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7/22/09 First Forty Days

On July 5th, my newest baby brother met the world. That was a Sunday evening. That Wednesday, my family threw a huge party for the women in Ama's circle. 91 women attended, plus assorted children ranging from newborns through teenagers. The next Sunday, my family hosted the sib3, a religious ceremony for the men in Baba's circle. Given the exclusivity of a religious ceremony, Ama expected virtually no women - just a few from her immediate family - but about 20 women showed up, so we got a reprise of Wednesday's dance party fun.

So that was the first week of my baby brother's attendance here at Earth's School of Life. He got his name at the sib3, as is traditional, but the family had been calling him by it since Wednesday morning. I won't post his name here - it's unique, as far as I know - but instead I'll call him M'Barak, a reasonably common Moroccan name and the one that I'd lobbied for. (M'barak is the closest Moroccan version of Barack, and I thought it'd be pretty awesome to have my baby brother named after my president. I'm just sayin'.)

Anyway, we're up do about Day 20 of Baby M'Barak (say baby um BAR ik), and today at lunch Ama explained some of the rules surrounding a baby's First Forty Days.

For one, you can't leave the baby alone. At all. Benign neglect is a defining characteristic of Moroccan childcare. Kids have almost complete freedom to go wherever, do whatever, play with whatever... I've seen infants handed lighters as toys, toddlers crawling up and down uneven packed-earth stairs, and small boys scrambling through tree branches like monkeys or up and down mountains like goats, all without a lick of supervision. And it works. I'm almost scared to describe this to my childrearing American friends, adhering as they do to the baby-gated, baby-proofed, padded-universe view of childcare, but, well, maybe Moroccan kids are just hardier. Or maybe it's just Berber kids. But these little people run, jump, toddle, and crawl through all sorts of scenarios that would give my paranoid American friends heart failure...and keep running, jumping, toddling, and crawling on. The primary cause of infant and child mortality here is diarrhea, not accident. But all that said, babies can't be left alone for their first 40 days. Not for a second. If the mom has to go to the bathroom or to prepare lunch or for anything else, there in the house, somebody else has to stay in the room with the baby. And if she goes anywhere outside the house, the baby is strapped onto her back. This supervision goes on for 24 hours; though he has a small, mosquito-netted space to sleep and peoplewatch from during daylight hours, he spends every night next to his momma, just a turned head away from nursing.

Also during the first 40 days: no part of his little body can be altered. The circumcision waits, as do haircuts ('cause yeah, little M'Barak has a *full* head of hair), nail clippings (and again, he's got some Barbra-Streisand-esque claws), and any other potential changes to his little form. Even baths are few and far between; I think he's had only 1 so far, though he may be up to 2. I know his first bath was 15 days after his birth. (Well, OK, I'm not counting the hospital cleaning him up immediately after birth. I'm counting the times Ama has bathed his little person.) The fingernails are becoming a problem. As I've said before, M'Barak was born two full weeks late. I was also born about two weeks late, and my fingernails got clipped within hours of birth, because they were already long enough to scratch myself with. M'Barak inherited my fingernails (how's *that* for genetics), and has already scratched himself a few times, but they won't clip his little nails till he hits the 40-day mark. (I recommended putting little socks over his hands; Ama seemed skeptical, but might consider it.)

And just as we were walking out - heading to a neighbor's house for Friday couscous - Ama turned around to rush back inside for another scarf. She had the small scarf that is always wrapped around her hair (but only her hair - her forehead and neck are always exposed, as they are for many Berber women), but she went back for a big, pashmina-sized scarf that she folded over her head and shoulders and over half her face, saying, "This is what mothers do, for the first 40 days." I'm not sure exactly what she meant - wearing a scarf? Wearing a really big scarf? Covering her mouth in public? - but I've long since discovered that asking explanatory questions never really gets me anywhere (the usual answer to Why? is Because that's what's done), so I figured I'll keep observing and try to figure it out.

There may be other First-Forty-Days rules as well; for the same reason Ama can't explain why things are done, she can't usually explain things comprehensively. That is, if I'd just asked her, "What are the rules for the baby's first 40 days?" she'd be confused and probably wouldn't be able to think of any. Because she hasn't learned them as a list of rules. She just knows what should be done, and what cannot be done. So again, I'll just keep watching and learning - that's the story of Peace Corps service, right? :)

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