Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

"It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child" | Learning about Community & Markets with a West African Proverb & Children's Book

"It Takes a Village" by Jane Cowen-Fletcher is a picture book based on the West African proverb "It takes a whole village to raise a child". The story takes place in a village market in Benin, where we follow a young girl who is taking care of her baby brother while her mother is busy selling mangoes. When her baby brother wanders off, we are taken through the market as the various friendly village vendors watch over him. The story gives a sense of the bonds of community and the illustrations are representative of what can be found in a village open air market in Benin. The end page goes on to describe the role of village markets. This book is recommended for ages 4-8.

The author, Jane Cowen-Fletcher, served in the Peace Corps in Benin where she heard the proverb that represents core values found among most West African villages, communities, and families. Children are a blessing for the entire community, since they will grow to contribute in many ways, helping their family and their community. Raising children is a communal effort, and the responsibility is shared with the extended family. Older kids look after younger kids, and extended stays with grandparents, aunts and uncles is fairly common. As a child, your family, neighbors and community look after you; as an adult you share in this responsibility, as well as contributing to the good of the community and the elders in your family. 

Photo Credit: Terrie Schweitzer
There are proverbs across Africa that refer to the shared responsibility of raising children: 

  • In Tanzania: "One knee does not does not bring up a child."
  • The Swahili of East & Central Africa: "One hand does not nurse a child."
  • Uganda:"A child does not grow up only in a single home."

Open air market in Mali
Photo Credit: Alexandre Baron
Although there are plenty of shopping centers and supermarkets in urban areas, traditional open air markets are typically the only markets serving rural communities in West Africa. Generally held once or twice a week, it is the villagers that are both the buyers and sellers, selling produce available in season. 

Caged chickens at open air market in Benin
Photo credit: Vredeseilanden
As well as food, open air markets can also sell livestock, hand crafted items (baskets, pottery), fabric, tools for farming and fishing, and imported items like soap, batteries and pens. 

Open air market in city of Lome, Togo
Photo source: IFDC Photography
Market days in rural villages are also social occasions. You don't just quickly run in to pick up an item, you visit friends and relatives, catching up with everyone's news and enjoying snacks. 

How is the role of community different from yours? Are children watched over by friends, family and community members? Do you have a local market where you can get to know the vendors, and build a connection with your community?

You can find all of our posts with children's books about West Africa here.


  1. I think this is one way in which we, as a thought to be 'more developed' country miss out. When I lived in Ireland they would have been more community minded than where we lived before which was just outside London. We still live on the outskirts but now in a lovely village where all the shop keepers know the children as well as many of the residents. I count us very blessed because I think that is rare these days. I love the photos you included.

    1. You know I thought of you a fair bit while writing this post, and of the post you wrote about for mother's day, and that sense of community your family is blessed with. We don't have enough of that here - there's a small town we love to visit and always feel it would be wonderful to live there, because of the sense of community - everyone seems to know one another, and that connection is something I feel that we are missing out on. We do make up for it a fair bit with lots of family and friends gathering together :)

  2. " Older kids look after younger kids, and extended stays with grandparents, aunts and uncles is fairly common"...LOVE that!

  3. Wrote this title down. I love the idea of the entire community taking responsibility for raising a child. Children are treasured and seen as future leaders. Why wouldn't we invest. Must get this book. Great review.


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