Driving home on the minibus yesterday I entertained myself by making faces at the baby sitting in the seat in front of me. Babies are generally really happy here as they get carried around on their mother's back wrapped snugly in a piece of cloth. Typically a sure fire way to frighten a young child is to show them a white person. It is a right of passage of sorts. Mothers will go out of their way to show their children a white person. If the child is young enough they tend to have a fairly negative reaction to the Mzungu. This makes sense to me, I do look pretty different from the people they are accustomed to seeing. As it turns out the there is more to the response then just shock of a white person, evidently parents like to tell their children that Mzungus eat kids. I would cry too.
I have heard this from so many people now that I nod and laugh along with the recounting of this Burundian wives' tale taking my place as butt of the joke. Yesterday while attempting to dig a hole in the ground with a machete I got into a heated discussion with one of my Burundian partners about this "myth". He told me that he learned in school that the colonizers of Burundi actually did eat children. For some reason this riled me up a bit. I told him that I did not believe that the white people came and cannibalized children. Of course the things that white man did were not without evil but can we draw the line somewhere? "Adonise", I said, "What if I told you we believed that Burundians ate Mzungu babies, what would you think of that?" That was not even possible, utterly ridiculous he claimed. I said it was the same thing but his mind was not going to be changed. I decided to sulk.
Later at lunch, I fell into a conversation about baby showers with our boss Alexia, the doctor of the clinic. She was explaining how there is a special ceremony to mark a woman's passage, after a time of rest, back into daily life after giving birth to a baby. It serves as a baby shower at the end of which the women at the ceremony tie the baby onto the woman's back with cloth. I liked this concept and explained that in the States we have the party for an expecting mother before she gives birth. This was received with surprise and Alexia confirmed that I meant before anyone had even seen the baby. In a place where infant mortality has one of the highest rates in the world (16th highest in 2006, U.S. was just ahead of Croatia but behind New Caledonia) saving the party for after the dangers of childbirth is probably sensible. Alexia said that the explanation for this was because people believed that women could give birth to animals. After my argument about European cannibals I felt like the ground was too shaky to laugh at the comment as an obvious myth. I asked if she had ever seen anyone give birth to an animal. She said no, but upcountry she thinks this is what people call severely deformed babies.
All these things were on my mind as I stared at the baby on the bus. His mother took his tiny hand and made him wave a friendly hello to me but his furrowed brow showed signs of uncertainty. I then blew a huge bubble with my Gorrilla gum which is usually my ace in the hole crowd pleaser with the under 10 crowd. This made the child shriek with fear. Oh great, I thought, how is this going to go down in the history books?