FOOC: A Senegalese parenting guide
By Jane Labous
The Skype call comes up on my computer, shortly after the baby is born, while my husband Idi is making la rouille – a fortifying Senegalese porridge of boiled water, flour and butter recommended for new mothers. It’s my mother-in-law Khoudia calling from Dakar. She waves energetically at the baby as the family crowds around the screen at their end to see the new metisse, as the Senegalese call anyone of mixed race.
‘Mam,’ Khoudia clucks, using the Wolof word for grandma. ‘I’m Mam!’ She grins triumphantly. ‘I knew it would work!’ she exclaims, referring to the marabout, or mystic, who had sent us fertility treatments through the post. All those magical bath salts and little parceled prayers appear to have paid off, and we can finally celebrate after a nine month silence. Perhaps because Senegal is still a risky place to give birth, it’s not the done thing to talk about a baby until he or she is safely arrived. Pregnant women habitually wear cotton caps while they sleep, to fend off evil spirits.
I often ask Khoudia for advice, for she’s the mother of six, grandmother of nine, her expertise undeniable. Eat millet and rice to increase your milk supply, she reels off smoothly. Never cut the baby’s fingernails or they’ll grow too thick; leave them and they’ll snap off on their own. Start carrying the baby on your back once she can hold up her head. Don’t begin solids until six months, and then only mushy rice and boiled sweet potatoes. If the baby cries, gently rub her with karité, a local shea butter.
‘What are we going to do about the sheep?’ Idi asks afterwards, looking stressed.
‘The sheep, what sheep?’ I peer at him exhaustedly, spooning in the porridge.
‘It’s tradition,’ he says, ‘to kill a sheep seven days after the birth.’
And so there follows a complex international negotiation. The baby’s four Senegalese uncles set off to purchase a sheep, ramming it in the boot of the car. The following Tuesday, family and friends in Dakar tuck in to the barbecued meat. The baby’s name is now official.
Senegalese men do not attend births, and I’m resigned to the fact that my husband is no Western-style metrosexual. But perhaps only an African man could have expressed such unadulterated horror at the British midwife’s suggestion that he might like to be present. He balks, too, at the antenatal class, where I find the other husbands obediently watching a breastfeeding demonstration using a knitted woollen nipple. So it’s a surprise to me, on the day of the birth, when Idi appears in blue NHS scrubs, looking like something out of Holby City. Afterwards we stare together at our brand new human being, and I feel as if we’ve already accomplished a subtle but not insignificant cultural shift.
Yet our small, everyday cultural battles have only just begun. ‘It’s because she hasn’t got her ears pierced,’ Idi insists when I complain that someone mistook the baby for a boy. I freeze, running in my head through the future excuses I will make. ‘I mean no Senegalese girl baby ever goes without earrings,’ he insists.
‘Wow, wow, yes, yes,’ agrees Khoudia gravely. I am indeed condemning her granddaughter to a lifetime of being mistaken for a boy. She takes the opportunity to enquire when we’re planning to shave the baby’s head. It makes the hair grow thicker, she advises. Just razor it off while she’s asleep.
Caressing the baby’s mass of curls, I quickly change the subject to the dampa, the rambunctious Senegalese baby massage said to make children’s bones strong and limbs well-aligned. Khoudia uses the Skype screen to introduces us to her household’s drop-in masseuse: Fatou Niang, a grand lady in flowing boubou and matching orange print headscarf. All babies, she assures me, should be pummeled and stretched within their first year.
In the village, babies are put in wicker baskets to learn to sit and balance. The months pass and ours begins to raise herself up, so we empty the laundry basket, fill it with cushions and plop her in the middle. As the baby begins to try proper meals, Khoudia sends me recipes for mildly-seasoned dishes appropriate for infants; yassa poulet without maggi, the ubiquitous yellow stock cubes used liberally in Senegalese cooking; millet porridge, mild thieboudiene, or rice and fish, and a baby-friendly mafé, peanut stew.
Senegalese men are delightful with children, and Idi sings nursery rhymes in Wolof, and every night whispers a prayer by the baby’s cot while she sleeps. He recounts les lips to her as well, village stories dreamed up to entertain children during dark evenings. The tales are full of life’s lessons, to be tolerant and kind, curious and brave. We might be from different places entirely, but bringing up a human is a universal art.