I am honoured to host this article by my friend and colleague Becky Young. Becky is a doula and breastfeeding counsellor who recently travelled to the Ivory Coast. Read on for her reflections on parenting in this wonderful country and how it throws our way of life in Europe into stark relief.
I have just returned from a week in Africa. I stayed with the amazing Dembele family in Abobo, Cote d’Ivoire. I’ve never been so well cared for, nor welcomed and loved in my whole life. As doulas and breastfeeding supporters in the West we are often talking to women about mothering around the world, and how in almost every other culture than ours practices like breastfeeding, babywearing and co-sleeping are standard. So, whilst I knew this on an intellectual level, living inside of it has taught me the importance of it on a much deeper level. Mother support in Africa has permeated every corner of my heart. They have so much to teach us. And I wanted to share some of my experiences with you all.
I was in Abidjan for a week of African Drumming and Dance Workshops with Sidiki Dembele. There was a group of us and we were all welcomed into the Dembele family home. I was staying with Sidiki’s brother and his wife, Malick and Mariam. I was collected from the airport late at night and taken to their home. I met Malick and thanked him for his hospitality, but quickly went to bed. Imagine my delight when I woke in the morning to find I was also living with 2 month old baby Oumar! I mean you just couldn’t write a better holiday for me than that!
On my very first morning, I was transfixed by the flawless care that Mariam took of Oumar. Watching her bathe him every morning was an absolute joy. At just two months old, he was sat up in the bath – he was so strong – and he did not bat an eye whilst Mariam cleaned every crease and crevice, including his head and face, with the luke warm water. She’d then hand feed him some cool water from a separate dish by the side of the bath. When she got him out, she wrapped him in fabric and laid him down inside. Again, not a peep from him, just laid there happily cooing until she came to get him. She oiled him from head to toe, no crease left uncovered, then she patted powder just around his neck, put clean clothes on him and applied some baby perfume to them, before putting Hashmi Kajal in his eyes. It was such an intricate process – that I soon learned was carried out every morning and every evening, as well as any time throughout the day that they thought the baby might be hot. All in order and never missing a step.
Every morning after Oumar had his bath and the grown ups were ready too, Oumar would be wrapped onto his mother’s back (and on one occasion mine! *big grin*) and we’d walk around 5 minutes down to the family compound where the entire family hung out together all day long. I couldn’t count the number of relatives and I definitely couldn’t draw you a family tree – but there were a lot of them. All there. All together.
The women mostly congregated around the kitchen and in the living room of the family home. There were other mothers with small children. There were four breastfeeding women with babies and toddlers of varying ages, all in the same family. And the younger women hung out there too. These women did not appear stressed . . . at all, despite the fact that they were cooking elaborate meals three times a day for about 40 people. Because they were doing it all together. They’d feed their babies, but then mostly they didn’t really see them until the next feed, because they were off on a walk on the back of one of their aunties, or being bathed or put to sleep by one of the other women. The babies were so content and never cried. They were always held. The helpers weren’t stressed and never tired, because there were so many of them there was always a willing pair of hands. And they talked to each other all day long. And laughed. A lot. It was the most wonderfully supportive, nurturing environment.
These women had caring for each other as well as their babies at the heart of their very beings. Whoever was tired could go and lie down, there were enough hands for all the work. They were all so intuitive. They often knew what I needed before I knew it myself. If you are hungry you are fed, if you are thirsty you will be brought water and if you are tired they will lay you down, put a pillow under your head and point a fan at you (it was SO hot!). It seems so simple, yet we seem to be so lacking of this basic care in the West – we’re all just
too busy, doing it all alone.
Mariam and I talked about what their early postpartum practices are immediately following birth and I learned that, like many other cultures, in Abobo women rest for 40 days after having a baby. She doesn’t
cook, she doesn’t clean, she doesn’t take care of any other children. It’s all taken care of for her. She is held in the bosom of her family. And I imagine that this arrangement doesn’t put any extra stress on the family, like it would do here. It’s just one less woman working and one more who needs nurturing in a very large group. They just do division of labour so seamlessly and naturally.
One day I’d not long arrived at the compound when my gorgeous friend Tata noticed a hole in my trousers.
Massive eye roll. I really didn’t want to walk back to Mariam’s for a new pair. Tata said to tell Mama, who told me to go into the house and tell the women. Inside of 30 seconds my trousers were off and I was given a skirt to wrap round me. 10 minutes later my trousers returned to me – sewn. It struck me that at home they would have been slung in my sewing basket where they probably would have lived for a year at the bottom of my to do list, before I finally regretfully threw them out when I realized I was never going to get time to fix them.
Another time I gave one of the babies my bracelet to play with and it got broken. Beautiful hand painted, beaded bracelet that I’d bought on the beach days earlier. Beads went flying everywhere. I scooped them up and the women told me to put it on the table and they’d fix it. Again, within minutes, 10 year old Asana had been sent in and was re-threading my bracelet. It’s on my wrist right now. And I love it even more because it was mended by her. At home that would have gone in the bin. I’d have been sad about it, but I’d know immediately that I’d never get around to fixing it.
As the end of my holiday approached I began to get really, really upset about leaving. In fact, I couldn’t think about it without having a full on sob fest. I had a lot of time to think there – another luxury I am missing at home – so I was actually able to process and identify what it was that was making me so overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t know how to go back to mothering in isolation having lived this way. It felt like going back into the darkness having been shown the light. I didn’t want to. I desperately wanted to stay and have someone send for my babies. I didn’t feel like I was going home, I felt like I was leaving home.
Once back I bumbled my way through my first week, doing everything I needed to do and finding it just all so hard and sad. One of my biggest stresses here is that I can not leave a room without my children trying to kill each other. One day I popped upstairs to get a pair of socks for one of them and like always, I’d only been gone two minutes when the screaming started. My heart was pounding, I
was shouting at them from upstairs. Then I just stopped and thought – if I was in Abobo there’d be three women in the kitchen, they’d already have breakfast on the go and one of them would pop in the living room and sort the kids out for me. And I could get my socks in peace.
I still miss my African family every day. There is a hole in my heart and I long to be so completely taken care of every minute of every day. I’m not sure what the answer is. It doesn’t feel possible to put the kind of support networks that they have there in place here. But we could try to work towards it. Just sharing the knowledge that there is another way is a really good start. And I would encourage you all to gather your sisters and your babies as often as you can. Talk, cook, share food, laugh and play together. Love each other. I can only dream of a life where I am nurtured half as well as I was in Abobo. A huge piece of my heart will always live there with them.