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Wednesday, May 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:09 A.M.

African moms carry on with tradition

By Emily Wax
The Washington Post

JAHI CHIKWENDIU / THE WASHINGTON POST
A Kenyan woman carries her baby in the traditional style. Strollers are sold in major African cities, but few customers are buying.
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NAIROBI, Kenya — Irene Wambui can't imagine why anyone would buy a baby stroller. She says she sees it as a cold cage filled with useless rattles, cup holders and mirrored headlights. Imagine children being stuffed into such a contraption and pushed around town like some kind of pet.

Yet here she is in the middle-class Westlands shopping district, trying to sell her store's newest merchandise, the four-wheeled plastic and metal tool of modern motherhood. But so far, strollers have been a flop in Nairobi, an affront to tradition.

Across Africa, women can be seen carrying sleeping or sometimes giggly babies on their backs, swathed in cloth. The babies move to the sway of their mothers' hips, synchronized throughout the day, bending with them as they collect water or sweep the floor and rising again when the women stop to rest. They hang on as their mothers sell food in the market or pray at a church or mosque.

The introduction of strollers and baby carriages, both known here by the British word "pram," horrifies traditionalists, even someone such as Wambui, who sells them. The stroller is appearing in major cities around Africa, but so far has not been a hit.

"It's not so wonderful. In Africa, we just carry our children or let them roam. They can't sit like lumps," said Wambui, 24. "Besides, our roads aren't even good enough for these devices. If everyone had a pram it would cause jam-ups in traffic. Then we would be bad to our children and bad to our roads."

The stroller has sparked debate among African pediatricians who think the device — first crafted as a labor-saving tool for the European middle class — may damage the relationship between a mother and a child.

"The pram is the ultimate in pushing the baby away from you," said Frank Njenga, a child psychiatrist in Nairobi, Kenya's bustling capital. "The baby on the back is actually following the mother in warmth and comfort. The baby feels safer, and safer people are happier people."

In the United States and Europe, strollers have long been controversial. Recently, some doctors and child psychologists have blamed them for everything from pediatric obesity to low self-esteem later in life.

Jane Clark, professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, said there is concern that Americans are overusing strollers for older children, causing toddlers to be less physically active. A growing movement among child advocates promotes the idea of carrying babies more and getting them out of their strollers.

Africans consider the traditional method of toting their children the only true version of day care. When it's time for feeding, the food is right there as a mother shifts her child to the front of her body, nestling the infant to her breast. The baby stroller could change all of that. But many people here said they thought the devices would be just another instance of Africans adopting the worst habits of industrialization.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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