Kids are Cultural “Whores”: Wait, can you say the “W” with Kids…?

It is amazing how quickly kids switch cultural identify. Well, if like me, you believe that “language is culture”, that’s what I am talking about. Last summer we returned to the US, after three-and-a-half years globetrotting. We left the US immediately following my child’s first birthday, for a much deserved break and scholarly experience around the world.
About last Fall, I noticed my child’s accent changing, become less  “Ugandan” and more “American”. My friends did not help me feel better; they said it would be gone by December. I felt a ‘teeny weeny sadness’, at the thought that my son would no longer “be a Ugandan” with ‘the brand’ accent gone. Alas! I have not been good at making the accent stay! I did not realize how tough it is to teach a child another language in another country with a predominant language. Especially with my multi-national child: African [by ancestry] and American [by birth and ancestry].
Power to parents who succeed at nurturing multi-lingual/multi-national children. Sadly, not many of us Africans are good at keeping children fluent in our first languages, especially when born or raised abroad, but even when born and resident in our own countries to same nationals or foreigners. We get into the stupid “western culture superiority” complex, and deny our children a chance to become fluent in our Africans languages, arguably because ‘they will not develop’ or ‘compete in the globalized world’. Forgetting that we were born and raised speaking our mother tongue, or of parents who spoke our mother tongue.
Yet, many like me, become surprised that our children are ‘losing our culture’ or are becoming culturally distant and lost! I am always shocked when talking to my child, that recollection of our time spent in Uganda are not forthcoming! At times, he cannot even remember part of my family, the playmates he had, we had bathrooms or a kitchen, or that we ate food similar to what we have here in America. The worst, but without blame, he does not remember that we lived in South Africa (before Uganda) during the last couple of years abroad.
So, I decided to give him a “Lesson about South Africa” while we were at our local library recently. I pulled out a book, “South Africa by Pat Ryan”, which talked about how “Africans lived happily” [of course there is an element of romanticization typical of a western writers about Africa]. Then white folks came to South Africa and began fighting with the blacks, took their land, culminating in a system of “Apartheid”, where whites lived, worked, played segregated from blacks.  Black people became poorer than whites, lived in terrible housing, and could not shop in the same places as whites. I showed him the grass thatched huts where black people lived, and still live in the countryside; he thought they were “Weird”.  [btw, thanks to this young man, my love for the word “weird” no more!]; I showed him clothing of f the black people made with beads, which was strange, as well as the men racing on Ostriches. That made him laugh so hard! Well, at least he laughed; which means he learned something, right?
We discussed the book after reading, and I asked him what he had learned from the book. He told me that “brown” [not “black”] people were poor, while white people were rich. “Why did he swooped “black” with “brown”?” I asked him. He said, “Black is like darkness, when you cannot see properly or like the black shoes. But the people in the book were not black; they were brown.” I asked him, whether he knew of any black people, and he said, “I am black.”[ If you know my son, he is not “black like darkness”.] Surprising to me, since he has thought of himself as white, until our conversation not to long ago, about “black-and-white” in America’s racial conception.
Kids are smart ‘cultural whores’; telling it as it is, using their wit to make sense of nonsensical labels. To him identity is defined by color not the labeled per race. He sees brown, chocolate, and pink, He has protested before when I said his playmate “C”, classmates “M” and “S” are white, because “they do not look as white as paper,” he said. For now, he has accepted that label, since the conversation with mom following a class reading about Martin Luther King Jr.
Anyway, happy to inspire a young generation of thinkers, readers and critics. We hope that the reality of his eyes is followed by the reality of race relations when he comes of age. I hope he does not become a victim of racial profiling and racial injustice blatantly metted out against black folks in America, particularly our young black males. I think I am doing all I can to keep him openminded, culturally international in thoughts, ideas and experiences, and innocent to the brutality of life. Yes, I do agree to myself sometimes that “Ignorance is Bliss”!
Still, as a parent of a young black male growing up in America, particularly suburbia America, I worry very often whether this country will allow him to live and grow up without the preconceived injustices? Will he still be that “cute boy” at 12, 13, 14, free to skate around the neighborhood without anybody calling the police on him? Or would he be a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, that even the neighborhood dogs bark uncontrollable at him, just like they do with me. Would he still comfortably ware his jacket or sweatshirt hood over his head? Or walk in the neighborhood without an encounter from nasty neighbors. I believe this is the beginning of a lifelong education about the American culture, that he so innocently takes on as part of him, but that one day, he will fully recognize that it labels him [in fact labeled him since childhood], as a person to be feared, dreaded and be monitored all the time! Perhaps then, he won’t have as much luxury to ‘whore up’ this American culture, and would have to find another geographical and culture to experience and become a part of….?
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Help Your Children Dream

