cultural traditions

Keeping Children Safe in Every Season

By Rukhsana Ayyub, ChildFund U.S. Program National Director

I remember the cool morning breeze as I stepped outside on that late August day. It reminded me that fall was around the corner. After the 100-degree days we’d had in Memphis during the summer, it was a welcome relief. I was looking forward to the change of season.

canada geese

Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Leaves on the trees were showing early signs of changing colors. Stores were advertising back-to-school sales; those who could afford it were packing the local Wal-Mart, getting ready for the start of another school year. I was pleased that many of our U.S. program’s local partner organizations across Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Dakota were holding back-to-school events and providing backpacks and school supplies for enrolled children whose families could not afford to purchase these necessities.

On that beautiful day, I called my area office in South Dakota, just a routine Monday morning check-in. Billie’s voice was quiet, not her usual excited tone. “What is it?” I asked. A 10-year-old tried to commit suicide in the Pine Ridge reservation over the weekend, she said. Although this child was not enrolled in a ChildFund program, it was a grim reminder that suicide season was approaching, Billie added.

Suicide season. Whoever came up with such a horrific, unnatural name, I wonder. But then I recalled the even more unnatural fact that it’s the large number of teens and children taking their lives that give Native American communities the highest suicide rates in the country. America is known the world over as the land of hope and opportunity. However, on the reservations, we have children who are not excited for the start of a new school year, Christmas or another birthday. They are choosing instead to end their lives.

Community consultations conducted by ChildFund on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation revealed high incidences of alcohol and other substance abuse, depression and feelings of hopelessness in households, along with a disconnection from cultural values and beliefs.

To counter these negative factors, ChildFund supports programs that promote children’s social skills and emotional health. We also encourage families and other community members to protect and nurture their children by preserving traditional Lakota values. After all, this is a culture that considers children sacred and gives them beautiful names like Little Big Thunder, Little Arrow and Blue Robin, connecting them to nature.

Our programs in Lakota communities include information on suicide prevention and support resources for both parents and children. However, each new suicide or attempt is a reminder of the enormity of the problem and the work that still lies ahead.

ChildFund seeks to empower children and bring families closer together. On that August day – and every day – I voice my wish for every Lakota mother: Hold on tight to your child. To the children and youth, I say: Give life a chance; embrace the new school year waiting for you, Thanksgiving, the first snow of the winter.

And to my colleagues hurt by witnessing this trauma, and the responsibility it carries: Don’t give up hope. Seasons change, and even this dreaded season will pass. Our work for these children continues.

Learn more about ChildFund’s U.S. program and how to sponsor a child.

Breaking a Dangerous Tradition in Indonesia

By Sagita Adesywi, ChildFund Indonesia

Yuliana, a mother of five, lives in far eastern Indonesia in a simple house made with bamboo, tree bark and other wood.

mother and daughter in Indonesia

Yuliana and her daughter at a rumah bulat, or roundhouse, where women in their village stay with their newborn babies for at least a month.

Like many others in her community, Yuliana’s family has a wooden rumah bulat or “roundhouse” that serves as a kitchen and a storage place for harvested crops. The outbuilding has a door but no windows, and the walls and ceiling are black from smoke.

Aside from these uses, the rumah bulat is also a birthing room. According to local tradition, mothers and their newborns need to be “baked” to become strong and healthy. Mother and child lie on a wooden platform with a fire burning underneath it — often for a month or more.

Yuliana did this for all five of her children, but now she discourages other mothers from doing the same. “It was so hot, I felt like dying, but we didn’t dare to say no to our village elders,” Yuliana recalls. “It was such a miserable time. My children fell ill easily when they were younger, coughing all the time. As I now know the harmful impacts, I want people here to stop doing this.”

health care volunteer weighing a child

Yuliana, a local health-care volunteer, weighs a child at her home.

Today, Yuliana is a volunteer with a health project in the village called REACH. ChildFund and UNICEF work in partnership with community-based organizations, training health volunteers to raise awareness about proper health care for expectant mothers and young children.

The rumah bulat practice contributes to a significant number of young children suffering from chronic respiratory diseases and malnutrition. “It is not easy to change people’s views, since traditional norms are held in high esteem in the community,” Yuliana notes. “From the training, I understand it is not just about what a bad experience it is, but most importantly how badly it impacts the health of the mother and the baby. I want people here to understand this too.”

As part of her efforts, Yuliana helps the local midwife facilitate counseling sessions at the village health post. She carries a first-aid kit and keeps information about basic health care with her at all times.

“I am very happy to have Yuliana as a health volunteer,” says Adel, another community member. “She visits pregnant mothers regularly and discourages the rumah bulat practices.” It’s difficult to break old habits, though.

