Breastfeeding and Race: South Africa

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*** Welcome March Carnival of Breastfeeding readers.***

I find myself in a strange situation. I am one of my race, yet not of my culture. I fit in to a race that is not mine – yet am part of its culture. But let me start at the beginning and explain myself a little better…

Breastfeeding at one hour oldI am a South African, but I have been living in the UK for the last seven years. I am married to a Scottish South African, and we have a London-born English South African 17-month old girl – as fair-skinned as they come.

We left London in October last year, on our daughter’s first birthday for South Africa, where we have spent the last five and a half months. In just two weeks, we return to England.

In South Africa, I have discovered that I am not part of my culture any longer, and that having a child has separated me from my race.

See, I am white. In South Africa, white women rarely breastfeed for very long, if at all. In five and a half months, I have not seen another white woman breastfeeding – although I have met one who breast feeds her toddler, I just didn’t see it.

On average, South African women breastfeed their children for 16 months. The median duration of breastfeeding ranges from 5 months for Asian women, 0.6 months for white women, and 11 months for coloured women to 17 months for African women (DoH 1998) Fertility and Childbearing in South Africa.

(Please note that the term ‘coloured’ in the South African context refers to people of mixed race.)

What are the reasons for this?

Well, for many years, formula feeding was seen as an expression of wealth. Only the poor breastfeed. Only the backward, who still live in mud huts or shanties breastfeed. That and private health care.

South Africa has an extreme poverty problem, and it breaks my heart – and in fact angers me slightly- when I pass a beggar holding a placard: Please help. Have 8 month old. Need clothes, formula and money. God blesses those who bless others. With the cost of formula in South Africa, I find it criminal that breastfeeding isn’t driven and funded as much as formula is.

But I digress.

One thing in South Africa that is exceptionally affordable is relaxation. One day I was sitting in a chair having a shoulder, neck and head massage, talking to the masseuse about babies. This is how the conversation went.

Breastfeeding in BrusselsMe: Oh, don’t go to near my boobs, I might squirt milk everywhere.

Black masseuse (Surprised): Oh, you breastfeed? How old is your baby?

Me: She’s 15 months

Black masseuse (more surprised): Sho, sho, sho! 15 months? You don’t give her formula?

Me: No, I don’t. My milk is the best thing for her

Black masseuse: Yes, but I think white people don’t breastfeed

Me: Often, they don’t. But I do. I also co-sleep

Black masseuse: Co-sleep?

Me: Yes. She sleeps in the bed with me and her daddy

Black masseuse (stops massaging momentarily): She doesn’t sleep in her cot?

Me: No. She doesn’t have a cot. She’s slept with us since birth.

Black masseuse: But white people put the baby in the other room?

Me: Yes, sadly, mostly, they do. But we don’t.

Black masseuse: Sho,sho,sho. It’s better for baby. We sleep with our babies till they are (she rocks her hand from side to side) maybe five years old.

Me: Yes. I know. And you’ll love this, but my baby doesn’t really use a pram either.

Black masseuse: You carry her?

Me: Yes. In a sling. Normally on my front, but if I have to clean the house or do dishes, on my back.

Black masseuse, laughing, Sho, sho, sho! No. Your baby might be white on the outside but on the inside, she is an African

Your baby might be white on the outside but on the inside, she in an African

Those words resonated in my head, and they have stuck with me ever since.

Vigeland Statue in Oslo, NorwayIn a society where doctors are gods, medical aid is a must have, and government health care is overtaxed; in a society with an 80% caesarian rate amongst private hospitals and 20% in public hospitals; in a society where WHO codes are not enforced or recognised and extreme corruption permeates from the top down, including through medical professionals œmaking deals with formula companies; in a society where HIV gives men an average life expectancy of 49 years, and women only slight more at 52 years; in a society where HIV positive mothers could dramatically improve the health of their infants by exclusively breastfeeding them for six months; in a society such as this, 12% of the babies are breastfed for less than four months, 8% for less than six. While the 2003 DHS report states that 66% are breastfed for 12 – 15 months (amazingly, primarily in the poverty stricken, uneducated, predominantly African parts of the country) yet only 31% are breastfed for the WHO recommended two years. (ChildInfo)

It’s no wonder HIV, TB and poverty are killing my country, and leaving children in charge of families.