I strongly believe in the power of dreams. They shape lives, build relations, mentor professions, restore hope and courage. They could be the keys to our personal and professional trajectories and success!

Just about every morning, my son wakes up with a dream. Either he is building a machine that will stop snow falling in winter, or he had Ninja powers or he was laughing with his cousins. Lately, he has had plenty of dreams about mommy getting married, to her [ex]boyfriend, who lives in another country. The first time, that dream made him sad and cry, because it meant, “mommy would leave him and go live with her boyfriend”. Since I told him, “I can never leave you, because I live for you, and you and I will go live with my PM when I get married,” he is now happy to dream more about mommy getting married. In fact he wants to dream about mommy getting married, as much as about mommy getting long hair! Never mind that “the dreamed for” does not exactly have marriage in her dreams or foresight. She has another dream, colored “green”. Yes! And it is part of that dream I would like to talk about.

Recently, I was coaching a fifth grader, and we were talking about traveling. I asked if she had been to her father’s country, Nigeria? She said no, and told me that she would never travel to Nigeria because there is Ebola. In fact, her father wanted to go to Nigeria, but she begged him not to go. I asked if she would go to other Africans countries, to which she responded with a vehement “No!” There are many diseases and people are poor! I asked her if my son and I looked poor, or her father. She said, No!

Yeah! That is the story about Africa, as told in America. I told her that Ebola is not everywhere in Nigeria, or every Nigerian would be dead. I told her my son and I took planes to come back to America, and while in “Africa”, we ate food everyday and did not catch or bring back any diseases. Then she told me that she would never got to place on a plane or boat or train. She will only go to places where she can drive or walk. She is not taking a plane, a boat or a train because she is afraid to die. Then I told her that one can die in their sleep or in the house or on the road. She said, “at least she would die peacefully”. I asked her, “how about in a car road accident,?” Well, she did not exactly have a response to that, but still no traveling, not to Africa and not by plane, boat or train. Life jackets do not work, planes fall in big oceans. Excuse after excuse!

I wondered, how a child of an immigrant from Nigeria could be devoid of a dream to travel and see the world? Didn’t “Tiger Mom” tell us that Nigerians are among the “Triple Package” aka  the “eight highly successful cultures”, thanks to their superiority complex! True, Tiger mom (with hubby co-author) mentioned something to do with “insecurities”, but in the sense of feeling inadequate or underaccomplished, instigating the strive to become and accomplish more. Not to shun traveling the world or getting on a plane!

I worried about this American 10-year old fifth grader, not having a dream beyond her fears. I wondered what may have shaped her fears? After all, her mom, many generations American has also traveled the world, including to Africa studying and learning about the world. Why would her daughter not wish to follow her mom’s footsteps, even if it were to board the plane to the world of California that is “without the African diseases”? Where is her curiosity about the world of her father, beyond the images and tale-tales from her news sources? Why can’t she compare herself to her parents who have been around the world?

