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Celebrating Breastfeeding African Style

Nan Jolly
Port Elizabeth, South Africa
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 36 No. 6, December 2000-January 2001, p. 117

Tuesday 18th April, 2000, I was offered an opportunity I could not pass up. I was given the chance of a ride to Mdantsane, South Africa, where Baby Friendly Hospital status would be awarded to the Cecelia Makiwane Hospital, the first in the Eastern Cape Province. Mdantsane is a two-and-one-half hour drive from my house, and I wanted to be home by 5:30, in time to get ready for our LLL fundraising soiree. Since the ceremonies were scheduled from 9:00 am to 12:30 pm, I figured this was a chance I could afford to take. Even allowing an extra couple of hours for "African time," I should be home in time to get to the fundraiser.

We left at 6:00 am, to be in good time. After the long drive over the mountains where mists made driving slower than planned, and getting lost in Mdantsane, we arrived at the hospital at 10:45 am, only slightly concerned about being late, having realised that African time applied.

A huge marquee had been erected in the parking lot and the world was there to celebrate. All dressed splendidly, in their most impressive regalia, including faces decorated with interesting patterns of dots painted on in white, amazing beadwork, and, oddly, bras worn as outer garments. Colourful and exciting. Most of the hospital staff, the neighbourhood, including children from schools, were there. Africans are not embarrassed by breastfeeding, and are uninhibited when proud of an achievement. There must have been a few thousand people in the parking lot, jostling around. There was a group of women dancing, in full tribal regalia, ululating and stamping with energy, one with a baby tied to her back, impervious to the din, keeping the crowd entertained. Chairs were being brought in from the hospital, a platform was being erected, and flowers were being arranged. Someone was setting up a sound system--one, two, one, two, one, two could be heard at 100 decibels, with frequent electronic whines and shrieks. I'm really not sure why the sound system was needed. Apparently the tent had been erected late, so that was why the programme hadn't started yet. At least we weren't late.

The programme started at 11:25, pretty briskly, with an opening prayer that only lasted 10 minutes, after the preacher explained that he had been asked to omit his usual sermon because of the tight schedule! Oratory is a prized art in Africa. There were brief speeches introducing the long speeches. All audible without the microphone, and they used the microphone.

Each speech was preceded by a praise-singer, and followed by a choir performance. A praise-singer is dressed in tribal dress-furs, feathers, skins, spears, beads, and painted face--and leaps about energetically making noises like someone trying to imitate a lion or other ferocious beast, singing the praises of the person about to speak. Each praise-singer also used the microphone, unnecessarily. The choirs were excellent, especially the one from the Correctional Services Dept. Now and then we had a dance from the community health workers accompanied by drums.

The keynote speaker was a local politician who made the most of this opportunity to impress the voters. I missed most of his speech, which was almost all in Nhosa, but got the gist-Africans had always breastfed, then the white colonists had come and brought the evil bottle, but now Africans had struggled to overcome it, and had triumphed! UNICEF was thanked for assisting the Africans to rediscover their old skills by initiating the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. A representative from UNICEF presented a plaque, photos were taken, and the entertainment continued. I noticed the UNICEF lady discreetly disappeared by 1:00 PM I had asked my driver to please see that we left in time for me to get home by 5:30, so we left the tent at 1:30, went on a quick tour of the maternity and pediatric departments in the hospital, and left by 2:25.

I had previously only seen a small private hospital that was baby-friendly. It was absolutely wonderful seeing what had happened in this hospital. It is a large state hospital that had all the old standard practices - separation of mother and baby, four-hour feeds, formula supplements etc. Now posters about breastfeeding cover the walls everywhere; the staff brimmed over with pride and excitement as they boasted that there are no bottles or teats in the entire hospital! Not even for the abandoned babies! I saw mothers of premature babies getting cups and syringes out of a sterilizer, expressing their milk into cups to tube-feed or cup-feed. The mothers and babies are not separated - they don't have bassinets next to the bed anymore; babies lie in bed with the mother. They are glad to report no baby has fallen out of bed. The premature nursery was occupied by mothers who carried their tiny babies kangaroo-style in their gowns, or were touching and feeding them in the incubators. There were beds for the mothers in the room right next to the nursery. In the paediatric wards, the mothers are given three meals a day and a mattress to sleep on next to their child's bed. The staff members are thrilled at all the help they get from mothers with the nursing. I was impressed and inspired.

The trip home took a little longer than we had anticipated, and I arrived home at 6:30, changed, and rushed to the soiree, which started only 10 minutes late!

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