Parenting in Africa 101: If you don't beat the children, they won't learn

Parenting in Africa 101: If you don't beat the children, they won't learn

”If I don't beat you, you won't learn, ” was the mantra I heard repeatedly at school and at home for most of my pre-teens. Delivered as though beating was the only cure for my illness, the illness it seemed at the time was just existing. And my existence as a child was dysfunctional and needed constant correction with cane.

I was made to believe that all children needed to be beat. It was why when I had done something and they said go fetch the cane or go bring a branch from a tree,  I went voluntarily. My illness had come too strong and only a whipping would do.

My last and final beating was delivered to me at the age of 12 by my grandmother. In fact, I still remember that while she was beating me that afternoon, she said repeatedly that she was beating me for my own good.

I was in the 8th grade and on that morning I had decided I didn't want to go to school. After feigning ”belleh at” didn't work I deliberately went into let me be slow to show I'm sick mode.

I wore my shirt and skirt with the quickness of a sleuth. Combed my barely there Anglique Kidjoe haircut with a tail comb as though it came down my waist. Sadly Mummy K’s zeal for my education matched my determination to not go to school that day and so she still sent me off.

I went as far as the gates of Limount College and knowing that beating awaited me now for lateness, decided I would go back home. Upon arrival at home I told what seemed like a full proof life.

”Mummy I went to school but I was so late they said I should just come home.”

What I forgot at the time was that my grandmother had not only raised five biological children of her own but countless others. Also and sadly for me and something I did not consider at the time was that there was a system of checks and balances in place.

She let me take off my uniform and get into complete carefree black girl play mode. Hours later she called me from the back yard.


There was something about the way she dragged that e that instantly made me feel like it was time for ”ten-ten-dehn” also known as the ending bout soundtrack that precedes the ultimate fight between the good guy and bad guy in all the movies. If you grew up in Sierra Leone you know the end is near when you hear ”ten-ten-dehn”.

”Yes Mummy!”

I only heard the first words that came out of her mouth.

”I called your school.....”

Oh my heart! I knew. It was obvious. My illness had gone too far. She would need to check it. As I stood in silence I heard it, clear and crisp.

”Ya two hundred go buy cane.”

I got home from school sometime around 10am. I was beaten at about 4pm. For years I had the scars. It was my last beating. That was 22 years ago.

Today I'm a mother of a boy who will be 4 in August. This morning as I was trying to teach him, he was uncooperative. Several times he knew something but said the wrong thing intentionally for laughs. He was fidgety. I repeatedly told him to pay attention, and focus. I encouraged him with stars, and stickers for correct answers and did everything I thought would manipulate him to just focus.

I was frustrated. At some point he threw his letters on the floor and stomped off. It instantly triggered me and I heard the adult voices of my childhood speak those famous words into my consciousness:

”If I don't beat him, he won't learn.”

I looked down at my son who at this point was being very what our parents would call ”ungrateful”. But then I thought of him beyond my own frustrations, and desires I was repulsed by the idea that I could ever even think of beating a 4-year-old or any child really.

What I needed was to either walk away from teaching that moment or take a breath. First off, I am not a teacher. Also no one gives you lessons on how to deal with these situations with too-know toddlers unless you get there yourself. I don't get paid for this. He is not my employee. Ha. He doesn't owe me a thing, not even obedience.

It is not that my son wasn't paying attention that was the problem. The real problem was that I was frustrated that I couldn't get the outcome I had hoped for. Other people are teaching their kids in peace and they listen and ”behave” me I am here asking him how to pronounce the letter ”T” and he is saying ”Bumbum”.

No amount of frustration I feel as a parent should manifest as a beating for my child.

My grandmother loved me to the moon. I know this. But to this day I don't know what lesson I learned from the whipping she gave me. What I remember was the conversation we had two days later around her sewing machine. This after my scorpio devil had gone down and allowed me to forgive her and let her into my life again and not wish for her death.

She told me that because she hadn't had the chance to go to school, she wanted all of us; me and my cousins to embrace learning. She said that my mother was sending a lot of money to pay my fees to attend a private school. She said that my mother worked really hard to provide and we had an obligation to not waste her labor.

I think my grandmother beat me because she believed it was for my own good. And to be frank in my whole life I only remembered her beating me a handful of times.

I had cruel aunties and uncles who beat me badly for multiple illnesses; being sleepy after waking up between ages 7-9 got me morning boxes on the back from Aunty Isatu, not knowing how to wear my slippers and not liking to wear them at all got me whippings from Uncle MO, talking in class got me many many beatings from my teachers at Mereweather (funny the thing they beat me for ”talking” is what I do for work so many years later). Daddy beat me for wanting to sleep in my parents bed and crying when they said no. He also best me for talking to a boy at a garage after he told me to wait in the car. All I did was get out of the car to speak to a boy I knew from my grandma’s house. He beat me for getting out of the car. No lesson was learned other than Daddy likes to beat me. And to this day I hate Aunty Isatu deeply and when I heard she had fallen on hard times years ago, I honestly celebrated because the 7-year-old girl in me still hates her for beating me in the morning.

I know there are many parents in my generation now beating their children for their own good because somehow we believe this is our culture.

Children need to be cured into submission with beatings. This is not my way. It doesn't have to be our way.

I'm challenging myself to commit to dialogue and consequences that don't require me to hit my child. It's a struggle of course because Lord knows this Olu be trying my patience. So far so good.

I'm being self aware and intentional so whenever I feel triggered to hit him I stop and think about the feelings that are getting me to want to use violence.

Today it was frustration so I said you know what you and your friend can go and play me I'm going to write.

I cant come and kill myself for ABC. The End.

If I don’t beat you, you won’t learn
— Sierra Leonean Adults
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