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Infant Potty Training in Indigenous Africa: How people potty their babies in countries without diapers (Part 1)

indigenous african baby infant potty training
all quotes and photos on this post are (c) copyright Laurie Boucke Infant Potty Training

I don’t know about you, but I am all about some good storytelling!

Today I’m going to begin sharing some stories about how a few groups of indigenous peoples around the world, in today’s world to be specific, potty their babies and do not use diapers.

Today we are going to start with some of the indigenous peoples of Africa.

I get asked this question all the time: do people do “elimination communication” in indigenous communities, or is it altogether something different?

I think it’s the same in the big picture...but different in so many small ways!

I mean, it’s definitely different to do EC in the Western world because...

  1. We are way more distracted by non-essential life things
  2. Our children have to use a toilet (eventually) that is inside the house, and learn to sit on it
  3. Our children typically wear more clothing and layers and shoes and all sorts of complicated things they need assistance with and
  4. We have grown up in a diapering society, not a pottying-from-birth society - and thus we have to actually learn how to potty our babies.

To be honest, most other cultures don’t even have a name for this! That’s another difference for sure - we Westerners have named something in order to understand it and reintegrate it into our day-to-day lives.

Okay so let’s get on with the stories! I’ve hand-picked my faves from Laurie Boucke’s encyclopedic book, Infant Potty Training: a gentle and primeval method adapted to modern living...with the author's permission. She also has one of her books available on Kindle - Infant Potty Basics.

We will begin today with infant potty training habits in Africa, and pick up with other regions over a series of several podcasts over the next few months.

Most of these are from Laurie’s book, specifically Part 4, Cross-cultural Studies, pages 299-316 - definitely get a copy of her book if you want to read the longer stories and even more from this trailblazing EC expert.

Here we go! Please enjoy listening as you wash the dishes or do the laundry. ;)

Infant Potty Training in Botswana - the !Kung

“Elimination has no social consequences for Zhun/twa infants (though it does for problem ‘bedwetters’ in later childhood). Before he can crawl easily the infant routinely urinates and defecates in someone’s lap. Usually he is not even moved until it is finished, and it is cleaned up with no comment whatever. Gradually, as he acquires control and mobility, he is told to leave the house and, after he is walking well, to leave the village. In many observed episodes, no infant or child has ever been in the least upset in connection with elimination (except infants in the first two or three months upset by the change in position required for cleaning), nor, for that matter, has any adult… Since infants are unclothed and soiling attended to immediately, wetness is never a cause of crying.”

Joseph Chilton Pearce presents a slightly different rendition. “Konner, in his studies of the Zhun/Twasi, an African hunting-gathering culture, found the infants carried in the Ugandan fashion. These mothers always knew when the infant was going to urinate or defecate and removed the child to the bushes ahead of time. The mother sensed the general state of the infant and anticipated the infant’s every need.”

Melvin Konner has confirmed that both of these descriptions agree with his observations. “I would say the mother’s response might be either to anticipate and hold the baby away from her; or if she missed the cue, to hold the baby away from her after the baby begins urinating or defecating.” If she misses the chance completely, she cleans up afterwards. “In any case, the nonchalance is what impressed me, coming from a culture where we are anything but nonchalant!”

“Babies are naked and, since there are no floors but the desert sand, not much is made of their urinating wherever they are. When they defecate, they are wiped with grass and the fecal matter is cleaned up at once by some older child or adult and carried off. As soon as children can walk fairly well, they are led by the hand and encouraged to go out of the werf for their toilet needs, at first for the sake of cleanliness and, as they grow older, for the sake of modesty as well.”

Infant Potty Training in Kenya - the Digo

They started bowel and bladder training at 2 to 3 weeks of age and had succeeded with all aspects reasonably well by the age of 4 to 6 months.

“The mother takes a teaching role and assumes all responsibility in the initial phase of the training process. She places the infant in a special training position outside the house, at first at times when she senses that the infant needs to eliminate (after feeding, when waking from naps, etc.), with the idea that he will soon learn to let her know more independently.... For voiding. This is done many times during the day and night.”