My heart bleeds for my people. My foolish, “educated” race. And I thank God that by some miracle of fate, I might be white on the outside, but on the inside, African.

For more posts on this topic, see below:

Motherwear’s Breastfeeding Blog:  Breastfeeding and Race: Why we need more lactation consultatns of color

Motherhood Actually: Breastfeeding and Race: Cambodian Americans

Silent Yet Leading: Breastfeeding in Ghana

(will be updated on 14 March 2010)

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30 thoughts on “Breastfeeding and Race: South Africa

  1. Fuen

    Such a nice post! I feel completely in tune with you! I am Spanish, have lived in London for 11 years and the last 5 years I have been 4 in Ghana and 1 in J’burg. I am now moving to Maputo. I have 3 children (pregnant with 4th) and have breastfed all of them until 18 months (except the first one who was 2 when we moved to Ghana). I have carried them on my back and slept with them until they wanted their own bed. Yes, my children are white but, they are African inside!

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  2. Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing!! You have a very lucky baby, and the thing that is even more awesome…she will grow up learning what ‘normal’ is..and carry it on when she has children of her own. Way to go Mama!

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    Luschka Reply:

    @Jennifer, Thanks Jennifer – what gives me a thrill is when she ‘feeds’ her dolls. It’s a silly thing, but it makes me happy!

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  3. Ena

    This is absolutely beautiful. I am a white South African myself, and when my first baby was four months I had to go back to my full-time job, so I hired a black nanny to look after her. The nanny couldn’t believe that a white mommy would express at work for her baby, carry on breastfeeding for years instead of only months or weeks, and co-sleep. She actually told me that she had told all her friends about this “white lady who sleeps with her baby” and they thought she was kidding!

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  4. riz @ back massagers hand held

    This article touches me. She knows what would be the best for her child, so money doesn’t matter that much anymore. Living a child in simplicity and still close to his/her parents, that would be a plus factor for them. Technology may rise up, producing formulas and etc. but it can’t take off the best of a mother can give to her child. White or black, it doesn’t really matter.

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  5. colleen

    I have another African/European discovery myself.I am a nurse practitioner specialising in Primary as well as Occupational health and in my clinic I have African people who are black on the outside and white on the inside. For much the same reasons as all the above social,political and mostly appearances/wealth. Diseases like gout,hypertension and diabetes stemming from obesity and lack of exercise have turned what was once a mass of beautiful,hardworking shimmering physiques into a bunch of look alike middle aged men all about nine months pregnant in profile. Im afraid the white addition has not really rubbed of any good.

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  6. Sarah

    This is a great post. I am currently in Scotland, and am working on a student documentary film about breastfeeding in different cultures. Would you be interested in meeting with me? My email address is alaskancollies@gmail.com

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  7. Awesome post. Loved it.

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  8. “Your baby might be white on the outside – but on the inside, she in an African.”

    I love it! Though I wish more white babies (as well as all races!) were breastfed and slept close to their mothers and were held / worn much more than they tend to be.
    Momma Jorje’s last blog post ..Monday Minimalist- Habits &amp Clutter

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    Luschka Reply:

    @Momma Jorje, Oh, you and me both. I know it’s probably a little OTT, but I actually feel pain when I see new borns being bottle fed :( Thanks for your comment!

