Unless your name or your partner’s is Mary Poppins, I think every new mother can do with some support. There is no such thing as daycare here so when you have young children as an expat in Kenya, hiring a nanny is almost as normal as having electricity in Europe. Having two children under two years old I can count on Grace and Susie. They are the executives of my household. I am so lucky to have their help and I believe I show my appreciation as much as possible, but sometimes I do feel conflicted.
Yesterday evening when I finally got my oldest, Nelly, to sleep I quietly came into the living room and overheard Susie singing in Swahili on the phone to her four year old daughter, while she was rocking my three month old baby William to sleep. When she noticed me she turned her phone away. I took over my boy and insisted she would call her girl back. She didn’t. She said all was fine, smiling that great smile of hers. I sensed her feeling uncomfortable. My heart sank. She only spends the night here when my husband is travelling. With most covid restrictions lifted that is becoming more frequent though. Laying in bed, fighting feelings of guilt and incompetence I sent her some more mobile money. It did not shrink the brick in my stomach.
There is no doubt about it: African women are the strongest. They have this natural flair when it comes to children. I never thought of it as a talent but I do believe African women have a great talent for kids, their patience and energy, their way of sharing and spreading pure joy -it is inspiring. In African culture children are a blessing, not a burden. Often they bring up their little brothers, sisters and cousins while they’re still children themselves. They learn to be responsible for other lives at a very young age, in contrary to Western culture where you can legally be a kid up until 18 (and for some way beyond that age). African moms keep their babies very close to them, they let them sleep in their beds until they are three or even older. While I try to train my babies to sleep full nights the earlier the better and by preference in their own rooms, they don’t. This is not only a matter of having enough space in the house. They believe in the extreme importance of bounding at that young age, they believe babies need to feel loved at any time. Pretty hard to put such an approach up for discussion.
Luckily my mother instinct kicked in straight after my first baby was born but I have to admit that I found it terrifying. I never saw -let alone held- a human being so small as my daughter. Fyi she was a perfectly normal newborn of 3,2 kg. The second I left the hospital the world became a hostile place full of potential danger.
Once home, I was very happy with the help of Grace and Susie, I didn’t have to worry about doing the laundry, cleaning the house or even cooking but when it comes to your first newborn who do you really trust, right: no one. Nelly was 8 weeks old when I left her for the first time with Grace. With my boy it only took a few days. Fortunately, even a mother’s heart is a muscle that can stretch. At one hand I had to learn to trust them, at the other hand they sometimes triggered feelings of insecurity peculiar to being a new mom. But with time my confidence grew and even though it felt strange to give instructions to older ladies who already raised children themselves, in the end it is my home. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of my young children, I can not leave anything to chance.
Missing my own village
I truly love our African life and we met some really special people who will remain friends forever but I do miss my family and friends in Belgium beyond words. Especially since I became a mother, especially since covid made distance real again. Whatsapp and Facetime can simply not replace a live conversation let alone a firm hug. Daily realities are sometimes literally so far apart that I don’t know where to start when ringing up someone ten thousand kilometers away. Capturing funny incidents, spontaneous reactions or the lights in my daughters eyes when she sees a monkey in our garden, it’s like trying to capture a sky filled with stars, a beautiful sunset or a full moon, you just can’t. Thankful for technology, I can hear their voices, their laughter, their stories I realize that living abroad means living different lives and you want your loved ones on the other continent to know it’s a good one. By choosing this life, I feel like I lost the right to complain about it. There is too little time and too much space between us to explain every single feeling of doubt or sadness.
I do make sure I share lots of pictures and movies of my kids but since it is just impossible to live in both worlds I stopped harrassing them like a gibbering paparazzo for that one golden shot, trying to capture the uncapturable. Having two babies within 17 months far away from home during pandemic times was not how I imagined it all. But here we are.
I now realize that it takes a village to raise a child. In my case Grace is the mayor and Susie her deputy. Of course they don’t take away the missing of my family but without them it would be simply impossible to live a happy life here.
All in the mix
I love to be pragmatic about parenthood and I believe a clash of cultures is in the first place very enriching. My children can only benefit from a mix between Western structure and African warmth and patience.
When Grace told me Nelly was able to put her toes in her mouth when she was about four months old, I was a bit sad to have missed that moment while I was working. I even felt a hint of jealousy. Grace was over the moon. She said “this is the sign that Nelly is ready to become a big sista”. Slightly annoyed I laughed it away, clueless that she would be right a couple of months later. Often they are right. Like when they told me my babies would have a lot of hair because I had constant heartburn while I was pregnant. My kids were indeed born with heads full of hair. Instead of saying he is a light sleeper they say about my babyboy that he sleeps like a lion, with one eye open. I love that.
These kind of African beliefs and superstitions are only a part of the many differences between our cultures. Grace and Susie are convinced that chubby babies drool more or that when they gag blowing on a baby’s head is the best remedy. One afternoon a friend came to visit with her baby who had cradle cap, Grace and Susie told me afterwards dead serious that the cause of cradle cap is parents making lots of love during pregnancy. We all giggled and they were surprised I didn’t know.
Most of the time I find their different ideas funny or interesting but of certain practices I am less of a fan. Like their idea that fresh air is bad for a baby or when it’s over 25°C that they would still cover small children in jumpers, jackets, even blankets. Some things are so obvious to me that I wouldn’t even think starting to explain but one time I asked Susie if she was sure the bottle wasn’t too hot before giving it to my baby, she told me not too worry, that he would not drink it when it’s too warm… I learned that you just can not be too explicit.