Infant Potty Training in Kenya - the Tiriki

"Toilet training is permissive and gradual; in Tiriki huts, which mostly have floors of pounded earth smeared with dung, accidental soiling by a baby does not pose much of a cleanup problem. Babies are not diapered, and the adult or child nurse is quick to hold the infant away from her body at the first sign of evacuation. Babies astride the nurses' hips are conditioned to go outdoors to a secluded spot, such as a banana patch, to defecate even before they can walk, and after they are walking they soon learn to head for the out-of-doors on their own through being verbally reminded or, if necessary, picked up and carried to the door. When they are a bit older children learn through the example and admonitions of their elders."

Infant Potty Training in Mali - the Dogon

"A child is carried on his mother's back for approximately the first 3 years of life. Around the age of 6 months, the mother sits her baby between her legs and encourages him to defecate either on the ground or into a little pot. Some mothers make little noises to encourage the elimination. These vocalizations are more systematic among the Bambara, who comprise the ethnic majority of Mali. Dogon mothers never scold their babies about elimination. A mother sometimes receives assistance from her older daughter(s), sisters and aunts but generally not from her brothers or other men."

"I believe Dogon babies finish toilet training around 18 months, depending on their position in the sibling hierarchy and also on the mother's desires. Dogon women have very heavy workloads, and the time they have to dedicate to their babies depends on the degree of maternal fatigue and also on how much time they have available after work. Their available free time can also vary with the seasons and the time of day in question."

indigenous african baby on small potty

Infant Potty Training in Nigeria - the Dahomeans

"Very young children are carried most of the time on the backs of their mothers or, in rare instances, of nurses. Unless prevented by special circumstances, a mother takes her baby with her wherever she goes, and women may be seen selling in the market, carrying burdens on the road, working in the fields, or dancing in ceremonial dances with their infants straddling their backs. A child is trained by the mother who, as she carries it about, senses when it is restless, so that every time it must perform its excretory functions, the mother puts it on the ground. Thus in time, usually two years, the training process is completed. If a child does not respond to this training, and manifests enuresis at the age of four or five, soiling the mat on which he sleeps, then, at first, it is beaten. If this does not correct the habit, ashes are put in water and the mixture is poured over the head of the offending boy or girl who is driven into the street where all the other children clap their hands and run after the child singing, Adida go ya ya ya ("Urine everywhere.")

"In Whydah, the child is taken to the lagoon and washed, this being repeated a second time if necessary. If the habit is then not stopped, a live frog is attached to the child's waist, which so frightens the offender that a cure is usually effected in. In Abomey, however, beating is the customary punishment.

Infant Potty Training in Nigeria - the Kanuri

Toilet training for the new infant is minimal. "The mother tries to learn when the child is likely to urinate. At first the child is merely wiped clean by the mother but as soon as it can sit up, it is placed astride her ankles with its back resting on her upturned feet. A little whole is dug on the sandy soil between the ankles and the infant then has a simple and comforting toilet ready made for it by the mother. Afterwards, its loins are washed and the hole covered up with sand."

"Toilet training is geared to the acquisition of walking skills. As soon as the child is able to toddle on its feet, the adult woman in whose hut it lives starts enforcing the rule that the child should go outside the hut, stoop on the ground and use only the left hand for any function having to do with toilet activities. Failure to learn these skills is met with more insistent pressure as time goes on. A young child only recently weaned who cannot accomplish facile toilet functions may not even be scolded, However, with increasing frequency; the child is told that it is dirty, bad, and that it must not do such things as urinate on the hut floor."

Infant Potty Training in Central African Republic and Northern Congo - the Aka Pygmy

"When a mother senses that her infant needs to defecate, she sits on the ground, holds him in position and has him eliminate next to her. No force used." "Stools are immediately thrown outside the encampment or village, When he's able to stand, move about and later walk, a child learns to defecate behind the huts or outside the encampment. If he goes in the wrong place, the mother or sister grabs a machete or large knife for scooping up the stools and soiled dirt, places it on a bed of dried leaves, then wraps it up in the leaves and throws it as far as possible into the vegetation outside the encampment or village. The rules are more strict in permanent encampments and shelters. The emphasis on toilet training is not as great among the Aka Pygmies as it is among the peoples of West Africa."