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    Momma Jorje Reply:

    @Luschka, Oh I can relate! Sometimes seeing the way people treat their children makes me absolutely ill, I feel sick to my stomach.
    Momma Jorje’s last blog post ..Advocating or just Opinionated

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  9. Lovely post, my African sister :-)

    Although on the flip side, I wrote a piece a while back about how many in my original (Nigerian) culture look down on breastfeeding – again it’s part of a systemic brainwashing that formula was somehow better and a ‘privilege’. Shame and so glad there are millions of us out there who are willing to ‘rebel’ for the simple pleasure and potency of nursing our little ones.
    Babes about Town’s last blog post ..POW! African Belle

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  10. Ayanna

    I’m african American and 20 year old college student I bfeed my son is 11 months trying to make it to 18 months!

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  11. Haeley

    Wonderful story. Thank you so much for being you. I am glad the Masseuse got the chance to see not everyone was the same. I guess I might be African on the inside too as my 18 month is still going strong on the breast, loves his sling and sleeping beside daddy.

    Hugs!

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  12. Kate

    Wonderfully written. Proud of you fellow Mama!

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  13. natashia

    If the government won’t sanction breastfeeding, then I believe it is up to the individual. I am a white South African, living in Cape Town, and my 2 and a half year old daughter is still bfing, where ever and whenever she wants :)

    I wish more bfing mums would take ownership and pride of their bfing, rather than bfing at home but expressing for out of the house. It’s sad because it perpetuates the stereotypy

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    Luschka Reply:

    @natashia, Hi Natashia. Thank you for commenting. I agree – I can’t understand why more SA moms don’t breastfeed in public. I have wondered at times whether it might be fear related – i.e. “exposing” your “sexual organs” making you a target of sexual crimes, but the amount of breast I expose when feeding is generally less than what some people do in their normal wardrobe, so I can’t see that being the primary reason?!

    All I can say, I guess, is that with you covering Cape Town, and me covering Pretoria (and hopefully there’s a few others out there!) we can normalise breastfeeding again – although with the medical aid and formula companies being hand in hand, I think it’s a long and hard battle.

    I know UNICEF SA were talking about legislation supporting the WHO codes at one point. I’d love to know what happened with that?

    Thanks again for your comment!

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    Ena Reply:

    I’ve been covering greater Johannesburg for the past seven and a half years (three different babies)! ;-)

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    Nicole Reply:

    @Luschka,
    I’ve also been covering Pretoria for many years (12 in total) with 3 kids. Two are now teenagers and I can see the difference it made. To meet other mothers who also breastfeed and co-sleep I joined La Leche League, where I met many other like-minded moms. We should all try to reverse the negative effects of artificial baby milk advertising. ‘Formula’ sounds so scientifically advanced, which it is NOT. Unfortunately too many black moms are also bottle-feeding!

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  14. Loved this as well!

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  15. I love the conversation you had with the masseuse. This is a great post. I have heard a lot about the “African way” of parenting and how it is much more attached than what we typically practice in the Western world. Nice to hear more from someone who has witnessed it first hand.

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    Luschka Reply:

    @Elita @ Blacktating, Thanks Elita. On the one hand, yes, the “African way” is fantastic, and as a culture is more family oriented so that everyone raises everyone else’s child, but with modern life, cities and so on, the down side is that I’ve known many mothers to send their newborns off to their own mothers to look after, and the only attachment the newborn then gets is from their gogo, or grandmother. But that’s an economic decision, and a heartbreaking one to have to make.

    It is definitely, in it’s nature, however, a much more attached form of parenting – being unaffected by the Victorian era, I guess?

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  16. Thank you so much for sharing. I live in the US and I almost feel this way. Rarely do I see “white” people carrying their kid in a wrap at the grocery store. We often go to a grocery store that caters to the large Hispanic population in that part of town and we feel much more comfortable there ;)

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    Luschka Reply:

    @Sunny, Interesting. I guess the basics of the matter can be interpreted into many different societies? Thanks for the comment!

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  17. Lan

    How lucky your baby is to have such a committed breastfeeding mother!

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