Living, Learning & Loving La Vida Nueva

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Collision of Two Cultures

In recent days my kids have been enjoying pulling all of Sadie Kate’s things out of her drawer and carrying them around the house in anticipation of her arrival.  They are quite fond of her newborn sleepers, her little lamb from my grandmother, and the nursing cover.  Ellee thinks it’s her cape.

One day recently my house-helper and friend, MaMopeli, was here cleaning.  As I was picking up things in the living room, I held up the nursing cover and said, “Mme, this is how makhoa (white people) feed their babies.  Under one of these.”  She looked at me with a most quizzical and puzzled look, as if I had grown a second head.  She asked, “Are you serious?”  Then she laughed, because that’s what she does most of the time anyway, and shook her head.  I explained that generally white people (I use the term loosely, not because I am racist, but because that is how foreigners are distinguished from Basotho here) are uncomfortable with breast feeding in public and this is their way of making it acceptable — to cover the baby and the breast with a tent and attempt to feed anyway….  Certainly she was confused.  She went on to say what I already know to be true, a Masotho isn’t worried a bit about covering herself or the baby in order to nourish her child.  If the baby is hungry, the baby gets fed, regardless of where Mama is or who is around.

Generally Basotho are quite modest people.  The women here cover their waists and rear-ends with blankets and scarves, they would not be caught dead in a bathing suit or shorts, and they typically keep their top halves fully covered.  Men do not wear shorts.  There are, of course, some traditional clothes, or lack-there-of, which in western culture would be considered immodest, but they are not a common thing.  However, Basotho aren’t the slightest bit reserved when it comes to feeding their babies.  When discussing this topic with our close friend, it was likened to an elbow or ankle showing when a woman is feeding her child.  

White people, on the other hand, at least Americans, tend to be relatively immodest people in comparison.  Our women wear pants, shorts, bikinis… You get the picture.  Our men have no problem wearing shorts either, or skipping a shirt to take a jog.  These things are all commonly accepted in our culture and not the least bit looked down upon.  However, it is commonly unacceptable for a woman to feed her baby in a public place without a nursing cover, and often even seen as unacceptable for her to do so with a cover!  No one, and I mean no one, could dispute the fact that way more skin is showing in a bikini than when a woman is feeding her baby on a park bench or (gasp) in a church pew!

I spend a decent amount of time thinking about this topic, because I have found myself in a collision of two cultures.  I didn’t own a nursing cover when I was nursing Kyle.  I can count on one hand the number of times I fed that boy in a public place, and only ever did so highly self-consciously and fully covered with a blanket.  My life revolved around trying to time his feeds when I was going to be in a private place or making sure I had pumped a bottle so that I wasn’t stuck somewhere with a hungry baby and no viable options for feeding him.  It was highly stressful and and constricting.  Then I moved to Africa and Ellee was born.  I resolved very early on with Ellee that I just wasn’t going to bother trying to time her feedings or drape us both with a tent in order to feed her.  If the child needed to eat, the child was going to be fed.  I couldn’t count or name all the public places Ellee ate her meals.  She breastfed exclusively for eight months.  

The opinions and articles on this matter are not few.  I see it constantly on Facebook and blog posts.  Makhoa, white people, Americans, westerners are so determined that "breast feeding is best, but it has it’s place.”  I see comment after comment after comment about the indecency and immodesty of feeding a baby in public.  I can hardly stomach the hypocrisy!  A stroll down the beach or through a mall will certainly expose one to more indecency than sitting nearby a woman simply trying to feed her child!

I’ve become immune to the sight of a woman sitting on the side of the road, fully exposed, feeding her infant.  It is common for women here to feed their babies in church, on the stoop in front of a shop, or on a bus.  I’ve read and heard it said that we, westerners, are more advanced than the majority of world cultures, thus our women have more decency…. Wait, what?  I beg to differ!  We have it all wrong!  We don’t have any more decency than these cultures who accept that it is completely natural for a woman to feed her child!  Rather we have twisted and perverted the beautiful design of breastfeeding into something sexual and thus something that should be done in private or under cover because it is shameful.  I cannot for a second understand how we got to where we are, and neither can our Basotho friends.  They just laugh at us, rightfully so, and say it’s really no big deal.  It shouldn’t be a big deal.  And while I realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day, so neither will it be torn down in one.  Something has got to change.  Maybe, just maybe, if we could shift our thinking to believing that nursing babies is actually a completely acceptable and respectable thing to do with breasts, we could take a step towards shifting our extremely over-sexualized culture for the better!

So when Sadie Kate comes along in a few weeks, Ellee will get to keep her cape.  If the baby is hungry, she’s gonna be fed, whether we are in Africa or America.  And if someone has any objection, I’ll do my best to keep a pillow case in the diaper bag so they can drape their head while I continue feeding my child.