"In some other societies, a regular daily enema is given (via the mother's mouth or a device) for hygienic, therapeutic and preventive purposes. Once the cleansing liquid has been injected, the mother sits on a stool and seats the baby on her thighs above a receptacle."

"As in all societies, African mothers express their satisfaction with their babies. This is sometimes done in a different fashion than elsewhere, in that it is not always apparent to outsiders. In public, the mother is very reserved and adopts a mask of impassivity which conceals her satisfaction. This is done out of fear that too much praise of her baby will attract the attention of malicious and other jealous evil spirits. In contrast, the entourage of siblings and female neighbors never misses a chance to loudly acknowledge each new "performance" of the baby. Praise and approval are thus always present, though not necessarily displayed by the mother. "Mommies," "aunties," grandmothers or the entourage (especially women and children) play a preponderant role in teaching everyday social conventions. In this respect too, traditional roles fluctuate, delegating roles of authority to some and roles of tenderness to others.

"As for the role of the father, situations vary greatly, depending largely on his personality and on the status of the baby (first born, last born, boy, girl). There are societies where a father takes no part in the daily care of his babies and others, such as Pygmies or the Bassari of Senegal or in Asia, where the presence of men in their babies' lives is ubiquitous."

"In Africa, toilet training is completed at as young an age as possible. When ascertaining the age of completion, it is necessary to distinguish between bowel and bladder training, as well as between normal bowel movements and diarrhea (unfortunately fairly frequent in these regions)."

"In general, whether it be toilet training or its corollaries (for example, many cultures restrict wiping to use of the left hand), African cultures are very precious in this regard, with remarkable results. The early accomplishment of sphincter control corresponds to the rapid psychomotor development of babies up to 12-18 months and has been emphasized by experts in infancy. It is my opinion that this precocity is related to the incessant social stimulation to which infants are subjected, not only by their mothers until weaning/separation but also by the many other people involved."

Infant Potty Training in Senegal - the Wolof

Jacqueline Rabain told me that starting at the age of 2 months, a mother sits her infant on her ankles. She holds her ankles spread apart to make a place for the child to urinate or defecate. A baby can hold its head up straight at 2 months. The mother supports him in position on her ankles by holding his arms steady. She encourages the child to eliminate by making a whistling "sssss" noise. A mother does not compliment her baby when he has eliminated for her. She often passes the time chatting with other women during the potty process. This behavior is observed in 1965-66.

A child is not expected to be toilet trained before he can walk. Rabain states that she never saw children under 3 years of age being scolded for urinating on the ground. There is a lot of emphasis for the child to learn to defecate "in the bush" behind the home, This is learned mainly by imitating adults and older children; the baby is trained by their example.

"I made a field trip to the same villages and the same families in January-February 1994 and December 1998-January 1999. At that time, I observed that small plastic potties had been introduced and were available from the local street markets. They are fairly common now. I do not know if the pot is used as early sitting on the mother's ankles but saw it used by children from 18 months to 2 years of age."

Infant Potty Training in Tanzania - the Chaga

"The control of urination and defecation forms part of the child's learning. That it be done successfully is a constant concern of the mother. Indeed, the marriage ceremonies foreshadow this." Men are discouraged from making disparaging comments about a mother's duty of toilet training her young and are taught to be patient with their wives should they find their clothes soiled by a child.

"A timed habit, absent in the case of feeding, one would expect  to be inculcated only by women who have come under European influence. Some of these began to train their children one or two months after birth to defecate at a fixed time every morning. In the majority of cases, however, regularity is not insisted upon. The child lies on a piece of leather. Any excreta have to be wiped away with dry grass as soon as possible to prevent the rotting of the hide and a bad smell. As long as the child is carried about, the mother closely observes it and develops an almost uncanny knack of guessing its needs, Whenever it wakens, becomes restless, or, in the case of a boy, has an erection of the penis, it is held out....As the child grows up and learns to walk, it is taught to retire into the [banana] grove.