My point is that while they might run my village, I still need to set out the standards and the rules. Today my village is operating rather smoothly but it requires a constant effort from all sides.
Puta and Jesus
Nelly, 21 months old, speaks with a strong Kenyan accent, “wata” is “water”, “sita” is “sit there”, “cola” is color and “puta” is “put there”. Although I think it’s all super sweet, I am trying to change the “puta” since her best buddy is half Spanish…
Before I was pregnant I never really thought about the impact of languages. Everyone speaks English and so be it but after becoming a mom I insisted speaking my native language to my kids. I want to give them as many options as possible when they are older. Roots and wings. Trying to be consequent with the “one-language-per-person-rule” I often catch myself mixing Flemish, English and Swahili like just now before my girl’s nap “All the kindjes are going to lala”.
Since a couple of weeks, I have been trying to make Nelly say “I love you”. Without any succes. Yesterday she told me “I love Jesus”, her eyes sparkling of pride. I gave her a big kiss and hugged her so she would not see the confused frown on my face. The question about religion is worth another post but for now if Grace and Susie love Jesus, my kids can love him too.
The kids are actually smiling –
such joie de vivre
My babies always have two loving arms at their disposal, even when they are sick. They will never sit more then a couple of seconds in a dirty nappy. Without the help of Grace and Susie I would not be able to write or to get back in shape. There is no battle with grandparents over unfulfilled expectations because in the end this is a work relationship. We can count on them when my husband needs to travel or when we want a night out. Mainly we can focus on the fun moments with our kids because they take care of the household. The Hakuna Matata-vibes are contagious, their wonderful singing and dancing skills, their general love for life energizes everyone around them. There are countless advantages of having these two incredible ladies helping me.
But there is also another side to it. At first I found it a huge invasion of our privacy. To be honest I love the weekends just me, my husband and our babies to prove that we can handle it all. I admit I am also extremely happy to see Grace and Susie on Monday mornings when the house is often a total mess. I talked earlier about the difficulty of being the employer while they might be natural experts with kids, still I am the one and only mom of my kids. For example I didn’t need their subtle guilt tripping when I stopped breastfeeding.
In Europe you drop off your little ones at daycare where there are certain rules, a structure and qualified workers who will never ask you to help them pay for the funeral of an uncle who died. The differences in cultures (Kenyan arrogance is real) and in particular my rather direct Belgian way of saying things were obstacles to overcome. Dealing with small children I just can’t walk on eggshells all day every day in my own house.
In the end the most difficult part is also the most beautiful thing about having Grace and Susie as a part of our family: our children get extremely attached to them. It’s heartbreaking knowing we wont be here forever.
Guilt guilt guilt – on guilt you don’t build
The other day I was explaining to Grace why I needed the brandnew baby carseat I just ordered for my son. I know I shouldn’t. They are used to carry their kids in cloths even in the dangerous public transport, but I am not going to change that by not having a safe carseat for my son. Still I made sure she didn’t see the receipt with a figure half of her monthly salary.
Generally and apart from Africa, I find it upsetting how we live in a world where human capital is under-appreciated and over-taxed and where material things and property are seriously overrated. I dread the day I have to explain this to my children.
I hope Grace and Susie are happy with their jobs. We pay them nearly double of what is common. We feel responsible for their wellbeing and their families. Needless to say that living in Africa as a white person and employing local staff raises moral questions. If you overthink it, you simply can not live here but if you take it all for granted, if you don’t contemplate on it I believe you should not live here at all.
The entire village
So far I only talked about Grace and Susie but there is the wider village: Godfrey the gardener, Nissa and James the security guards, Samuel the driver and the various dogwalkers in our little green street.
Nelly was saying “jambo” way before saying “hello”, “mango” before “apple”. All those small special moments that I could not share with my own people, I shared with my local village. Preparing the baby rooms with Godfrey and Nissa, painting cupboards with James, sorting out baby clothes with Grace, celebrating the first tooth, practicing those first steps, trying solid foods, the cheering if the baby finally burped or pooped, the concerns when Nelly fell or when William had colics for very long sleepless weeks, they were all there for me, for us. Although we pay them, their excitement, the sincere love they feel for my children can not be bought, it’s priceless. At times they are my friends, my nurses, my judges, my enemies, my siblings, my guides while I might just be their white ass boss.
Small moments pass, bigger ones too, like birthdays, Christmas and first days of school. And then it genuinely hurts not having my people around. At first I felt that the sharing of those special moments with people I pay to be around was not as valuable as when it would be with my own people. In my head I would compare it to turning on the airconditioning by lack of a fresh sea breeze, the cup of instant coffee instead of the Nespresso, the Heineken when you crave a Belgian beer, the Dunhill sigaret when you smoke Marlboro light or hugging a stranger when you haven’t found the right one. You take what you can get, you survive. But I realized how wrong this mindset was and how it made me feel sad, lonely and more attached to my phone insisting to immortalize moments while forgetting to live them. It was not fair towards my children. How can I ever teach them to be happy with the here and now, to fully live in the present, when all I do is looking forward or backward?
They can never replace my family but when sharing moments with people who have their hearts filled with compassion and love for those small humans I gave birth to in their country far away from my own, the only thing I can and should feel is deep gratitude.
Often I wonder how they do it themselves? I mean life, in every sense, how do they manage? How do they survive? And I know the answer is simple. At the end of the day, they have their own village … for free.