“What will you do now that you have a child?” “Will this end your travels?” This is one of the most common questions I get. There is no doubt it has changed my life on every level but for the better no doubt. Traveling with children is a bit more complicated, but shouldn’t have to be too big of a drama, which David Grant can testify to. Then again, he is from the far north of Scotland. “When I met Karolina and heard about her and her family’s story it made my visit to Senegal very happy”. I do live in an extreme security minded Sweden after all.
Despite being familiar with parts of West Africa through my work and travels, new perspectives have recently evolved my relationship with the region. My husband and two-year-old daughter came along on the journey.
In a light green colored room at a tiny Gambian hotel, our daughter had just fallen asleep in a metallic little cot we had borrowed from the hotel staff. The loud sounds of the cicadas felt as if they were inside the room with us. All of a sudden, just before turning off the lamp, I realised that we had forgotten something at the airport-the stroller. Should we go back to get it early the next morning? It was a cheap stroller that had been given to us by some relatives. Maybe we should leave it and just continue to the southern parts of Senegal. In the morning, I, my daughter and some other people travelled by jeep looking for some blond guy (my husband) somewhere near the motorway close to the airport. Clearly he’d decided we were going to need it. Finally we found him with the stroller safely in his hands. We packed it onto the roof along with the traveler’s cot stuffed with nappies, the baby rucksack, and our backpacks.
Our main destination for some weeks was a village by the coast in the Casamance region, called Kafountine. We had planned our trip to Senegal primarily for a vacation however there would also be time to do some journalistic work also.
Kafountine is a large, lively village, where fishing is the largest source of income. There are a number of small restaurants, shops, clubs and bars and music is key part of daily life. Drums are for sale in the streets and every other night club offers djembe-sessions with incredible dancing. Music and cultural festivals are frequent in the surrounding villages and there are many famous djembe and cora-players from this part of Senegal, a style of music that we appreciate a lot. My previous travels and work in Africa, had all been with adults or youths. This time it was completely different. I had a two-year-old and a stroller in tow.
“Ca va?” – “Cassomay!” Shouting these phrases in French and the local language karone (which means “how are you”) was how our daughter made friends. People always wanted to talk to her first when we walked in the village. Children came up to play with her and we were chatting with people while the kids were playing around. At times she would suddenly disappear playing around with the young men that worked where we stayed. She got to know more people than I ever did. However, the first few days she only wanted to watch TV and drink milk and pear juice. She didn’t even want to eat the food; instead she only wanted pommes frites. On one occasion we were at a friend’s “compound” drinking tea with his family while the children were playing all around us. Our friends must not have had experience with complaining children, but our daughter did it all the time. When we had tea she screamed for the special kind of pear juice she was used to having, and at that point our friend’s family looked at her as though she was sick.
“What’s wrong with her?” my friend Yorro asked. But soon this behavior changed rather quickly, which was a great relief.
Walking down the streets in Kafountine with a stroller was a funny experience. The stroller was unique for the village. But the experience was a twofold. We brought a rucksack to carry her in for most of the time, especially for sandy roads. Early on though, she disapproved of this idea. This made us bring the stroller to allow her to rest when we wanted to walk or just hang out somewhere while she took her daily siesta. Compared to local kids her age, she seemed like some queen, pushed around with her dummy in her mouth. Some of the other 3-year-olds came with their baby sister or brother on their back, swept into a rucksack of cloth. My daughter seemed baby-like compared to the local kids of her age who gave an impression of independence.
Questions of how our different circumstances of growing up affect us crossed my mind constantly during our journey. My daughter does not, so far, have any siblings or a lot of obligations. These kids knew early what they could do and what they had to do. The stroller became the most hilarious thing to play with. Kids put a tiny 4-month-year-old in the stroller, driving her around like crazy. Then they pushed each other around, laughing their heads off. Incidents like this were manifold during our time in Kafountine.
We brought a few books, some crayons and paper to draw on, and some other toys. I blamed myself for not bringing more for her and her new friends. It turned out these things were quite enough though, for my daughter at least. She found ways to improvise, and play with what she could find and with whom she could find. This was interesting to watch. It also raised questions. Are children’s fantasies altered by all the new things, new movies, new books we serve them with? What impact do too many alternatives have on children’s creativity?
During the weeks, she made interesting progress. There was the change from being scared to death by ants, to an awakened interest in studying them close-up. There were dark, scary nights when we found our way by a small torch light that later turned into exciting moments. However, she always viewed her bed under the mosquito net as a cozy tent. She felt it was fun sitting next to me in the front seat of the car when we made a longer journey – just to keep her under the only safety belt that existed. She learned how to swallow malaria pills whole, instead of us smashing them to pieces and smuggling them into the filled biscuits that we bought solely for this purpose.
The music festivals were various so often at night we went out to local clubs or join people that went to festivals in other villages. We took turns on night shifts so that one of us could be at home with our daughter. However as it turns out, travelling with a child is entirely possible even where climate, food, and standards are very different.
Despite some difficulties our daughter seemed to acclimatise quickly and socialised with everyone she met, which made her an opener at social gatherings for us. During our planning I had set up a huge amount of obstacles for myself. Characteristic to a parent, be it Swedish or not, the questions that arose before the trip concerned security in all aspects. Transportation, diseases, access to health care – all sorts of threats to my daughter’s well-being crossed and took over my mind. This made me feel like my anxious grandmother and blurred my visions for an interesting time in Casamance. It was a process to both overcome and live with these thoughts. For our next trip, I now know that a little bit of everything we brought is definitely not necessary. Children adapt, just like adults. The traveler’s cot we actually never used, but the rucksack and the hundred nappies were very usable. And the stroller? It might as well come with us the next time.
Karolina who is: When I was 19? I did my first voluntary work for half a year in the Middle East. When I was 21 I stayed for another voluntary period in India. At that age, these periods in other cultures affected me positively and deeply, pushed me in the direction of studying cultural anthropology. I have previously worked with supporting and arranging voluntary work and education for young most notably with the Karen minority of Thailand and Burma. I have also been on missions to Congo, Mali and Niger and got interested in religion and culture in these regions. My passion for writing in different genres, for cultural and religious issues, pushed me into journalism, as well as currently Islamic studies.