Saturday, January 26, 2013


Ukupapa is the bemba word that means "strap the baby to your back." Jeremy and I have anglicized the word to make it a normal part of our vocabulary. 

"Can you ukupapa Bronwyn so I can get some work done?" "I ukupapa-ed Bronwyn and she fell asleep." "Did you see the dad ukupapa-ing his baby on the way to church today!" etc. etc. etc. 

Wearing babies on the back is more than a means of transportation or method of schlepping a child from point A to B. Its a culture, a lifestyle, an attitude, an expectation. Every mother (and other family members - as you can see from some of these pics) in Zambia carries their child this way. Many babies find that their mother's back is the best place to sleep. It's where they feel safe and comfortable and protected. Any mother who does not ukupapa her child is considered to be negligent and is likely to be reprimanded. It has been a beautiful journey for me in learning to carry Bronwyn in the same way and coming to appreciate the mother-child bond that develops as a result of letting my baby go where I go, see what I see, do what I do. 

This is why I was a little... um... miffed/annoyed/offended to pick up a copy of Baby Wise that we have on our shelf and read the following words:

“There is a place and a time for  slings… but it is not a good substitute for the crib. In some third world nations and primitive settings mothers carry their babies in an infant sling throughout the day.”

Really Ezzo and Buckman? Primitive? I'm actually a little embarrassed for you in your choice of words. I know that tons of moms subscribe to the Baby Wise philosophies and love the feeding schedules, regular nap time and not having baby in bed with mom and dad. And I'm happy that that works for so many people! Do what jives, right? But I feel a need to stand up for my sister-friends in this corner of the world who ukupapa their babies with PRIDE. They would never think of sticking their baby in a crib to be entertained by a mobile. In fact, many here would say that that particular practice is itself primitive. I remember several years ago talking with my Bemba teacher and another Zambian woman. I don't remember how the topic came up, but at one point my teacher, Ba Leonard turned to the other woman and said in an appalled voice, "Do you know that Americans carry their babies in baskets?" I initially giggled, trying to figure out if he was referring to moses baskets or the removable carseat basinets or something like that. But as the woman he was talking to agreed that this basket carrying was indeed horrid, I felt a little ashamed. Essentially, they were saying, how cold and unloving could this American culture be? Like I said, to ukupapa here is a passion, and one which I as a mother fully affirm.

Instead of learning her colors from a mobile above her head, Bronwyn can learn them from nature as we walk together. Instead of being soothed by an electronic toy, she can be soothed by the beat of my own heart.  Instead of learning social skills from a dvd. she can learn them from joining me in talking to dozens of people each day. I ukupapa my baby because its best for her - an art, a skill and a joy I've learned from the fantastically NOT primitive women around me.

Here's to all the mama's around the world who carry their babies and love it.


  1. I love you B!!! I love your blogs and your words. Never stop ukupapa-ing baby B or any future children! I think there is a unique intimacy that happens when you ukupapa, and Americans and sometimes those in "less-primitive" settings forget how this can really help to enhance a child's development.

    p.s. Just love everything you and Jer are doing. You're just fabulous!! Miss you and love you tons!!


  2. Ditto to everything Bonnie said.... from watching those mom and sibs ukupapaing the babies seemed to enjoy it very much!!! and Baby B appears to be flourishing..... glad you are feeling better!!!

  3. ukupapa means 'to carry'
    so if you want to use it in a sentence you should say 'papa'
    as in I 'papa'ed my baby, you are 'papa'ing your baby, etc.

    preferably you would not anglicize and just use the language. You chose to come to Zambia, why not accept all that we have to offer
    tulepapa: we are carrying
    tulapapa: we carry
    nipapa: I've carried

    I'm sure you have realised that our biggest problem is the constant imposition of western ideals on an obviously non western culture with different values, so why not embrace the whole shebang.

    1. Ba Jayde,
      Thank you so much for your comment! It makes me so sad to think that this post could have been misinterpreted as cultural insensitivity or imposition of western values. Ndecetekela kuti mwaumfwa, ukufuma panshi mu mutima wandi ukuti ine na balume bandi, bonse tulacindika sana abena bemba, maka maka ululimi lwabo. Never would we we anglicize our words when using Bemba language with our neighbors - that would just be silly. The use of the infinitive "ukupapa" is just for within our house, a fun way of integrating the spice that Bemba life brings to our lives. Thanks for caring about these issues. Preservation of culture is so important - we all need to be aware of how we are shaping/being shaped by the cultures around us!

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