"How to form the village?" / Analyzing Kindezi: The Kongo Art of Babysitting

I read K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau and A.M. Lukondo-Wamba's Kindezi: The Kongo Art of Babysitting, a scant 41-page treatise on child rearing or, as the authors proclaim, "how to teach your children and yourself TO BE AFRIKAN" with the expectation that it would affirm the propriety of mothers staying with their young babies and children. I expected that babysitters (ndezi) would play a secondary role in child rearing. I further expected that from a holistic perspective, and recognizing how all-consuming motherhood can be, babysitters would play a primary role in supporting or nurturing women as they set about this most important journey of mothering. In my mind, I craved a bona fide source to reconcile scattered anecdotes from African peoples I have met in my life and my own romanticized notions of how things are done in the putatively most family-centered continent and humanity's native land, Africa.

Often in the United States, people repeat the storied African proverb, "it takes a village to raise a child." Still, how to form such a village in a modern American society where work-life balance is illusive; maternity leave is unpaid and not guaranteed; and non-familial daycare is the status quo is a complicated matter. This book would be my inspiration, or so I thought.

It did not take long for me to become disappointed as the authors touted Kongo babysitters as the laudable precursor to the ostensibly laudable -- even if late -- Western women's liberation movement,

"Without Kindezi [the art of babysitting], the African woman would never experience the great amount of freedom she enjoys. Nor would she occupy the position she occupies in matters of land control and economic productivity. Contrary to the Western woman, an African woman is more a farmer than her fellow man. The African woman, in this perspective, is way more self-entrepreneurial ... The African woman stays on her farm from morning to the fall of night. (p.20)

"[...] For centuries, African women were 'kings', generals, farmers, boatwomen, fisherwomen, doctors, traders, and miners (in pottery fields) thanks to earlier discovery of the Kindezi that allowed them to be free human beings." (p.21)

Under this theory, freedom equals productivity and productivity equals work which is contrasted with child rearing. Women need to work the farms to sustain the community. In fact, women need babysitters "in times of land cultivation so that no one could pretend to be unable to work for lack of a babysitter." (p.22) Not to mention, in the Kongo, children are not welcome at weddings or during grocery shopping or visits with family out of town. (Ibid.) Thus childcare (child rearing) ought to be provided generally by elders who can no longer be [physically] productive and young children, albeit to a lesser extent, who are not yet able to be [physically] productive. In this way, babysitting is both a rite of passage for youth who learn empathy, compassion and patience and a tool by which elders are kept useful and lively. (Pp. 8 - 9) Children who have babysitters, moreover, are better for receiving their basic life lessons and values from seasoned, wise people rather than their own parents. Babysitters are after all the main shapers of personality and teachers, especially of political consciousness. (Pp.20, 36).

Lest I be unfair, I must acknowledge that children under age two are carried as necessary by their babysitters near to their mothers' work for breastfeeding. (p.18) As well, I did feel some appeal to the argument that elders are the best suited to transmit values given their more vast life experience and training. As I considered Kindezi though, I wondered how this so-called Kongo Art is distinguishable then from customs in the United States, which correlate to, I think, counterintuitive (perhaps perverse) attitudes about women. I understand that the care and quality inherent in the "babysitting" by elders and others in the Kongo, with its multi-tiered structure, may be superior to typical daycare in the U.S. (The query of whether and how informal schooling past preschool age in the Kongo compares with post-preschool formal schooling stateside, I set aside.) What I find difficult to accept, however, is that the highest possibility for women the world over and our calling is to be freed from the children that we bear for nine (actually ten) months, who learn in the womb to know our voice and smell, and for whom our breasts are filled with milk -- the perfect food -- for their development during the critical early years. It has seemed to me that God or nature, if you will, created women to be with child. Yet even on the Continent, per these authors, cultural ideology has determined that is an inferior position to occupy. I wrote this article, at various points one-handed, while nursing, cradling and soothing back to sleep my 8-month-old daughter, my first born child. And I've still one question: When did it become a greater burden to women to be with their children than to be without them?

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by MamaB

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