More than a few times I’ve gone all Mama Bear on someone for coming close to hurting my baby. Like that time the nurses at the hospital tried to feed her orange Fanta when she was nine months old. Or the time when the baby sitter (*ahem* Jeremy *ahem*) let her fall off the same stairs twice in one day. Truly, I grow claws, my teeth sharpen, and if you listen closely there is a low, guttural growl in my voice.
Or at least, that’s how I feel. For all my viscously protective emotions, I think I actually come across as quite mellow and harmless. One time, when I was internally going postal and the object of my wrath was GIGGLING at my request to stop, Jeremy had to break the news: “Um, most of the time you think you are Genghis Khan and really you look like Little Bo Peep.”
Well, baaaaaa. I mean, Grrrrrrrr.
My point in writing this morning is to share the most recent event in which another being compromised the safety bubble I have imaginarily constructed around my girl (whom I am imaginarily keeping a baby.)
We were driving to Lusaka, (again,) and came upon a routine police post. Police posts around Zambia are set up to identify unworthy vehicles, people driving without licenses, jewel smugglers and other offensive happenings. Nine times out of ten, the police stop us because they are bored and we are interesting and they want to know where we are from and where we are going and whether we want to share our cookies with them. Humor and Bemba phrases are the tag team which keep us out of police detention most of the time. (Except that once when Jeremy ended up in prison… which is another post for another day…)
In recent years we have found that Bronwyn is now the clear show stealer. Who cares about cookies when there’s a white baby to ogle! Most of the police officers step to the back window and wave at her and say things like “hello there white baby!” while she stares back at them blankly, not understanding why anyone needs to talk to her specifically. More than once, she has been asleep and the officer has yelled through the window and woken her up. Thanks guys, keep up the good work.
A few times, they have wanted to shake her hand or to hold her or remove her from the car seat and I’ve always been able to get around it with an “Oh, geeze, sorry I don’t think I can reach back to unlock the door…” And we’ve continued on our merry way.
BUT THIS TIME… I was in a different vehicle. One with a broken driver’s side window. One with automatic locks. So when I needed to open my door to hand over my license, I unlocked my door with the automatic unlock button, which unlocked all the doors, including Bronwyn's. MPM – Mr. Police Man – took my license in his hand and stepped two steps toward the back of the car. “Oh, look at the white baby!” Door opens. My insides tighten. I look calm. “Iwe, what’s wrong with you. Are you troubling your mother. Don’t cry. I’ll beat you.” Smack. His big hand hit her little cheek and every emotion possible burst forth.
And now Mama Bear, Genghis Khan, Little Bo Peep on Speed were all on the scene as I searched for words. Did he really just SLAP my baby in the face? Light enough that she just sort of stunned and recoiled a little, but hard enough that it made noise. And besides, why am I even having to assess the firmness of the slap? I mean, did this really just happen?
Without understanding the culture, this whole scenario would have been unbearable. You see, adults here often “pretend slap” babies. It is common for adults to say, “I’m going to beat you,” and speak in gruff tones. This is considered playful and charming to the Zambian while it is mostly offensive and cruel according to observing Americans. My (unprofessional) hypothesis is that because all mothers beat their children and still care for and feed them, all Zambians grow up with this culturally conditioned (warped?) perception of love and affection. Its almost like the entire adult population is suffering from a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, equating abusive behavior with kindness and familiarity. In short, I understood that Mr. Police Man did not find this behavior to be inappropriate or weird.
And so in the point-two seconds following the slap on my baby’s face, I had a decision to either lose my cool and lecture MPM on boundaries and respect… or laugh it off and pray that it would all be over soon. Since MPM was still holding my license and since this was the police post that once upon a time sent Jeremy to prison, I decided to keep my tongue. I also know from past experience that if mommy is laughing and calm, Bronwyn tends to stay calm. And in the moment, that it what I did.
Bronwyn was looking at me with a quizzical "what the hey?" face, and not really responding to Mr. Police Man directly, so he gave me my license and gestured me to go ahead. I gratefully jammed the vehicle into first/second/third gear as quickly as possible, shaking the dust off my tires in passive aggressive protest.
I stewed for about ten kilometers over whether I did the right thing. Mr. Police Man was out of line and I was unsure of how to respond. I came to Bronwyn’s defense by trying to end our “visit” as quickly as possible. But I did not dramatically jump into action, sucker punching the dude and reclaiming her honor - and that makes me feel guilty. I think I did the right thing in the given situation. But I want Bronwyn to know that deference to no man will keep me from protecting her. I want her to know that she is the most important thing to me and that I would do anything to keep her safe. At the end of the ten kilometer stew session, I filed the scenario in the “did the best I could” folder and let it go.
The uncomfortable power struggle with police here is probably the only thing that I truly dislike about Zambia. And even within this category, our interactions are only distasteful some of the time. Zambia still has about a million fantastic bonus points, and so the one or two negatives don’t dissuade my admiration in the least.
But what remains is the unsettled feeling that I could have or should have done something different. There is no mothering manual, and there certainly isn’t a third culture mothering manual. Jeremy and I are in the throws of a series of discussions about the life and lifestyle of our family and its interaction with the culture around us. Upgrading our living conditions, seeking out specific playmates for Bronwyn, taking her to church or leaving her home – these are topics of conversation unhelped by mommy message boards or google or chats with friends because they are steeped in unique Zambian-ness.
I guess for all the wondering and insecurity, I am most assured of this: that I will hug my baby a million times a day for the next million days. And I will always make sure the back doors are locked.