African mothers see baby strollers as abhorrent fad
Tradition of carrying children upheld; 'they can't sit like lumps'
(05-20) 04:00 PDT 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
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 it 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."
Wambui's boss and manager, Zara Esmail, was pacing back and forth in
front of the strollers one recent day. She said the store had sold only one
baby stroller in two months, and that was to a visiting U.N. worker from
Britain who complained later that she had been disappointed by the small
"In general, I thought they would sell far better," Esmail said. Perhaps,
she added, it's a question of directing more advertising toward middle-class,
working moms. "We thought these modern ones would be a hit."
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 was concern that Americans were 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
At the same time, Web sites and magazines in the United States and Europe
dedicate a lot of space to the subject of choosing a style of stroller or
carriage -- front-to-back or side-by-side, a jogger or a sleeper, with or
without a lightweight titanium frame, pneumatic tires, rear suspension, mud
flaps and/or battery-operated blinkers. Some European-made antique carriages
are status symbols for celebrities such as Madonna and Celine Dion, who spent
$2,600 on the classic Balmoral Pram, described by some Web reviewers as a tiny
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 in Nairobi said they thought the devices would be just another instance
of Africans adopting the worst habits of industrialization.
"There are customs from a hundred years ago that are not relevant today
for Africans," said Carol Mandi, managing editor of EVE, an East African
women's magazine. "Our challenge is to pick the good from the bad. But
carrying on your back, well, that is just a wonderful custom that keeps the
baby emotionally stable and lets the mother feel bonded. We can't stop being
African women just because we are suddenly thrust into the modern world. What
next? They will tell us to stop breast feeding in public? No way."
Washington Post Special Correspondent Candice Miranda contributed to this report.