatever situation they are born into. They are their mothers' helpers, their villages' hope, and a nearly immediate contribution to the productivity of their communities. What a wildly different world it is here.