"If I had a choice, I would raise my children in Africa," said Mona Reinhardt-Moore, a Washington woman and official of the Salvation Army who formerly lived for five years in rural Liberia and travels here several times a year.
"Back in Washington, children run the family. But in African society, the child serves the family," added Reinhardt-Moore, a specialist in Third World health education. "African mothers love and care for their children, but not in the same doting way as in our society. The children turn out better for it."
Despite the poverty, hunger and sickness of childhood in much of this continent, there are distinct advantages both for children and their parents in growing up African.
African infants develop physically at a faster rate than infants in developed countries like the United States, according to pediatric studies in several African countries.
Many African babies spend the first months of their lives in constant contact with their mother, either in her arms or, more often, strapped in a sheet to her back. Researchers have found that this physical contact helps develop superior muscle tone and coordination in African infants, compared to those in Europe or the United States. The contact, pediatricians say, also soothes the babies and keeps them from fussing.
"The gross motor skills of African babies are precocious compared to First World kids," said Dr. Elizabeth Hillman, a Canadian pediatrician who has worked since 1980 in Uganda. "African children also learn toilet training, to sit up and to walk faster than in the First World."
Cole Dodge, Ugandan representative of the U.N. Children's Fund, said he finds an extraordinary sense of calm in many African children.
"There is a contentment and security that you often do not find in other cultures, including the United States, where kids are less secure," said Dodge, who, with his wife Marilyn, has raised three children while living and working in the United States, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. "Part of it is time. In other societies, less time is spent between mother and infant," said Dodge.
Another aspect of child development, according to Dr. Rafal Owor, dean of the medical school at Kampala's Makerere University, is that African children are almost never alone, even when their mother is away from them.
"In my home village in Uganda, children have company any time they want it. Grandmother, uncles, cousins, neighbors. They can play all they want. When a child doesn't come home for a meal, you can safely assume a relative or a neighbor is feeding him," said Owor.
In Uganda, through more than 15 years of widespread violence during which an estimated 500,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed, orphaned children rarely needed assistance outside their home villages, according to UNICEF'S Dodge.
"You basically do not have a problem with orphans in Africa because the extended family, the uncle, the aunt, the sister, are always willing, ready and whole-heartedly open to taking in the children. They belong to them," said Dodge.
When they are no longer infants, most rural African children are pushed into duties that are essential to family survival.
In the Ethiopian highlands, children of 4 or 5 spend entire days on their own, herding cattle. Throughout Africa, 3-year-olds are put in temporary charge of infant siblings while their mothers go to the market. Dr. Paul Sebuliba, a Ugandan pediatrician now working in Zimbabwe, said new techniques in health education are taking advantage of the maturity of young African children.
Seven- and 8-year-olds are being taught how to mix and give oral rehydration therapy to their younger siblings. The therapy is an effective cure for diarrhea, the major childhood killer in Africa.
And when African children grow up, said Beatrice Mutua, a Kenyan woman who teaches nutrition and family planning in rural Kenya, they have been taught to feel responsible for their parents' welfare.
Echoing the words of several young Kenyan adults, Mutua said that if she failed to send some of her paycheck home to her parents, she would disgrace her family.