Don’t Give Them Sweets!
Ruthie tugs at my headscarf in front of a crowd of men, trying to pull it off and onto her own head while I desperately attempt to retain my modesty and also prevent her from having a tantrum at not getting what she wants.
‘Why’s she crying?’ one of them asks me (this seems to be an irritatingly common question in this culture where infants aren’t allowed to cry for an instant without someone fussing over them).
‘She’s hungry’ I reply – anything to get them off my back.
‘Why don’t you give her food then?’
‘Give me a chance’ I think to myself, but reply instead with a quiet ‘Aywa’ (Yes).
A hundred times this scenario has played out in different permutations over the last year and a half of bringing Ruthie up in this wonderful yet challenging country. I love being a mum. And I’m so privileged to partner with my child in serving these people. In Ruthie’s little hut in our village I have Jeremiah 1:5 posted on the wall «Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you… I appointed you as a prophet to the nations». Before God formed Ruthie in my womb, He chose her to live amongst these people. Not because she will necessarily choose such a life herself when she is an adult, but because God chose our family to be a light in this place during her childhood years. He chose her for this childhood. And I believe God will bless my daughter as she grows up in this extraordinary place.
But it’s sometimes hard to hold on to that truth in the day-to-day troubles of parenting in a culture different to my own. Islam does not have a theology of original sin. Children are not, as the Bible says, ‘sinful from birth. I was sinful from the time my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51:5). The Bible says that our very human nature is bent towards doing the wrong thing – towards selfishness and pride – and that we need to train our children to be godly and good. Islamic thought, on the other hand, generally believes everyone is born perfect, that children cannot have a concept of right and wrong and be held to account until they come of age, at which point their choices will make them sinners.
What difference does this theological and cultural difference make to child-rearing? A lot. Here in the Sahara, there’s no attempt to train your child to obey you, distinguish between right and wrong, account for their actions or say sorry for lying or hitting a friend. Mothers instead co-opt their children with sweets, distractions, or even lies – ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, the white lady will eat you if you cry!’ That one makes me sad! Mums keep this going until their patience runs out and they whack the mischievous kid. From which the child learns that you can get away with most things as long as you run fast enough out of arm’s reach afterwards!
«In the highs and lows of parenting I know God will be faithful to her, for He loves her more than I do.»
There are some great parents here – don’t get me wrong. And some wonderful child-rearing practices in this culture that I really love. Children here contribute to the home from a young age by washing dishes and clothes, making food, caring for younger siblings. They learn responsibility and feel like they make a genuine difference to the welfare of their families, which I don’t think we always get right in Western culture. Nevertheless, when it comes to a child approaching the ‘terrible twos’ I have a sense of anxiety when I seek to lay boundaries down and train my child with locals looking on. ‘She doesn’t understand’ they’ll say. ‘I can assure you she does’ I say to myself!
And yet, Ruthie is blooming and blossoming. It’s only her mum who gets grossed out by how dirty she gets playing in the dusty yard with her friends. She won’t remember the heat rash; she’ll just remember the smiles and laughs of local friends as they get to know this funny little white girl! When I take her into the refugee camps, many children will gather around and watch her, slightly frightened of her as they haven’t ever seen a white baby before. I encourage them to play with her as they would with each other. It takes a while for them to warm up to her, and sometimes my mother heart worries about how Ruthie will feel at being such an attraction – like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. But my boisterous daughter quickly breaks down these barriers. She sits on a bigger child’s lap, offers them her biscuit and the child laughs and takes it.
Who knows how long we’ll be living here, or how much Ruthie will remember of this place, but in the highs and lows of parenting I know God will be faithful to her, for He loves her more than I do – and I love her so so so much!