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In traditional Fipa society, infants slept with their mothers until they were weaned, which, for younger children, may have been delayed until the age of five or so. In a recent article, Kathleen R. Smythe, a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, describes the traditional Fipa pattern of raising a baby, called an umwanche uncheche. As adults, the Fipa tended to cherish fond memories of sleeping with their mothers—it was a central feature of their sense of belonging and self consciousness.

Around the age of four or five, the Fipa believe, children advance into the second stage of their development. The uumwanche (childhood) period begins when the freshly-weaned youngster, called an umwanche (used for a boy or a girl), has reached the age of intelligence, or has reached the capacity for intelligence. The Fipa term most often used for that capacity, ukuchenjela, suggests they are now aware of the world around them.

Traditionally, to mark the change, the children would move in with their grandmothers. The growing child would already be visiting his or her grandmother in the evenings. Many Fipa lived in the same villages as their parents and grandparents, which facilitated this visiting. Under this circumstance, having an umwanche move in with the grandparents would have been quite routine.

The Fipa felt their children benefited from living with their grandparents. The change broadened the social horizons of the children, and it gave them contact with more members of the older generation living in the village. The grandparents often could offer more nurturance, support, love, and education than the parents, who had much more work to do. Because of their higher status in the village, the grandparents frequently provided more and better food for their grandchildren.

In return for their affection and care, the children would bring to the grandparents emotional support plus assistance with the work around their home and farm. Children could help herd the cattle, haul water, and collect firewood. The members of the alternate generations tended to have warm, close relations.

If necessary, girls would help in doing work normally associated with boys, such as herding cattle, and boys would help out in jobs associated with girls, such as cooking, sweeping, fetching water, and grinding millet. If the oldest child were a boy, he might have to do some of the typically female tasks, and conversely, if the oldest were a girl she might have to help with the male jobs. The Fipa were more concerned about training the children to be helpful than they were about socializing them into rigid gender roles.

Another issue that was important to the Fipa was that since the children were becoming aware of their surroundings, they might begin to notice, in the small, round huts in which they lived, the sexual activities of their parents. Of course that could also be a problem in the huts of sexually active grandparents, but they did not think it was as much of an issue. Perhaps most importantly for the Fipa, having the child move in with grandparents removed the temptation for incest to occur between a parent and a child.

At the end of the uumwanche period, around ages 10 to 12, the children were able to perform many tasks unsupervised, and they needed to socialize with their age mates. In the third stage of their development, the uunsungu period for boys or uunumendo for girls, the Fipa children became gendered human beings in the eyes of the adults, and they were frequently expected to help with the work of their mothers or fathers.

However, the dangers of incest became even greater, they felt, so the adolescents moved into intuli, separate dwellings in the parents’ or grandparents’ compounds where they slept but did not eat. The small, domed huts of their parents or grandparents provided little privacy or space where the young people could socialize. The intuli gave them their independence, freedom, and personal space.

A century ago, the Catholic missionaries deliberately changed the structure of Fipa society. They felt that the practices of allowing little children to live with their grandparents, and adolescents to live in the intuli, were both wrong and sinful. They were opposed to the children living with their grandparents because often the older people had not yet converted to Christianity, even though many of the parents had. The priests inveighed against the practice and threatened to withhold the sacraments unless the parents changed their ways.

They persuaded parents to build new, larger, rectangular homes so the children could sleep in their own rooms and yet still be under the supervision of their parents. However, the missionaries did not completely succeed in destroying close associations of the Fipa young people with their grandparents. Children are still quite close to their grandparents and spend a lot of time with them. The young people less often live with them than they used to, unless necessity, such as being orphaned, requires it. The use of the intuli has also faded.

Furthermore, the missionaries successfully instituted the Catholic rite of baptism in Fipa thinking as the primary marker for moving from infancy into the awareness period of childhood. Gaining awareness and intelligence is now assimilated with the Catholic rite and with attending school—instead of with learning how to herd cattle and sleeping with grandparents. The Fipa may define childhood differently today than they did in the past, but they still view gaining intelligence and awareness as an important marker of growing up.

Smythe, Kathleen R. 2007. “Where One Slept Mattered: Fipa Socialization and Cultural Perceptions of Growth in Nkansi, Ufipaa.” In Rethinking Age in Africa: Colonial, Post-Colonial and Contemporary Interpretations of Cultural Representations, edited by Mario I. Aguilar, p.9-44. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press