“I still underwent this practice for my niece when she gave birth,” Adel says. “I know it is wrong, but I was terrified of going against the village elders here. Yuliana has been telling us we shouldn’t keep doing this, but we’ve been told we will be cursed and that if we don’t follow the practices we will go crazy.”

new mother in Indonesia

Adel (right) was afraid to go against the rumah bulat tradition with her niece, a new mother, but they are performing the ritual in a healthier way.

However, Adel did make some adjustments to the norm. Her niece was confined to a rumah bulat with a bamboo wall that allowed more ventilation than the customary solid wood wall, and Yuliana checked on mother and baby.

Indonesia’s government supports the abolition of this practice, having introduced a new fine of US$30 if a woman gives birth at home instead of at a health center. This is a hefty fine in Yuliana’s province, where the average income is US$17 a month. The government’s regulations and the sharing of health information among mothers are helping to reduce the harmful custom.

“I was really scared of the rumah bulat practice. I chose to stay at my uncle’s house in town so that I could give birth at the health center,” says Dorsila, who, inspired by Yuliana, has also become a community health volunteer.

Talking Circles Help With Cultural Restoration in ChildFund’s U.S. Programs

Dr. Paul Dauphinais is a psychologist for Turtle Mountain Community Schools in Belcourt, N.D. He wrote this letter earlier this year after attending a tribal outreach gathering for American Indian youth, part of the work ChildFund supports in the United States. Here’s an excerpt.

children in gym

Children and youth enjoy themselves at Club Night in Belcourt, N.D., which is within the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.

I had an experience last week that was very moving and gave me great hope for the future of our youth and community. It was a Wednesday in the early evening. I was invited to go to the gym at Dunseith High School. When I arrived, there were children, youth and some of the outreach staff gathered near picnic tables. One of the tables had food that the staff had prepared. I was observing and enjoying the true friendships that the staff and youth showed. A couple of the girls then spontaneously began to serve the youth and staff. They assumed that responsibility without any adult coaxing. It was a pleasant experience.

The gathering really demonstrated to me that each person there genuinely cared for one another, making sure that everyone was served food and satisfied. The children and youth were respectful of each other and it was clearly evident that each one was welcome.

children on floor

The centerpiece of Club Night is the Talking Circle.

After the meal, several of the team leaders gathered youth in a large circle for the main part of the gathering, the Talking Circle. [Talking Circles are an important component of ChildFund’s cultural restoration initiatives.] The adult leader then began with an introduction of himself and his family in the language of the Anishnabe; he gave an explanation of respect in our cultural world. After this, Paco, a stuffed animal, was handed from person to person to say what respect meant to them and who and what they were respectful of in their lives.

When each youth had finished with their explanations, the rest of the circle applauded, showing respect and acknowledgement of the other person’s perspective. Each person in the circle was offered a turn. The insight that youth demonstrated in their speaking was a pleasure to hear, no matter their age. We have such great leaders-to-be who will be able to have insights into their daily lives and what it means to be Anishnabe/Mitchif. I was very proud to be a part of that group that night. [ChildFund believes that engaging children and youth in initiatives that connect them to positive Lakota values, practices and beliefs strengthens their cultural identity and their resiliency against inherent risks in their environment.]

All week, this past week, I wondered how these youth developed into such respectful and insightful beings; what is this process of growth? Who were they before they became involved with what is called Club Night? How do children mature in this manner – to become so respectful of each other and confident to speak about how one of the gifts of the grandfathers is part of their lives in the presence of others?

Club Night has been happening for many years through the leadership of Claudette McLeod and Turtle Mountain Outreach, and the staff of the Tribal JTPA, Turtle Mountain Youth & Family Center and tribal youth programs.

After the Talking Circle, the youth and staff played a group activity where there was not any bickering about rules or other negative behaviors. Everyone seemed to truly enjoy each other’s companionship, regardless of gender or age. At the end of the evening, the staff remains to assure that each youth has a ride home and that, if someone wants to talk about a concern or share a recent event, they are there.

I just wanted to jump in and be a part!

I thank the group for allowing me to be a part of the group that night.

Club Night will continue to be a part of program services and the dedicated staff will continue to be supportive to the youth. And I thank them for providing this opportunity for our youth.

With help comes hope.

Celebrating Christmas in the Americas

Reporting by Patricia Toquica, Americas Region Communications Manager and the ChildFund Americas communications team

The holidays often bring back sweet memories from our childhood. The smell of cookies coming right out of the oven, the sound of bells from the Christmas songs, figuring out what Santa left for us under the tree and the moment we all waited for in my family: Aunt Paula bringing a huge, sizzling turkey to the beautifully decorated Christmas table.

