This is an article I wrote for Sydney’s Child Magazine, and various offshoots in other capital cities, in November 2012.
Breastfeeding in Africa
I moved to Ghana, West Africa, in 2007. I was going as a teacher trainer and would stay for 2 years. Well, my position did not work out but I decided to stay anyway. I married a Ghanaian man, moved into his traditional family house and settled myself into small town life in Northern Ghana. I gave birth to our daughter in 2009 in the capital city, 850 kilometres from our town.
Two weeks after the birth I arrived back at our traditional home with my baby and everyone in the house rushed to see their new daughter. There was a flood of family the moment I stepped foot into my compound. My father-in-law, a few brothers, two cousins, some of my sisters and the house children – about twenty-five in all crowded in. My delighted husband, beaming proudly, began showing off his beautiful prize. Everyone stood around listening to my husbands’ stories of the birth and how he’d filmed the whole thing. Normally in Northern Ghana a man would never enter the room whilst his wife is giving birth, but my husband was a man of the future.
After a while our daughter began to get fidgety. She was hungry. So I sat down on the camp bed, took my breast out over the top of my dress, held my child and fed her. My father-in-law, a man who is almost one hundred years old and has had 23 of his own children, looked on, nodding at me proudly. My daughter was a good feeder and that meant she would thrive, he acknowledged in that smile.
I had always laughed when my sisters mentioned very seriously during my pregnancy that White women do not breastfeed and I realized that at that moment I was not dispelling the myth so much as making myself more a member of the community. I was no different.
My daughter settled into her meal, content with the milk my enormous breasts were providing, aided by my diet of local foods. I relaxed and left the family to their conversations whilst I drifted, half listening, half focusing on my daughter.
Then quite suddenly Cousin Patrick came up to me and brought his head within ten centimetres of my daughters, right next to my exposed breast. He tapped my daughter’s cheek and said,
‘Am I invited? You won’t invite me, eh?’
I was flabbergasted. I was well aware that it’s a very Ghanaian habit when you are about to eat to invite anyone in the vicinity to join you but I had no idea breast milk was included! I looked down at Patrick’s head and said,
‘Oh, hello Patrick.’
‘Eh, Asanempoka,’ he said jovially, ‘my daughter is not inviting me to eat!’
I looked up at my husband with a perplexed look on my face and then back to Patrick. He had a huge smile on his face and was cooing at my daughter, telling her to hurry up and give him some. I laughed and the whole family joined in.
This is not the only time I had someone bypass me to get to my breast and ask my daughter if they were invited to eat. But this is the first. It is a sign of love and acceptance.
My daughter had her first vaccines at the clinic where we gave birth. The next series were due at 6 weeks. My sisters told me the best local clinic to go to. So the next Wednesday I followed custom and dressed in a white top and skirt made from local cloth and my daughter in her ceremonial dress.
When I got to the clinic I saw about 40 women with new babies, ranging from a few days to a few months, in line before me. We were in for a long morning. I gave my daughters vaccination card to the nurses, who were seated at wooden tables at the front of the verandah, and then sat down at the back on a wooden bench.
Coming to clinic is an occasion and everyone was dressed up in traditional white or more colourful local textiles. The nurses wore starched white dresses, spotless white shoes and socks and had their hair neatly tied back.
I sat down and watched as women chatted and undid each other’s zippers, took out their breasts and fed their babies. I was a little nervous and so tried to bring my breast out the bottom of my top but it would not fit. The woman next to me turned around and without asking undid my zipper. So I followed the crowd.
After some minutes I noticed one of the older matrons looking at me then tapping a younger nurse to come and talk to me. She came over, sat in front of me, and said,
‘Let me show you how to do it.’
‘I know how to breastfeed.’ I retorted defensively, though deep down I knew I was quite twisted.
‘I know you do,’ she backtracked gently, ‘but let me show what I know.’
She changed my hands around so that as my baby fed from my right breast it was my right arm that supported her head and my left hand that held my breast in a position that allowed her best access. I was stunned with the simple change and realised that for 6 weeks I had been terribly uncomfortable. I thanked the young nurse with an apologetic smile. A lot of the women had been looking at our exchange but not one of them had laughed, tut-tutted or shown overt surprise. I was grateful.
I was now comfortable feeding but my experience did not end there. At 9am the nurses gave a rehearsed talk, in the local language (which I’d informed them I understood) about exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, how to do it, when to come to the clinic and to only give your child bottled water. When they finished they asked one of the women with a young baby to come and demonstrate how to breastfeed. She was calm and comfortable and she held her baby well. My daughter was still eating and so I shifted my position to mirror the woman to make sure we were as comfortable as we could be. The nurses thanked the demonstrator and everybody clapped.
Then they called me.
Everybody stopped. The young men and women selling snacks and pure water, the nurses, the women feeding, their family who’d come from the village, all stopped to look at the White lady who was going to demonstrate how to breastfeed. Once over my initial shock I acquiesced and realised that I didn’t really mind. I knew by then that my white breasts meant nothing and they were not calling me out to ogle at me. It was to show that I had learnt something today. They had me sit there for about 30 seconds and then everybody clapped.
They clapped for me and my fantastic breastfeeding!