Living abroad gives you wonderful opportunities to learn new things, like how to count, for instance. You probably thought you already knew that, didn’t you? So did I.
As an expat, are you ever confused about something you see or hear in your foreign environment? Dumb question. Of course you are. Cultural confusion is inescapable in the expat life and I’ve suffered or enjoyed it many times.
Below is the story of one of the many moments of befuddlement I experienced in Ghana, West Africa where I happily lived for a good number of years as an expat. It occurred during a conversation about children, family and work; a conversation with Jerome, the husband of our housekeeper Leah. We had just returned from home leave the night before.
I love this photo by Petr Kosina
THE LITTLE ONES: DON’T PUT YOUR MIND ON THEM AT ALL
A sunny African morning. Ali is watering the garden, Leah is in the kitchen doing the breakfast dishes and my mate is getting ready to go back to his office for a new day of toil. My job this morning will be to empty the suitcases and go grocery shopping to restock the fridge and pantry after having been away for a month. Home leave is a stressful affair. So many planes to catch, so many people to visit, so much stuff to buy — books and underwear and vitamins. It’s always nice to come back to our house in Ghana and be happily greeted by everybody. Leah and Jerome’s little daughter Emilia was especially enthusiastic with her helloI’mfinethankyouferrymuch!
As my man opens the door to leave, Jerome, the restaurant chef, makes an appearance, apologizing that he was not able to wish us welcome when we arrived home last night because he was at work until late. He offers the standard questions.
How are our parents? In good health? And the children?
Everybody is fine, we assure him.
He lingers, saying he traveled to his home town in his native Benin last weekend to deal with family business. We talk about children, about money and education. We tell him our younger daughter, who is in college, works part time as a waitress to earn money for clothes and personal expenses.
His eyes grow big. “C’est pas vrais!” he says, unbelieving, his English failing him. We are rich people from the West. Surely our daughter wouldn’t work as a mere waitress!
We tell him she does, indeed. Working is good.
Jerome has several children from an earlier marriage in Benin and wants the oldest to train as a medical worker in a clinic. I’ve been confused about the number of children he has, so I ask him once again how many he has altogether.
“Four pickin,” he says. “Three sons, 17, 15, and 12 years. And one daughter, 8 years.”
“Two daughters,” I say. “Emilia, too.” Emilia is three. She lives right here and he dotes on her.
He laughs uneasily, hesitating. Yes, he says finally, but not really, because she’s very little.
“But she’s your daughter,” I say.
Jerome notices my confusion. He explains that you don’t count your children until they’re five and can carry things and help. Until then, he tells us, “you don’t put your mind on them at all.” He laughs some more, shaking his head, as if this is the simplest thing in the world to understand and we’re dumb obrunis to not get this. “You don’t put your mind on them at all,” he says again.
This from the man who last month took Emilia, who had hurt her arm, to the clinic while three people had assured him there was no need just yet. Children in the street had playfully yanked her arm too hard and probably pulled a muscle. Emilia was refusing to use the arm, but it was getting better a little already. It was not broken or swollen. Leah was not worried, saying it would get better by itself, and both my husband and I had examined Emilia’s little arm and said that it would not hurt to wait a couple of days to see. Three people trying to tell him waiting a day or so would not hurt.
But Jerome looked worried and put his hand on his chest. “But my heart is not feeling easy,” he said, and took her to the clinic anyway, where they told him that the arm would heal by itself. But when he counts his children, she’s not in the numbers.
You don’t count the little ones because so many children in this part of the world never make it to the age of five. Traditionally, babies don’t get a name until they are a week old. A naming ceremony is held, also called an “outdooring” because the baby is brought outside and presented to the world. It’s a joyous occasion with lots of celebrating, gifts and music. And of course the generous pouring of libations for the gods and ancestral spirits. The baby is all dressed up and sleeps through most of it in the loving arms of all around.
Still, you don’t really put your mind on them until they are five.
Have you ever suffered from cultural confusion? I’d like to hear your story! And if you’ve never been confused, befuddled or bewildered in your travels, tell me your secret.
One of my favourite “math” incidents occurred when we lived in Kenya. I’m still not sure how many wives my driver had because depending on who asked and his mood the answer changed. Usually he admitted to one since she lived in the city with him but occassionally he’d mention his wives in the country.
Different zip code so they didn’t exist until he went to visit? LOL
Lovely insight into how different cultures work and think!
wow, that is quite poignant. She is a beautiful little girl!
Living in Ghana I also know this practice, but from what I understand it is because infant and child mortality is so high, children are not counted until they reach 5. Once they’ve lived until 5 it is assumed they will ‘make it’. Sad but makes sense given the statistics!
I live in Japan right now, so I experience a confused moment at least every day! It’s funny, though, how once a local sort of explains it to you, you kind of see their thinking. That’s one of the reasons why I love traveling and living abroad– to gain all these new perspectives on how to see the world!
I love this post. I have lived in similar places; one reason “you don’t put your mind on them at all” is because you might attract the evil eye! You pretend like they don’t exist to evil spirits won’t take notice.
I really enjoy your stories. I think what surprised me in Belize, which may be the same in many developing countries, is the more you give to someone, the more they expect. What do you think?
I loved all your interesting comments! As Mary and Sean said, learning different customs and ways of thinking is what makes travel so fascinating.
Cairo TypO mentioned a “confusion” about counting kids from different wives in different locations in Kenya. This makes me think about the custom of some people in Africa saying: “He is my brother, same father, different mother.”
Intxpatr, yes I’ve also heard about the taboo surrounding the mentioning of babies being cute or beautiful for fear of attracting the evil eye.
Keep telling me your stories, please!
haha! That’s hilarious! I know about not being traditionally recognised as a member of the society till your naming ceremony (usually about 9 days after birth)in Ghana, but 5 years is rather steep!
In Japan there is Shichi-go-san (seven five three). Once a year, children who are these milestone ages (for not so long ago, children might not live to see even these tender ages) are brought to temples for a blessing. They are dressed in their finest, photos are taken (professionally sometimes). This is a family event. My daughter was somewhat put off when I replied to her query that she would not celebrate shichi -go-san in a kimono at a temple, because we already had her fifth birthday celebration. I would love to see this festival in person, but I also… Read more »