By working abroad, one gets to enjoy and learn about the holiday traditions in many places. The dishes, the weather and the customs may vary, but one thing remains the same: This is the time of the year when adults get to feel like children again, and when many of us renew our hearts with joy and the feeling that everything will be better in the year to come.

In the Americas, sponsored children in ChildFund programs are celebrating with their families in many different ways.

girl smiling

Beatriz of Brasil.

“Christmas for me is to forgive and find joy without much,” says Beatriz, 10, who is from Brazil. This year she worked with her aunt to decorate a tree in her backyard. “We used disposable bottles to decorate it, added twinkling lights, sparkles, dolls and ornaments. We used everything we had at home, because we couldn’t afford to buy new ones. The tree looks very beautiful,” Beatriz says.

little girl wearing jeans

Yennifer of Guatemala

“For me, Christmas is all the lights of different colors and the music. I share with my family, we go to sleep after midnight and we eat tamales and tortillas,” says Yennifer, 6, of Guatemala.

In most Latin American countries, traditions are centered on Christian beliefs; from Dec. 16 to 24, families in Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras celebrate the posadas by gathering to pray and wait for the arrival of baby Jesus. Children participate by re-enacting the nativity scene and remembering what Mary and Joseph had to endure until the day Jesus was born. Then families gather and eat traditional foods like tamales, buñuelos, pristiños and tortillas.

Girl in front of Christmas decorations

Carmen of Honduras

“I like to get dressed as Virgin Mary and help with decorating of our streets with lights,” says Carmen, 12, of Honduras.

Children gathered in circle

Ecuadorian children at celebrations.

In Ecuador, communities celebrate the birth of Jesus with little parades known as “El Paso del Niño,” in which children wear costumes, dance, sing and pray. In Bolivia, families create small altars in their homes, and children dress as shepherds, dance and sing villancicos, or carols, to baby Jesus.

“What I like the most about this season are the stories and typical foods such as turkey and Christmas cake with fruits and also to see my family together, with love and affection,” says Taynara, 11, of Brazil.

On the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, the main tradition is the Nine Mornings, a festival that occurs the nine mornings before Christmas and includes parades, dancing, sea bathing, singing, joking and all kinds of contests. Although some believe that this tradition started earlier, most likely the Nine Mornings started in the 1920s and ’30s as part of early-morning window shopping when people would try to be first in line to buy hot bread and butter.

Drawings of Christmas tree

Drawings by U.S. children

In the United States, Santa visits parties and hands out gifts from sponsors to children, and in Texas, many sponsored children celebrate the posadas tradition from Mexico.

Christmas trees and Santa Claus are also popular in Latin America, although most children are told by their families that Jesus brings gifts, not Santa. In Bolivia, for example, instead of leaving cookies and milk for Santa, children leave their shoes by their beds so that Jesus can put gifts inside.

girl in front of Christmas decorations

Alicia of Brazil

“We celebrate the holidays with my family gathered at home and at church,” says Alicia, 8, of Brazil. “New Year´s is a very joyful day because we hope for a new year filled with peace, health and a new life for all.”

Respect for Culture Creates Dialogue and Results

by LaTasha Chambers, Communications Associate

Respect for different cultures is so important, and it’s a value I constantly teach to my son. Working in a diverse environment is important to me because it’s challenging to “fit in” to a one-size-fits-all organization — our hair textures are different, our religious faiths may require us to wear a bindi or head covering or our attire may be an ethnic print. The bottom line is that although professionalism should be exhibited in all we do here at ChildFund, our unique identities encourage dialogue, show pride in who we are as individuals and represent the diverse global community we serve.

Two members of ChildFund Senegal staff

Mamadou Diagne, left, and Emile Nansemon N'Koa

Recently, Mamadou Diagne and Emile Namsemon N’Koa from ChildFund Senegal visited our headquarters to share the wonderful community health work we are doing there. An African-American woman who happened to be visiting our office that day asked, “How does ChildFund go into these countries and expect change without disrespecting the culture?” That was a million-dollar question I had also planned to ask sooner than later, now that I’m a member of the ChildFund staff.

Senegal women

Community members in Senegal.

Diagne shared, in his native French, that ChildFund does not go into a community and force what it believes on a group of people who have long-held traditions, some of which are unhealthy like female genital cutting. He explained that you don’t break traditions with a hammer; you simply show community leaders ways that will improve the overall health of an entire community.

His hammer analogy was so moving to me. I couldn’t agree more. Relationships are not built by beating people down. Yes, many of us are passionate and unyielding in our efforts to eradicate poverty and give children a fighting chance in this world. But the fact that ChildFund engages in dialogue at a grassroots level that fosters new, healthier practices and traditions is the best way to create long-term change.

And that’s exactly what we want.

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