Africa versus the modern lonely childhood

I love this account of childhood in much of Africa:

An African childhood such as mine was not littered with the kin of stimuli we associate with age-specific gadgets, including toys of every description and sophistication. An African child learns pretty quickly that playmates are not the same as playthings, and that having friends is altogether different from possessing things. A childhood landscape in Africa is a pretty stripped-down scene, with not even the barest of things made for children. But what a child lacks in mechanical toys is more than made up for in the organic richness of human contact and relationships. Society was designed that way.

What to Western eye looks like childhood of deprivation, then is to the African a stage of life brimming with assets of childhood enrichment. The African child lives in a close crowded world, a world teeming with faces and sounds and movements that the child learns to decipher eventually into recognition and affirmation, each smiling face a lighted clue in the growing shape of knowing and belonging. In the workaday world a mother carries her infant on her back, tied with a strip of cloth. She talks to the infant, rocking and humming to reassure it, pointing out things, singing lullabies, and in general letting the infant in on greetings and exchanges with friends and passers-by. The education of the child begins on the mother’s back with the mother’s daily chores and physical exertions the setting of real-life experience.

The child is nurtured with the mother’s milk and trained on the mother’s back, always within reach, never forgotten or out of mind, and everywhere attended and surrounded by people. It provides a strong sense of company and society, reinforced with the steady hand of familiarity, support, and encouragement, Isolation and loneliness and considered extreme forms of child abuse, a form of social strangling. Women in Gambia would weep if they saw a child alone, even if not their own.

-Lamin Sanneh, Called from the Margin, p.26

An old pastor of mine used to often say “people are more important than things”. Unfortunately the dominant culture in the congregation was for both parents to work and have few children – much like the rest of America. Still, I think it’s true, though things are so much easier to love than people. I am glad I grew up with many siblings. I am glad my own kids have each other to play with for hours every single day, though they have lots of shiny playthings too – for better and worse(!).

Shortly after we were married, my wife would babysit a set of twins born to a woman from Ghana who taught her how to wrap the kids up on her back with a colorful strip of cloth. My wife went on to frequently do the same with the rest of our own kids. I am glad for that and also glad that my youngest daughter at least lived in an African orphanage where she was always around other children and often held. Children from western orphanages have better food and medicine but are often much worse off in other ways – especially with regards to emotional security and sociability. Malnutrition and disease are much more easily remedied afterwards than loneliness.