Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

African Parenting: The Sane Way to Raise Children

African-parenting/ michaeljung - Fotolia.com

There is an oft-quoted African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Less cited is the second half of the saying, “…and a community to keep the parents sane.” I started my pregnancy in the U.K. but one of the reasons I returned to Kenya—the country of my birth—to raise my daughter was for community. Community in Kenya takes many forms. It is not just relatives and friends but anyone who interacts with a child has a responsibility for them. What this practically means is that in public spaces if someone sees a child doing something wrong or getting into danger then they will step in even before asking the parent if they can intervene.


This public space also extends into the home, as many people employ staff to help look after their children. Hired help often have staff in their own homes, and so the chain goes on. I am very fortunate to have the same wonderful woman helping me to look after my daughter since she was two months old. I remember when I asked, during her interview, what she would do as my daughter grew up and discipline became an issue. Her answer gave me pause. “I would reason with her, we would work things out but I would not be angry with her because children do not respond to anger.” I hired her on the spot.


My daughter’s nanny has three grown children, whom she had young. I learn from her experience all the time. I overheard one recent nugget of wisdom when I rushed down the stairs to check on my daughter who was upset and crying. I was within earshot but not visible to them and could tell that my daughter was having a hard time calming down. “Cry,” I heard her nanny whisper. “Cry, but don’t forget to save some of your tears for when you might need them later.” In a few seconds the crying had stopped.


The stereotypical image of the super mum—the woman who effortlessly manages everything on her own— doesn’t do parents any favors. The African version of this in the eyes of the West is the village woman with a baby strapped on her back balancing a pot of water on her head as she strides home. Yet, this is not the whole picture, in Africa at least. Even the age-old lullaby I sang my daughter when she was a baby, in my mother’s language, goes, “The baby is crying, where is the nanny?” For much longer than we might care to admit, there have been more than one or two parents to raise children in Africa.


Because in our day-to-day lives many of us are overstretched, we sometimes approach parenting tired and overwhelmed. I think that many African societies have understood this and built into their systems ways for parents to share this enormous responsibility with each other. Even today, it is not uncommon for children to live with families who are not their immediate birth family for periods of time. I have inadvertently found myself carrying out this culture with my daughter’s best friend who regularly comes to stay with us, to everyone’s benefit.


In a modern context, this culture of helping can call for a certain humility. If help is offered, it is worth taking. Children learn a huge amount from exposure to different ways of doing things. We, as parents, also learn by extension. It’s easy to get defensive when others step in to comment on your child but the flip side of that is by taking a step back to actually examine the situation, both you and your child can grow. As the Swahili people here in Kenya say, “A single hand cannot nurse a child.”

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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsRowan Family Tree   |  Sunday, 05 June 2011 at 10:28 pm

    I really enjoyed this article! I agree with you 100% that wherever we live, we need to embrace the idea of the village. In Western cultures, I think it means almost going against the norms and getting to know your neighbors – and trusting more adults in your sphere. I know my daughters are richer and wiser because of our “village” of friends and family.

  2. CommentsAM   |  Monday, 06 June 2011 at 7:18 am

    Wonderful, wise article. I agree wholeheartedly that raising children isolated in your home, w/ no outside help or interaction from a solid network of friends and family (and nanny) is not only really difficult, but unhealthy. The hardest thing about parenting abroad is not having your family, close friends, that immediate community network to help you! I understand your desire to return “home” where you knew that the understanding of community raising families is inherent.

  3. Commentspeter   |  Thursday, 07 March 2013 at 12:13 am

    i find your work, commendable, especially for parents

  4. CommentsInCultureParent | How African Moms Can Teach You To Be a Better Parent   |  Thursday, 04 April 2013 at 12:46 pm

    […] readers please do correct me if I’m wrong, but, after nearly three years of living in Kenya, I’ve never seen a Kenyan mom driven to these adult temper tantrums. Maybe it’s just more of a private display, but I rarely see them explode like this, and […]

  5. CommentsBrian Asingia   |  Wednesday, 17 April 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Great article. I can only remember the precious moments spent with my parents as they told me stories a s kid and most importantly, made it clear other people were watching my actions and interested in my growing up a great child.

  6. Commentssally   |  Wednesday, 17 July 2013 at 7:03 am

    I wonder at how old children are not carried in slings?Would 3 be seen as old. Also when are children weaned in Ghana?

  7. CommentsIs daycare the ‘village’ they were talking about? | Shared   |  Tuesday, 06 August 2013 at 7:39 am

    […] many modern parents, we don’t live near our families; we had to create our own village. Growing up the way I did, its important to me that my son has other adults in his life to seek […]

  8. CommentsInCultureParent | Why I Love Raising My Children in Kenya   |  Monday, 09 September 2013 at 4:31 pm

    […] You inherit a massive family. The “it takes a village to raise a child” idiom permeates everything here. I can let my now preschooler wander in and out of our neighbors homes, and my neighbors’ kids do […]

  9. CommentsOkafor Davidson   |  Friday, 25 April 2014 at 2:05 am

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  10. Commentsjosphat Mahala Mwambene   |  Thursday, 22 January 2015 at 7:51 am

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  11. Comments(Ps)anking Psychology   |  Tuesday, 10 May 2016 at 10:02 pm

    […] that “beatings” are not actually spankings. There may be some truth to this because African tribal culture does not support “spanking”. This is confirmed by my own observation in South Africa, but […]

  12. Commentshats kicks   |  Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 5:51 pm

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