Per request from my sister, I have decided to post about cultural differences regarding babies and children and how they are raised.
It does not take a long time at all while here in Madagascar to notice that things are a little different in regards to children. The immediately noticeable difference is that there are a lot of them. Babies and children seem to be everywhere. Some of that comes, from the philosophy that having lots of children is a wonderful gift. When a couple is married, an elder blesses them that they may have seven boys and seven girls. Honestly, your average Malagasy in the city is not wanting quite that many, but they still think that American ideal of two or three children is very small.
Here are some statistics from the World Bank and other sources you might find interesting. Otherwise, skip these bullet points:
- 43% of the population is under 15. Compare that with 13% in the United States.
- Only 43.9% of births are attended by a professional healthcare professional. Most of that is a result of lack of access to those professionals or lack of money.
- The fertility rate is 4.8 births per woman. The poorest segment of the population has a fertility rate of 6.8 and the wealthiest segment has a rate of 2.7. The fertility rate in the United States is about 2.06.
- Imagine you meet a woman in Madagascar today who is between the ages of 20-24 (in other words, the young generation, not the old one). If she is in the wealthier segment of the population, there is a 1 in 4 chance she had a baby before she was 18. If she is in the poorer segment of the population there is a 66% chance she had a baby before she was 18.
That’s enough of statistics. The rest of this will just be some of my observations of life and behavior here. It might be helpful to think as you read, “How would I raise all these children with very little money or resources?” And also, “Why do I do things the way I do them?”
- Diapers are expensive, and there is not a good system for disposing of trash, so people don’t use them. It is much cheaper to just wash a lot of underwear. (As a side note, in China, parents don’t use diapers much either, but instead use “split-pants”. These are pants split down the middle so that when the child squats, they automatically open up, and the child can just pee or poop on the ground.)
- Children are much more likely to be seen playing with trash than a toy.
- People have less of a hyper-concern with child-safety. It isn’t that they don’t love the children, it is just that there isn’t enough money to baby-proof a home. There aren’t baby gates or electrical outlet covers. No one seems panic stricken (except me) that the infant is at the top of the stairs, or that the baby is holding a steak knife. Eventually they will take the steak knife away, but I always feel like the most worried person. I think in their minds, it is just a part of life.
- As far as child supervision goes, the philosophy is “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” In other words, it is assumed that, if you are around my child, you will help look after it. So if there are people around, I can leave my child with them and they will look after it. That is why, when I was riding on a taxibus, a stranger handed me her baby to hold while she got off to go to the bathroom. From an American perspective it often looks like parents are not caring about child’s supervision, but in reality, it is just assumed that everyone is playing a role in helping supervise the child.
- Though people here would certainly wear shoes to church, and most people wear sandals throughout the day, it is not necessary to wear shoes here. In fact, the more physical a person’s work is, the more likely they will go barefoot (probably so they don’t trip on their sandal.) Children especially go shoeless all the time.
- It is not necessary for girls to wear shirts until they are 8 or 9.
- There is no idea of the nursery or a special place for children to go while something like a church service is going on. Usually they just sit in the front few rows, and they tend to go in and out and play outside during a church service.
- Breast-feeding is not considered awkward in any way here. Women feed their babies in their home, in your home, in church, at the dinner table, while they are walking down the street, etc. You will be having a conversation with a lady, and she will decide it is time to breast-feed her baby, and the conversation will just keep going like nothing is weird. Because really, nothing about it is all that weird. What could possibly be more normal than breastfeeding?
- Similarly, women will breast-feed their babies for, what seems to me, a really long time into the child’s life. Fezoro, one of the babies here, is at least a year and a half old. He can eat food and drink from a cup, but his mom will still breast-feed him some times. I’m not sure what the cutoff age is.
- Most of the baby-food I have seen is wet rice or soggy bread. It’s probably a good thing babies are getting some extra nutrition from breast-feeding.
- Perhaps stemming from my last few observations, I have not seen a single pacifier here, but babies seem to cry much less than in the United States.