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A room full of humanity

In Africa, there is no debate about having children sleeping with parents at night

Ten displaced children lay down in one of the rooms owned by a relative in Yambio, South Sudan, in January 2017. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran – UNICEF
Ten displaced children lay down in one of the rooms owned by a relative in Yambio, South Sudan, in January 2017. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran – UNICEF

When a boy or girl is born in Barcelona, Berlin, New York or Sydney, most families start a debate about when is the best time to separate the baby from the parents at night. Many agree that, after six months, the child should get used to sleeping in his bed or even having his own room, leaving the parents free to redo their relationship as a couple. Other more radicals do it before six months, and others even more radical execute it with drastic methods, like the one that advises leaving the baby to cry until she obviously falls asleep from fatigue. Other mothers and fathers of these western societies, which according to studies do not reach 15%, dare to sleep with sons and daughters until very a advanced age. They do it while they are still breastfeeding or even while they are comfortable together into the sheets.

But in most of the world, throughout Africa, in Asia and in the rural areas of South America, this debate is practically non-existent. It is assumed that they sleep together. For natural reasons and since prehistoric times, families have always shared the night space. But also, in many other cases, there is not even an alternative. The lack of space and the high birth rate always force them to sleep together. Sometimes, the situation reaches extreme scenes that many would describe as distressing.

In a cold morning in winter of 2017, I visited a family in Yambio, South Sudan. They gave me permission to go at dawn, just when they began to wake up, to show the situation in which they lived. They opened the door of one of the shelters they had at home and showed me the magnitude of their existence. An adult woman was sleeping on a proper bed, while nine children were tight on the floor, covered with old and dirty sheets. It was cold and the contact of their bodies seemed to give them mutual warmth.

The situation in the city of Yambio, due to the civil war, was at that time unsustainable. Clashes in neighboring villages had pushed more than 4,000 people to take refuge in homes of relatives and friends in the city. The displacement by the conflict was causing the abandonment of the towns and the saturation of Yambio. And that room was another example of what was happening.

When they opened the door for me, the first rays of sunlight made open the lazy eyes of the children still sleepy. I will not deny it; they had been waiting for me since the night before and when they saw me holding the camera, they were not surprised. In fact, they showed a very gentle face. They did not seem to have anguish about having to sleep so tight, they did not even seem annoyed, not even a little embarrassed to find themselves in that situation before a strange photographer. Rather, those who woke up offered me the freshness of those eyes that have slept well, close to the human warmth of their own.

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