How Ethiopia taught me to be a better mother

June 2, 2011

From Thursday’s Globe and Mail

The road was steep and barely wide enough for our jeep as we inched along amid a throng of donkeys, goats and farmers. Our driver negotiated another nausea-inducing hairpin turn and I clutched my five-month-old daughter’s car seat. The car seat was attached to nothing – cars in Ethiopia don’t have seatbelts – so it bordered on the ridiculous. Yet it provided me with a modicum of security as I tried to block out thoughts of our car plunging off the cliff.

The lack of seatbelts was just one of many discoveries my husband and I made after arriving in the capital of Addis Ababa a few days before. When I was six months pregnant with our daughter, a good friend had asked my husband to be the best man at his wedding – in Ethiopia. It seemed like a great idea at the time. We had travelled all over the world. Sky diving and glacier skiing was a part of our lifestyle and we saw no reason why we wouldn’t continue with our adventures after the baby was born.

We weren’t foolhardy about our plans. Our daughter was too young for the necessary vaccinations, but the nurse at a reputable travel clinic in Toronto assured us that for a two-week trip the health risks were extremely low. I was breastfeeding so we would not have to worry about what she would eat and drink. We had travel insurance and, more importantly, my husband is a medical doctor. We packed a hefty supply of diapers and took off for the Horn of Africa.

It wasn’t long after our arrival in the sprawling, dusty capital 32 hours later that I began to realize there was one major thing I hadn’t taken into account: new motherhood. A deep, internal process had altered my universe. I hadn’t counted on being taken over by such a primal instinct to protect my child. In the past I thought nothing of scuba diving with a tiger shark lingering nearby. Now I was panic stricken at my daughter touching a dirty bus window.

Numerous people have told me that babies are not aware of their surroundings. Clearly they have never taken one to an Ethiopian wedding. The day was a blur of dancing, honking horns, clattering plates and music blasting so loud it reverberated off the walls of the reception hall. I was barely able to tolerate the cacophony and judging by my daughter’s panicked crying she was not happy either.

Then there was the problem of complete strangers scooping my daughter out of my arms and carrying her off into the crowd. There is that saying about how it takes a village to raise a child. The wedding guests thought they were doing me a favour by taking the baby to give me a break. Instead I elbowed my way through the crowd, tracking her down and tightly strapping her into a Baby Bjorn.

The baby-carrier became the object of keen interest. One man, after checking its various straps and snaps, declared that if an Ethiopian woman carried her baby on the front of her body, it would die. I tried to explain that it was used for walking around – not working in the fields or killing chickens.

After the wedding, we carried on with our plan to tour through religious sites in the north of the country. The number of flights involved totalled 14 in the end. Every other day we packed up the baby gear and waited in airports, walking around jiggling and singing – trying desperately to keep our daughter occupied during hour after hour of waiting for delayed flights.

By then we were no longer embarrassed to admit that we were growing weary. Yes, we had experienced cramped beds, cold showers, sporadic electricity and going hungry while travelling before. But in our sleep-deprived state those inconveniences – along with constantly having to find places to breastfeed or change a diaper – were weighing us down. Our ambitious itinerary suddenly seemed like folly.

Then one night the three of us were at a restaurant in an isolated mountain village. My daughter was happily settled in her car seat on the table while my husband and I ate spaghetti and drank a bottle of Ethiopian wine. Frankincense drifted through the cool evening air and we could hear the slow beat of a drum in the distance. My daughter had not caught polio or tuberculosis. Nothing bad had happened at all.

People had reached out to us in ways I never expected. Customs agents wanted to hug and kiss my daughter. Women scurried off to find kettles in case we needed to boil water. A young man entertained the baby with funny faces for an entire flight as my husband and I sat in stupefied exhaustion. Nuns blessed us. Even a priest at an ancient church insisted on performing an impromptu baptism.

By the end of our journey, I was willingly passing my daughter to women in the markets. Being a new mother in a challenging situation had awakened my protective instinct, but it also made me realize that the urge is universal. On one of our last days in the country, I found myself trying to change her diaper on a change mat on an airport washroom floor. A woman swooped in and grasped my daughter’s hands and feet so they wouldn’t touch the dirty floor. The woman clucked tenderly. I was grateful for her help and began to thank her. Her smile told me that she knew already.

Liane Beam-Wansbrough lives in Toronto.

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