WRITTEN BY NORAH OWARAGA
I was lucky to be borne while five of my paternal grandmothers (RIP) were still alive. They told us stories of how they had a collective responsibility for raising all their children. My father was breastfed by multiple mothers, the story goes. If one of my grandmothers for some reason was not able at a particular time to breast feed their own biological child – if she had gone to the well or for firewood – another who was able to would naturally become the wet nurse and feed the child that needed feeding. My grandmothers also told us of how they used to practice what LeTava Mabilijengo refers to as tribal economics. Among others, tribal economics involves exchanging childcare hours so that at all times children have the care of a mother – allowing mothers to go to work and/or to have time for themselves, while their children are well taken care of.
Recent stories in Uganda of child abuse clearly indicate that we have lost a good part of our socialisation systems. We have lost by abandoning the philosophy of it takes a village to raise a child. Our children grow up surrounded by walls that my generation – the 40-somethings – has erected. In urban centres children are growing up surrounded by ‘security’ perimeter walls; erected to lock out ‘bad’ people and to keep children ‘safe’ at home while their parents go to work. Children are physically and socially locked in their homes away from their neighbours and their ‘extended’ family.
Social walls include the fact that many children are growing up unable to speak any Ugandan language. Many grandparents who are unable to communicate in English are effectively locked out of the socialisation of their grandchildren. Within the gated walls the inferior replacement of ‘extended’ family is the maid – sometimes called house girl and/or houseboy, even though they are grown women and men. Our children find themselves unhinged by our ‘modern’ way of life that favours the nuclear family over the traditional Ugandan ‘extended’ family; promoting individualism over collective responsibility.
Urban poor mothers – market vendors, maids, and other casual labourers, have to make choices between a rock and a hard place. It is not uncommon to find babies lay under market stalls because their mothers could not leave them at home for there would be no one to take care of them. The mother cannot stay home for she has to earn a living. In order that they can earn a living, in some cases, mothers abandoned their own children to take care of the children of the affluent. The affluent mothers do not get it easy either. They often have to make the difficult choice of leaving their precious babies with strangers – maids, so that they can pursue their carriers and become better bread winners for their families. Some Uganda men are just figure-family-heads. They do not provide for their families. Uganda’s labour laws are not enforced. A mother is entitled to 60 days of maternity leave, but employers do not accommodate it – stories are in plenty of applications for maternity leave which were given closely with a letter of termination of employment. Flexible work hours, day care services, for working mothers are not considered by employers.
Let us rethink our way of life. Installing CCTV cameras only confirms that our children are being abused. How about instead of the maid and the camera we invest in having our children’s grandma, grandpa, aunt or uncle stay with us for awhile. Let us emulate models which incorporate extended family living – India’s way, for example. It seems cheaper.
The author is one of the founding Kigo Thinkers.