7 February 2015

On African Women: A clarification

Jill and I set up this blog several years ago with the original intent to share our stories about being mamas in Africa and about African mamas. Their stories. Their greatness. Their complexity.

So last week when a producer at HuffPo asked me if I wanted to talk about these things, I said sure, why not. Actually I really didn't have much information about what I'd be talking about, but it's easy to agree to stuff like this when you don't know much. And have no idea what HuffPostLive is. Does this have something to do with the Huffington Post?

I did the interview late at night, alone in our empty office (where the internet is good) to a blank screen. There was some sort of technical problem so I couldn't see anything. I could hear the woman asking questions, but that's all. (Sidenote: This is why I'm looking all over the place when I'm talking. I had no focal point.)

Even though I was hyper aware to not say anything racist, sexist or otherwise incriminating, I still got backed into a corner to talk about sharing breast milk when it became obvious the host had done a little research on my sordid past.

I don't remember how it came up, but then I talked about women reaching down my shirt to help me nurse.

HuffPo decided to pull this bit out, The Country Where People Literally Reach Out to Help Moms Breastfeed in Public and throw it around. Presumably because they know how hopped-up everyone gets about breastfeeding.

So there you have it. My message to the world about African women that gets the most traction is my portrayal of them as boob grabbers.

Just pick a focal point! 

I made Jill help me dissect the comments on their Facebook page that came afterward. Do these women love me or hate me? Why are they so fired up? We settled on neither/nor. It's not about me. Breastfeeding is just a contentious issue, even when it's not.  

A bit of clarification, the time this "nursing assistance" happened to me was in Congo one afternoon after church. We stopped on the way home for groceries and Charlotte was fussing all through the store. She wasn't hungry. She was bored and hot. I knew this, I'm her mother. But as I walked past women they told me, "Just feed her. She's hungry." But I didn't because I knew she wasn't hungry. Well I don't know. Maybe she was. But I wasn't letting those mamas boss me around. Until one of them, ahem, helped me along.

This wasn't all that surprising. I know other expat moms who say they've been "helped" in the same way. If you ask me, I think it was more: Hey, I wonder what an awkward white lady nursing looks like. Than: We are in unity with you lactating sister-friend, you are invited to nurse in our communal presence. Because African women are complex. And they don't have the same cultural baggage when it comes to breastfeeding. So messing with a white lady is not a statement. It's just something funny to do.

When I think back to my memories of breastfeeding in Africa, I remember the ridiculous faces Mamicho and Mama Youyou would give me when I used a Boppy. C'mon this is not something that needs special equipment. Nor comfort. Give those upper arms a workout for Pete's sake, they said with their eyes. Or maybe they weren't thinking this at all. Maybe that's just my cultural baggage. Come to think of it, they kind of always had those judgmental looks on their faces.

I do know that Mama Youyou bullied Ani into weaning. In the sweetest way possible, of course. Ani nursed into the days when she was old enough to help fetch water, had she been one of Mama Youyou's daughters. And Mama Youyou made that very clear to her. I blame her for all of Ani's upcoming issues.

So again, Africa isn't really the anything goes breastfeeding utopia HuffPo and I led you to believe.

In sum, African women are complex, but they do not have a complex relationship with nursing. They do not grab boobs with any sort of motive. They like to mess with me. Put me in my place. Make me feel terribly underdressed and under-accessorized for all occasions. They keep me from over thinking this motherhood thing. And feel empowered enough to stick their hands down my shirt. They're pretty darn cool.      


  1. Love this! And you're on HuffPo!!!!!

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  2. I used to get really uncomfortable when Kenyan women and men would get reeeeaaalllll close to coochie-coo at my baby while she breastfed. Like, basically breathing on my breast. But I got used to it, more or less.... :)

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