Backstory: Clean house and carry baby? Try a 'kanga.'
Clean house and carry the baby all at once: The 'kanga' is key to hands-free childcare.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Google "baby sling," and up come thousands of links for ergonomically correct, all-natural, sure-to-get-your-kid-into-Yale carriers. There's the Baby Bjorn and the New Native Baby, the Rockin' Baby and the MamaRoo, the Freedom Sling and the SlingEZee. There are celebrity endorsements (Cindy Crawford used this one) and promises galore (reduce crying by 51 percent). There are even debates: Pouch versus Ring Sling? Wrap versus Pack? What about the Papoose? It's a daunting world, really, for American baby carriers-to-be.
The solution? Move to Africa. Here, there's one way to hold babies: On your back.
"You just wrap the baby like this, and then tie it like this, see?" explains Nomvula Nyembe, a housecleaner who, though she has no children of her own, has carried dozens of young relatives. She demonstrates the necessary tucks and turns with a towel. To American eyes, it looks a bit complicated. She laughs. "It's not hard," she says.
Basically, she says, you lift the baby onto your back, piggy back style, letting the little feet fall to either side of your mid section. Then you bend over, so your back is almost parallel to the ground, and balance him there on his tummy. Meanwhile, you use your hands to sling a cloth over your back, almost like a jump rope backwards, tucking the bottom edge under the baby's bottom. You then pull the edges of the cloth to the front of your torso, under your arms. The ends are knotted around your chest or secured with a big safety pin or tucked one edge over the other, like a bath towel. The tension of the cloth creates a slinglike seat for the baby, pressed close to your back. Of course, it helps if you have curves – to eliminate slippage.
Then you go about your business.
"Nothing disturbs him there," she says. "He sleeps well." It's hard for a baby to wiggle in this position. And you rarely see one crying.
For generations, across the continent, women have carried babies like this. Before fabric was readily available, they used skins, says Robert Thornton, a social anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Now they usually use bright rectangular "kangas."
The arrangement is convenient. You can keep tabs on Baby while you work in the fields or clean the house or chat with other villagers. It's also good for city life – walking down the street, drinking a soda, bargaining at a market.
"It keeps the baby in touch with the mother," says Mr. Thornton. "There's less of a physical bond with a mother in European culture, generally. Babies are put on their own. I don't see that as a good thing."
Everybody holds babies in Africa. Basically, you ride until you're about 3. Then you have to carry. Go to any village and you'll see young girls with babies on their backs. Aunts carry baby nieces and nephews, neighbors carry young neighbors, grandmas carry grandchildren. Ms. Nyembe says that even the men pitch in – occasionally.
The African childrearing landscape is generally free of the flotsam (playpens) and jetsam (various swing contraptions) littering households around the rest of the globe. A few years ago, when some shops in Kenya introduced strollers, African mothers were reportedly horrified.
Meanwhile there's evidence others elsewhere might like to go African. The Internet offers a number of African-style baby car-riers. Take the Peppermint Kanga Wrap: "This piece of material is essential to everyday life in Kenya," the website proclaims, offering two for $32 – half of Kenya's average monthly income.
Or try the Weego. "While working for the Peace Corps in the 1960s, Mike and Ann Moore made an amazing discovery," the website reports. "African babies rarely cried when carried on their mother's backs .... Recalling the contented babies in Africa, Ann and her mother created a soft baby carrier."
And you can have one, too, with adjustable shoulder straps, washable bib, inner pouches, and snaps. Shipping and handling, however, costs extra.