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A La Leche League Leader in Gabon, Africa

Donna M. Nance
Libreville, Gabon, Africa
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 1, February-March 2001, p. 19-20

In February 2001, La Leche League of Libreville, Gabon will celebrate its second birthday!

Who am I? What am I doing in Gabon? I am an English-speaking American originally from Texas. I have been married for eleven years to my brilliant husband, Weldon, and we have a radiant five-year-old daughter, Olivia.

We have lived in Gabon now for over eight years. We came to live here in the spring of 1992 on what we thought at the time would be a maximum international assignment of three years duration for my husband, who is employed by an American oil exploration and production company. Changes over the years have kept us here, but that is fine with me. I love living here.

I found and joined LLL in the fall of 1995, when I gave birth to my daughter in Houston, Texas. I became a Leader in October 1998, by working with Jacquie Nutt, a Leader in Zimbabwe. We worked diligently together for about eighteen months on my Leadership application via email as postal service here can be unreliable. The process took that long because for one almost six-month period, our Internet/email server did not work.

Where Is Gabon? What Is It Like?

Gabon is located in the central part of the West Coast of Africa and is about the same size as the state of Colorado in the United States. The population of Gabon is very small - less than one million people in the whole country. It is estimated that nearly half of the population lives in the capital city, Libreville, which is where I live. Many countries in Africa are plagued by war and civil unrest, but we in Gabon are lucky. Gabon has lived under an umbrella of peace and relative prosperity (by developing world standards) since independence.

French is the official language of Gabon. When I moved here, I neither spoke nor understood one word of French. In the years we have lived here, my French has come a long way, but by no means is it eloquent! It is not easy for me. To help a mother one-on-one is no problem at all in any language, but leading meetings in French (which I must often do) really challenges me!

Did LLL Exist Before in Gabon?

Some Leaders from France visited Gabon years ago, but until 1989 no LLL Group existed. There are now two La Leche League Leaders in Gabon: Lawrence Descourtieux, a French leader who lives in Port Gentil, the second largest city in Gabon, and myself. Unfortunately, Port Gentil is reachable only by plane or boat, so Lawrence and I do not get to see each other often. But we support each other by phoning and faxing back and forth.

What Is the LLL Libreville Group Like?

We have about three to four mothers who have become regulars at Group meetings. Our mailing list currently has about 20 names, and many of these mothers come when they can. Our Group is quite multinational. We have mothers from Gabon, USA, Benin, South Africa, Nigeria, England, Netherlands, Malaysia, Democratic Republic of Congo (old Zaire), France, Burundi, Ghana, and Zimbabwe.

The age span of the babies in our group is quite wide. We have some newborn babies, we have some "older babies," and we have had four nursing toddlers. We also have some mothers of grown children who believe in the cause of breastfeeding and attend our meetings.

Such a group is fascinating and very, very challenging. We are divided almost right down the middle in terms of language spoken, about half of us speak English, and half of us speak French. Several of us can speak a fair bit of both, but not everyone can.

What Is the Breastfeeding Climate in Gabon?

A challenge to breastfeeding in Gabon, as in other developing countries, involves the perception that artificial milks are superior and embraced by the economically advantaged. While mothers who have no economic choice do breastfeed their babies for at least a short while, others who are more economically privileged often do not breastfeed. Or, if they do, the duration of breastfeeding is likely to be very, very short - perhaps only one week or less. The private clinics here, which serve these more "fortunate" mothers, are well looked after by representatives from a large corporation that sells and heavily markets artificial milk products. Free samples are always given to mothers (free gifts are very much valued here) and babies are automatically supplemented and kept in the nursery unless mothers strongly insist that they want to have rooming in and to breastfeed. There are two Baby Friendly Hospitals (BFHI) in Libreville. Both are public hospitals but most of the clinics are private.

One of my helping situations involved a Caucasian mother married to a black African man. She had a very healthy full-term baby and was nursing well up to the third day after the birth. The mother was told the baby "looked a little yellow" and would need phototherapy. Hospital staff took the baby from the mother and put him under the lights. The mother was told that the therapy had to be continuous and that she would not be able to breastfeed her child as often as she had been before he started therapy. While the baby was in the nursery under the lights, the staff supplemented him with artificial baby milk every three hours. The mother always supplemented after that because she felt she never made enough milk.

About a year later, I was much more vigilant, and I was working with a much better informed mother. In this case, both the mother and father were Caucasian, and the hospital staff told the mother the baby looked "a little yellow" and would need phototherapy. Being well informed, this mother allowed the baby to be taken to the nursery for phototherapy, but she also insisted on nursing her baby every two hours until he was released from the hospital. The baby, fully breastfed at three months old, was round and chubby!

At a recent meeting, we had in attendance a local pediatrician who is a breastfeeding advocate and who works in a Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) certified public hospital. My planned discussion topic was newborn jaundice. All of the mothers at this meeting, except one, were black Africans. They all seemed puzzled when I addressed this issue so strongly-even the pediatrician was confused. I stopped and asked some questions about the attendees' experiences with newborn jaundice. I learned from the mothers and from our visiting pediatrician that newborn jaundice in black African babies is very rarely a problem. In fact, the pediatrician said that in her 13 years of practice, she had only seen one case of pathological jaundice--caused by blood incompatibilities between mother and baby!

What Are Our Plans for the Future?

Being an idealist, I think mothering through breastfeeding is the nourishment the world needs to blossom and grow into a healthy place where all people are respected and valued. Mothering through breastfeeding may be the first step in creating stronger families, stronger and more caring communities, and a stronger, more loving, and less hostile world. To quote Peggy O'Mara's mission statement in Mothering Magazine, "Raising the heirs of our civilization well is the prerequisite for a healthy society." I can think of no better starting point to "raising the heirs of our civilization well" than mothering through breastfeeding.

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