"Enuresis calls for a variety of measures. The steps taken with smaller children are magical. When a baby is about nine months old. Its mother collects drops of rain in the hoof of a goat or the involutions of a colocasia leaf. This she gives to the child as a medicine, saying, "Take and drink this drug. It will keep you from wetting the bed." A bigger child is shown the puddle and scolded....Some children never learn to control urination, though they are scorned for their deficiency and told that this will be an obstacle to their marriage. (Enuresis is a ground for divorce). In such cases a boy prefers to sleep with the hens in a corner of the hut, where he can pass water with impunity."

As in many other societies, Chaga boys have a sense of humor where urine is concerned. "It serves as an ever-ready lubricant when boys make models out of clay, and occasionally they will urinate on each other for fun."

indigenous african baby pottied over ground

Infant Potty Training in Togo

In Africa, it is rare to see a woman soiled by her baby. Africans "seem able to detect the slightest signals of their children's toilet needs. At the most subtle movement or change of breath, they understand the message and take them off their backs and put them onto their ankles in an instant. If an accident happens, the mother is ashamed and embarrassed.

"Some ethnologists qualify the commonly held belief that in Africa babies' bowel movements do not provoke revulsion. Nadine Wanono points out that long deodorant necklaces of cloves are worn by the mothers of young children, and Suzanne Lallemand reminds us that in many traditional rural societies men complain about these smells. In central Togo, there is even a song with the refrain, To smell as bad as a woman who has a baby."

Infant Potty Training in Uganda - the Baganda

"The method of training consists in holding the baby down in a squatting position, his feet on the ground, with the mother's arm passing across the baby's back, supporting it, and holding him under the arm farthest away from her. The mother's other hand usually was in the baby's body also, but it was not clear to my eye whether it was used to provide support or pressure. The baby is 'held down' immediately after he wakes from sleep and immediately after feeding. Indeed, as one of our old informants told us, the mother might interrupt feeding, if she sensed that he was about to have a bowel movement, and thus avoiding soiling."

The Luganda word for holding the child in this position is okusimbaa synonym for the verb "to plant." An alternative position observed by Dr. Hebe Welbourn and described as "holding out" refers to holding the baby under the armpits in a standing position, with his feet touching the ground.

The child eventually builds up an association between being held down (or out) and elimination. "Most mothers implied quite clearly that the practice of 'holding down' was designed to catch the child at an opportune time when he was ready to excrete but had not yet done so. They all placed stress on the need for vigilance of the child was to be caught. They attached importance to the convenience of avoiding soiled or wet beds by undertaking this practice, but at the same time they believe it to be a method of training."

The mothers displayed much patience throughout the period of training. Babies were never scolded or punished for accidents; instead, lapses of control were treated in a matter-of-fact manner without fuss.

Before he can actually signal his needs the mother gears her practices to what she has observed of the child 's rhythms, and holds him down at times when he is most likely to defecate or urinate. Soon he is able to signal his needs with special sounds that she recognizes even before he can verbalize. The extent to which control is something accepted by the child rather than imposed upon him is shown by his tendency to take the initiative himself in finding the appropriate place to excrete waste when he is old enough to get there under his own steam. All of this is contingent upon the mother's (or some other adult's or responsible child's) omnipresence and responsiveness which ensure that the baby's signals will not go unheeded."

Ainsworth theorizes that "it may well be the task of learning first of all that the bed is a place not to be wet or soiled is an easier one than learning that elimination can take place only in one place - on a potty or toilet. Having grasped this notion it is perhaps easier to take the next step of delaying until the proper place is reached than it would be to learn that all at once without intermediate objectives."

Infant Potty Training in Uganda - Marcelle Geber’s Account

The Ugandan mother "never misreads the needs of her infant, whether he wants to suckle, urinate, defecate. In a quick and tender movement, she rolls him from her back onto her hip, then holds him against her chest with her wide hand; or she slides him to her side and holds him out by his arm so he doesn't get her wet; or else she takes him out of the cloth sling and holds him seated between her two hands so he doesn't soil himself and doesn't soil her."

A Ugandan mother is so intimately connected with her infant that she senses and responds to "the slightest movement, the tiniest whimper and the most subtle gesture" which communicate the child's needs. The same is true on occasions where she is not carrying him but has, in accordance with tradition and duty, offered him as a sign of welcome to a visitor to hold.