Very often we are told that in order to be happy, we should not to compare ourselves to others. That is so cliché!  Plenty of my accomplishments are a result of comparing myself to others I have interacted with or got to know about. Watching, reading or learning about their accomplishments gives me the boost to keep going. Stories of folks who dropped out of formal schooling and built empires and lived large. Stories of people struggling worse off than myself, yet still afford a reason to smile, remind me to keep positive. Stories of my grandparents who never went to school but had the dream of educating their children. My paternal grandfather was not very wealthy, and could not afford to educate all his four children. So, him and his three older children agreed to send my father, the last born to school, with the hope that he would look after this family upon competition of his education, and got a good job. My maternal grandfather educated over 15 children while serving the church [unpaid] as a clergy, in pursuit of a dream that his children would never have to lack anything in life. They would afford to buy themselves clothes that he was never able to afford them.

In Africa where I was born, dreams are what childhood is made of! We are not afraid to dream! As a child, we often heard people dreaming about “going to Makerere”, the main university in the country and epitome as success. It was once the “Harvard of Africa”, so you can understand why many dreams focused and stopped at Makerere. Coming from a family that afford us a livelihood and decent education, not frequent flyer miles, I would say my dreams were not too far from Makerere either. Then as a little girl I went to Nairobi, Kenya with my mom, to shop for my first-born sister who was going off to secondary school. That was a big deal, where rich Ugandans resided, including my uncle and his family. Perhaps that shaped my love for adventure and travel, I cannot say so with certainty.

But I travelled the world, including within my own country. The more people I met and interacted with, the more my dreams widened. I thought of opportunities beyond my background, and seized them at a tender age. Nothing unique to me, but it is the characteristic of the African spirit. Little children dream of an education, they dream of becoming pilots, teachers, doctors, lawyers. Yes! Including dreams of meeting the US President and themselves becoming the US Presidents. Yet, we also know of the “American Dream” of getting rich and living large. Or as 50 cents said, “Get Rich or Die Trying”. Plus the Black struggle in America was sustained by the dream of freedom. Slaves, not allowed to exist as humans, to vote or to read and write, often found ways of ‘stealing’ the resources to learn to read and write and one day free themselves. Frederick Douglas, a slave, self-taught himself to read and write and publish, and went on to have a very illustrious and influential career. Political prisoners on Robben Island with Mandela during Apartheid South Africa told stories of ‘stealing’ empty brown cement bags and creating own writing tools that they used to write out their political strategies, which they tossed to each other over the cubicles in which they were detained. They also wrote letters and poems to their families and loved ones outside prisons. They had a dream to stay alive and sane by any means, and achieved it.

So, what stifles little minds like the one I encountered here in America, the land of “Big Dreams”, from dreaming? We as parents have a huge job of helping our children dream. Help our children live their dreams beyond the fears pandered by sources around them. Undo their [un]truths, to avoid them getting suffocated. Let them live a world of adventure, or risks, or searching and imagining. The world were impossible is nothing. Were careers and personal relationships are built on dreams beyond our wildest imagination. After all, dreams can come true. Haven’t they?

FAMILY STILL DOES MATTER!

Biko and Fam 3

I guess the older I grow, the more I appreciate the value of family….especially the notion of what is often called “extended family”. This does not necessarily have resonance in the African sense, since family is family – When we were in Uganda, my son always referred to his cousin, as “my brother”, which his America father (based in America) bound rather odd. He kept asking me, “Do you have another child?” I would explain, “No, but in my language it makes sense.” Or when my little two-year old niece calls me mummy because my son calls me mummy and I babysit them together. Now, my son’s daddy (again in his America understanding) does not like it when she calls him “daddy”. Never mind that this child knows exactly who her daddy and mummy are! My thinking is, she perhaps thinks,  “mummy is my name”..since no one else really calls me by my own name…And I couldn’t care less!

I love the notion of “communitarian family”…something the African tries to lay a claim on…but not entirely true, anymore. I say, most of these labels are transient, and dissolve with changes in time. For instance, many educated Africans across the country are now comfortable with just one or two kids, or none at all. Some are even keen to keep to their “nuclear” family – father, mother and children, often associated with western/European societies. That is enough for their attention; they do not want to be bothered by grandparents, cousins, uncle and aunts.

Yet, no matter how much they slam the door int he faces of their larger family, they can never run away from the fact that FAMILY STILL DOES MATTERS!

