When I was 24, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit a best friend who spent a year and a half studying abroad in southern Africa.
I had made my way there after spending a month traversing, via train and other public transportation, from Sydney to Perth, Australia. The turn of the 21st century had just taken place, and I chose to make good use of all of the privilege bestowed upon me as a middle-class citizen of the USA by spending a year traveling the globe and expanding my horizons beyond what my life, mainly raised in California, USA, had taught me.
I arrived, by bus and after crossing the border from Johannesburg, South Africa, into Zimbabwe, armed with only the physical address of where my best friend lived. This was in 2001, and just a few years before the tsunami of a cell phone empowered, worldwide populace hit. So I walked from the bus station, where people pushed their ways to the front of the line and through the dusty, city streets of Harare, with a large, red backpack on my back. Street vendors hawking fresh fruits and vegetables and African men professing their love -“I love you!” they would sing out to this obviously western, white girl as they passed by me on the other side of the street - became my tour guides. It didn’t take long before I arrived at the doorstep of an earth-toned, 3-story apartment building where children joyfully ran around and played together all day long. Inside apartment #29, I found the woman I had met just a few years earlier, when she was a freshman on my college campus and I was cruising into my fourth year. At this point, however, she had already been in Harare for a year and was living with a new best friend she had made via her study abroad program at the University of Harare.
Back then, these two, white girls were teaching me a few things about “race.” Like: 1.) Don’t be colorblind. See color. Celebrate it, along with what makes each of us different and unique. 2.) Africa is a massive continent comprised of 52 countries. Don’t make assumptions about it based on the narrow programming of a few westerners who are often running fundraisers for “the starving children in Africa.” There is poverty here, yes, and there is much wealth here, too. And, 3.) The isolationism that comes with wealth in the USA, such as each child having their own bedroom and each nuclear family having everything they need just for themselves, is having a deleterious effect on our country’s collective mental health.
For five weeks, I stayed on the couch in their apartment as they enjoyed their regular schedule of school days and volunteer work. They even left me behind for a week when they went to Lake Victoria to enjoy their spring break, of which I didn’t join because I was a "penniless" traveler. (Ha!) Most of my days were spent wandering through, as well as sitting up in a tree, in the main park in downtown Harare, where out of work men laid about depressed as women, with children tied to their backs via old bath towels & fabrics, hustled to make ends meet. During this time, I came to know a few of the “street urchins” – the young men who would rush up to vehicles at red lights in order to wash windows or, who would sell their own bodies [to other men] in order to make just a few dollars. (There was even a local guy named "Leo," who had dreads like a lion's mane. We briefly bonded over Bob [Marley.] Maybe, he will be the inspiration for a piece about sex as a cure for headaches in my 'Sex & Intimacy' section. Or, maybe not... ;) )
It is on the back of colonialism that allows me to travel the world, so I try to be as conscientious as I can by not just being a tourist who consumes things and takes photos just to brag about her travels with friends. (In fact, I didn't have a camera on these first, world travels of mine.) A capitalist, world market is inherently unjust, yet I like to think that others would do what I am doing if they could and I imagine them encouraging me to just ‘keep going.’
What I noticed most about life in Harare, as well as in an outlying village where I was invited to stay a week living on the land (called ‘kumusha,’ in Shona – one of Zimbabwe’s native languages) was how much our child-rearing choices and norms affected the well-being of children.
In the girls’ apartment complex, we never heard children screaming, or crying. They were usually playing joyfully and peacefully together for long stretches of time. In my five weeks on that land, I saw one child having a meltdown outside of the local pool. As a citizen of the USA, this felt so unfamiliar. And I realized it was because of a few things:
1.) Child-wearing and breastfeeding. 2.) The maintenance of an inter-generational family unit, plus the village. And, 3.) Children know their place in society. They are not the center of the world. They are in orbit around many centers. Their parents and primary caregivers, first; the whole family unit, second; and then their village/society, third.
Our children are our moons, orbiting us, and together we make a revolution around the greater whole.
For the next thirteen years, as a single woman, I imagined that my guiding mantra as a parent would be:
My job is not to center my child, but to raise him knowing that he is a part of a whole and that his job is to contribute to me, our family and our home and then to the wider circle.
We have created a massive problem in the USA in which we have centered our children.
We lead lives catering to their desires, whims and needs. But all this does is make our children feel unsafe. It is not a child’s job to lead. It is our job to guide and direct our children in the directions that are best for their highest well-being and for the whole of our culture and planet. As well, it is imperative that we play "the long game" in our parenting. This was something my partner, Burt, and I talked about a lot.