When the babies were old enough to walk, Geber observed them going outdoors, without prompting, to relieve themselves. She reported that Ugandan children completed toilet training between 15 and 24 months.

Infant Potty Training in Uganda - Joseph Chilton Pearce’s Account

In his book Magical Child, Joseph Chilton Pearce writes "Jean MacKellar told me of her years in Uganda, where her husband practices medicine. Local mothers brought their infants to see the doctor, often standing patiently in line for hours. The women carried the tiny infants in a sling, next to their bare breasts. Older infants were carried in the back, papoose style. The infants were never swaddled, nor were diapers used. Yet none of them were soiled when finally examined by the doctor. Puzzled by this, Jean finally asked some of the women how they managed to keep their babies so clean without diapers and such. 'Oh,' the women answered, 'we just go to the bushes,' Well, Jean countered, how did they know when the infant needed to go to the bushes? The women were astonished  at their question. How do you know when you have to go?' they exclaimed."

I hope you enjoyed listening to these stories as much as I enjoyed sharing them with you. A big thank you to Laurie Boucke - please get a copy of her book and enjoy reading and seeing all the photos of these lovely historic accounts of indigenous pottying habits, as well as a history of the evolution of Western potty training habits.

What is the #1 biggest thing you got from listening to or reading today’s stories? Please share it in the comments below.

 

xx Andrea

 

PS - here’s the video version of this episode in case you prefer to YouTube it. ;)

All images (c) Laurie Boucke, Infant Potty Training

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases from links on this page.

Andrea Olson

About Andrea Olson

I'm Andrea and I spend most of my time with my husband and 5 children (newborn to 8 years old) and the rest of my time teaching other new parents how to do Elimination Communication with their 0-18 month babies. I love what I do and try to make a difference in one baby or parent's life every single day. (And I love, love, love, mango gelato.)

6 Comments

  1. Avatar Asha on March 31, 2020 at 7:47 pm

    I sooooo loved hearing the culture around early potty training in Africa. It truly shows that as mothers we need to connect to our instincts to tune into our babies needs. I love how the mothers even catch the babies poo and find no disgust in it. I have caught my son’s poop I’m my hand and I feel proud that I did, this was while he was expressing that he wanted to start going potty with less of my help. I can’t wait for the next series, especially Asia, my husband is from Vietnam and as a baby his mother did EC with him, it isn’t called a name there either it is so common, she is a part of the reason I felt so inspired to start with our son. Thank you for this podcast Andrea! I shared it on my FB too I loved it so much!

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on April 1, 2020 at 2:43 am

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it Asha! It is wonderful that your mother-in-law inspired you to practice EC and you were able to keep the family tradition going. xx Andrea

  2. Avatar Laurie Boucke on April 4, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    Really enjoyed your podcast! It was a sentimental journey for me, as I had not revisited these wonderful reports for years, which made it extra special to listen to your presentation. I had hung out with a few of the authors and corresponded with others while working on the book. Another way I gathered information was by immersing myself in a university library and conducting cross-cultural research for weeks on end. As the topic of infant pottying/diaper free is often not included in library catalogues, I pulled many books off the shelves and eagerly leafed through them hoping to find field notes, narratives, etc. It was exciting to discover so many inspiring accounts and to learn that ec is/was the norm in many cultures. Thank you, Andrea!

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on April 6, 2020 at 2:51 pm

      Laurie!! I felt so honored to read your research on the podcast and share these amazing stories with folks. Thank you for the hard work of researching and writing Infant Potty Training. I can imagine you leading through books hopefully – I’ve done the same but not with as much luck! – and we all thank you for your beautiful work!! <3 Andrea

  3. Avatar Alice Starr Dworkin on April 9, 2020 at 7:59 pm

    I am reading Laurie Boucke’s book Infant Potty Training and it is really really good. I want to give it to all parents of babies. Good lord, how much money and landfill space we would save.

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on April 11, 2020 at 4:12 pm

      I agree Alice, it would be wonderful if everyone could do even part time EC! Laurie’s book is wonderful, such great research. I love these stories. xx Andrea

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