I am not simply talking about family by blood, but our babysitters, caretakers, daycares, teachers and friends who raise us and our children, and lend a hand to our upbringing. I have very higher respect for them. For the tolerance of putting up with all our demands, selfishness and needs.

Since coming back to the United States, about a month ago, I have spent most of my time babysitting my son and my niece. Well, I am yet to settle back in and work-out-of home. I still have a couple of assignments left over from my Uganda work, that are keeping me busy. Plus, it is summer holidays and the kids are out of school, so I need to take care of my son. I do not recall the last time I spent so much time with my son in the last three years that I lived in Uganda. Don’t get me wrong, I have literally raised my son. When I got pregnant, I quit my job to focus on being pregnant and enjoying and preparing for my unborn son. I took a trip to Uganda, my country of origin where I spent my first trimester. I returned to the United States, did a one-month work stint, and then settled back into pregnant and waiting.

After I had my son, I stayed at home for the first year. While it was challenging, this is something I ALWAYS wanted – to have the luxury of staying at home and looking after my son for the entire year. So, I had time to fully take care of him: feed him, bathe him, play with him, teach him and build confidence in him, that I will ALWAYS be around. Soon after he turned 1 year, we moved to Oslo, Norway, where I went – for academic work. My son with me, in a new country and new lifestyle. -now a mom on a student stipend in the second most expensive city in the world! But we made it through, and our bonds just kept growing stronger. He cried each time I dropped him off at the daycare….but only for a short while. I was told, he recovered as soon as I existed the daycare. Then we moved to South Africa, when he was 15 months -again, for school.. After overcoming the challenges of finding accommodation acceptable to little kids, we settled in tougher, got our car and made it happen.

In both Norway and South Africa, it was just the two of us but with a wealth of backup and center-front support. The daycare people, the friends and strangers, who helped out whenever I need a hand with my son. I could drop him off at the daycare in the morning and go to class, library and the computer center to focus on school work until the evening when I had to pic him up for school. Sometimes when I wanted to go on a night out (in South Africa) , I could leave him with my friend -whom I met in my first days in South Africa, but was super-good to me!

And then, I returned to Uganda, and there I had my family, my friends and school support. While my son and I were initially hesitant to be raised by “new faces”, we transitioned into acceptance of that. We had such a wonderful time doing this. My family was ALWAYS available to help, day and night. I could go off the entire weekend, to run or work in the villages, knowing very well that I have a cushion of support to rely on. Granted, they did not do things the way I wanted them, but they did support. I could take off Monday night to hash, knowing that my friend, who had a child at the same school as my son, or my brother would help me pick up my son whether I provided transport or not. And would keep him at their home, until I returned to pick him up. Plus, I was assured that from Monday to Friday, he was in the safe, caring, educative and exceptionally experienced hands of his teachers. If I took him to my workplace, I could excuse myself off to the bathroom or go find food, knowing very well that my colleagues will help out. And when I took him to the hash, everyone felt they knew a piece of him and enjoyed him.

All these people re-emphasized the concept of family to me. That it is NOT just your “children and spouse/partner”.. but a wide array of social network that involves mother, father, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, teachers, daycare assistants, transporters, workmates, social groups and admirers. Now that I am a “full-time” babysitter, my appreciation of my family has skyrocketed even more. CHILD MINDING is the MOST difficult job in the world…for you have to take care little minds and souls, keep them entertained…succumb to their manipulations, sometimes…or negotiate through them…to make sure they do not run you over. Put up with ALL their nagging. Forget about Teaching they way you want them to learn, and Teach the way they Learn. Most importantly, you learn to tolerate other kids, beside your own. As someone who boosted about, “knowing it all about kids”, since I grew up baby siting all my elder sister’s kids, I have developed a renewed understand and appreciation of the job of “having one of your own”…which you CAN NEVER quit.

I am grateful for my family! I miss my family in Uganda, I miss ALL my son’s teachers, my son’s babysitters, my son’s friends, and my social networks. Who would even consider sparing a minute, just to put up with my son.

YES! FAMILY STILL DOES MATTER!