The Challenges of Comparative Socialization

 The Case of Komani

One of the central tenets when teaching socialization in sociology and enculturation in anthropology is to emphasize the enduring impact of the process on individuals in any society. This may have been vividly illustrated to me recently by the behavior of a three-year-old boy in my home village. The village is located over four hundred miles from Zambia Capital City of Lusaka, in the Eastern Province of Zambia in Southern Africa in the remote provincial district of Lundazi. I cannot escape the preliminary observation that the incident I am going to relate may as well intersect sociology with cultural anthropology and developmental psychology. Some may even identify it with the challenges of comparative sociology and developmental  psychology. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before I narrate the incident and engage in a modest tentative analysis, let me set the scene or social context in which the incident in question transpired.

The Tumbuka people of rural Zambia still live in villages, which are a collection of grass thatched houses clustered together. A married man and a woman and their biological children may occupy each series of houses. Several clans may live in a village. The Tembo clan constitutes the Zibalwe village which has up to 12 houses headed by Tembo brothers with their wives and children. All the children live, play, perform chores together along gender lines. Consistent with patrilocal customary arrangements, all Tembo women move to their husband’s villages when they get married.

I had bought two self-inflating small mats for my son and I to sleep on while we were in the village. I had bought them from an army surplus store. One was new and the other was used. The used one had a leak in it. My 16-year-old son suggested that the best way to find the hole was to go to the river and immerse the defective inflated mat in the river water.

It was a sunny pleasant morning with blue skies. This was going to give my son and I and my little nephews something to do. My young nephews were 13 years old,  10, and 8. We set off from the village in a single file on a footpath leading to the river. The three nephews were in front leading the way as they all held onto and carried the six foot long light mat. My son was behind them and I was at the back.

We were barely fifty yards from the village when I heard small putter putter sounds of small feet. It was my three year old nephew Komani tagging along. In my North American child socialization mode, I was immediately alarmed. We were walking to the river with a three year old? Who was going to watch him? Was he going to whine? Was I going to restrain him from plunging into the river since I was the only adult? I expected his other siblings to immediately yell to him to go back to the village to stay with his mom or grandma. My inclination was also to send him back. I was surprised that the nephews were not alarmed.

I shrugged my shoulders and invited him to walk in front of me. He walked quietly in the single file as his brothers chit chatted. Shortly, we arrived at the edge of the river. This was the moment I had dreaded and was fully alert. The three nephews quickly took off their shorts and shirts and tossed them on the grass. They ran shouting and noisily plunged into the cool pristine fresh water. The water close to the riverbank was about waist deep for the three boys.

Komani, the three year old, walked to the edge of the water, stopped, and just stood there looking at his brothers. His brothers were swimming and splashing around. My son and I removed our shoes and waded into the shallow fresh water. When we were knee deep, we inflated the mat with our mouths and immersed it into the water. The water was surprisingly cold for tropical Africa. But the Lundazi is located in a high elevation. After a while, we located the leak and marked it for mending later at the village.

All the while, Komani observed quietly and after a while sat down on the ground. My son noticed some red fire ants that were crawling on Komani’s legs and up his shorts. My son lifted him up, patted the ants off his bottom and legs, and placed him on a different spot away from the trail of fire ants on which the three-year-old  had inadvertently sat down.

After we had completed our task, the boys got out of the river, dressed, and we all walked in a single file back to the village.  Komani again walked in front of me.

When I arrived back at the village, I had so many questions. What type of socialization produces a three year old who seemed so disciplined compared, say, to the typical contemporary urban or North American child the same age? Months before I left the US, there was a tragedy that was widely reported on the TV news. Somewhere in rural Georgia, a four year old unhitched a front door on a house while his mother was in another part of the house. He took his two-year-old sibling with him and wandered off. A day later, after an extensive search, the two children were found dead in the open sewer pond located about two miles away from their house.

Why didn’t Komani whine and cry? Why didn’t he rush into the river water to swim? After all, all his brothers were swimming, splashing around, and having fun. Indeed, in my six-week stay in rural and urban Zambia, I saw so many children of various ages walking to school, doing chores, and playing with such independent zeal with no adults in the immediate surroundings to supervise them. Those are the kind of children’s activities that North American parents prohibit their children from doing unless supervised directly by an adult.

I spent sometime thinking and questioning my own North American socialization of my children. When children are supervised by parents and adults in confined spaces in homes, vehicles, school grounds, play grounds, formal team sports, virtually 24 hours per day, does this raise a genuinely independent child and eventually adult? The North American child may indeed be able to read and write early, be technology savvy, understand and manipulate abstract learning material in the much-touted formal education process. But does the child really acquire genuine independence like the one Komani and many other children may exhibit?

Of course, Komani is just a three year old. I concede that I only made this one observation concerning his level of apparent independence. I also informally observed him in other circumstances in my interaction with him and other adults and siblings in which he often hilariously acted just as a typical three year old in a lot of ways should. But I am using his conduct in this one instance as reflecting socialization strategies among children in this Tumbuka society that may inculcate into the children more genuine independence. Indeed, as you travel widely in this society, you observe numerous children carrying out various everyday chores and play unsupervised by adults; playing, walking alone for miles to school, herding cattle, goats, or sheep, drawing water in the case of girls. The children exhibit these behaviors both in the rural and urban areas. It is not uncommon to hear North American parents lament the fact that children to day are the least independent. Many American adults often reminisce about their childhoods in earlier decades when they would simply disappear all day especially in the summer. They would play sand ball, ride bicycles to grocery stores, even to forbidden places, go fishing, go swimming in creeks and rivers, and parents did not worry.

Some of the most prominent debates and studies in cross-cultural studies took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the most vocal arguments were from McClelland’s achievement motivation (McClelland, 1961) and the concept of independence and dependent in developmental cross-cultural psychology (Williams, 1969; Whiting, 1969). The basic tenets of these arguments were that modes of socialization of children in Third World societies were more likely to raise dependent children while, as children raised with mode of socialization prevalent in developed countries, were more likely to be independent. There was an implicit assumption in these arguments that Western modes of socialization were better and superior to those in most Third world cultures. I wonder to day whether such arguments would still hold or given what I have described, wouldn’t one argue to day that the situation is reversed?

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Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.
e-mail: [email protected]

August 28, 2005

AUTHOR: Mwizenge S. Tembo was born and grew up among the Tumbuka people of Eastern Zambia. He obtained his B. A. at University of Zambia, M. A. and Ph. D. at Michigan State University in 1987. He worked for ten years at University of Zambia before he came to Bridgewater College in Virginia in 1990 where he taught Sociology. Having retired, he is Emeritus Professor of Sociology. He has just published  a novel of a love story between an African man and an Irish woman titled: The Bridge: a Transoceanic Love Story.  It is available at Bridgewater College Bookstore and