Sunday, January 19, 2014

mothers milk and bambuya beat downs

I mentioned in my Christmas post last month that Bronwyn had been “forcibly” weaned. When I fell sick with Malaria the week before Christmas, I fell hard. Severe shakes, spiked fever, persistent vomiting. I was a mess, and by mess I mean I was giving Jeremy instructions as to what to do with Bronwyn if I were to pass away that night. My body had simply given up and I told Jeremy, “I can’t nurse Bronwyn anymore.” The first night, there were about three hours of tears and crying for Mommy and had I had the strength to move, I would have given myself to her once more. The next night she cried for a few minutes and then went to sleep again. The next night, nothing but a soundly sleeping baby. And just like that, our nursing relationship came to an end.

THAT CHAIR. where it all began.
When women noticed that I was no longer shoving my boobs in Bronwyn's mouth, they called me out on my choice to wean. “Is your mother mad at you?” one lady asked me. Another questioned, “Is Winnie’s grandmother upset about this.” “Are you in trouble with Bambuya (grandma)?” another wanted to know. This line of questioning is totally bizarre from an American perspective. Most American moms would think, I'm sorry, are you QUESTIONING ME? Americans value the right to raise their children however they want. Standards are soft and if a mother chooses a certain practice, friends and family feel compelled to be supportive, or at the very least, polite. “Well, that’s her baby and that’s how she’s chosen to do it…” Autonomy is the American way.

But these questions I was hounded with post-weaning are absolutely in line with a Zambian parenting perspective. Two things are held as true here: best practices are best practices; and no mother is solely responsible for her children.

Why would Bronwyn's grandmother have a reason to be concerned about the weaning? Because best practice in this culture (similar to many places outside of America) says that children should nurse until AT LEAST TWO YEARS OF AGE, and after that self-wean when they are ready. Breast milk is the best stuff on earth and there is no excuse for a mother taking that away from her child until the last possible moment. Nursing is equated not only with optimal nutrition, but also with attentiveness, concern and love. A mother who deprives her child of those things is considered neglectful, irresponsible and cruel. There is no wavering on this, no allowance for whatever "good" excuse. And should a mother opt out of the generally accepted best practice, she is basically asking for a serious mama beat down.

these ladies take child rearing seriously. just… don't even mess.
All of a child's aunts, her mother’s female cousins, her grandmothers’ nieces and any other female adult relative – they are all MOM. All of these mothers have the same maternal rights and responsibilities as a child's bio mom. They have the right to tell the child what to do and the responsibility to ensure that it is done. This dynamic carries into adulthood when, after having children of her own, a young woman's  mothers are now mother to her and to her child. The elder mothers in a person's life are known as bambuya, or grandmother, – a woman of great wisdom and authority. Rule of thumb in Bemba culture – do not disrespect Bambuya. She can and will beat you.

only bana louisa on the left is a bambuya, but BOTH of these women LOVE Bronwyn,
and would not hesitate to end me.

It makes sense then, that with respect to breast feeding, the bambuyas only want what is best for their little ones, and they will use their influences to make sure that the nursing mother does right by her child. If a young mother talks about being tired, wanting her body back or wishing she could just leave the kid at home for once, bambuya will intervene immediately, adjusting that mother's priorities and holding her accountable. This cultural norm hinges on the core convictions of the bambuya's and on their exercise of loving strength. In my opinion, the babes are better for it.

When the women were asking if I was in trouble with Winnie’s bambuya, they were wondering whether Bronwyn’s grandmother was aware of the weaning situation and whether she had approved or not. I told them that grandma understood that I was sick, and saw that Winnie was growing ok, and she had given her blessing. The women all nodded as if to say, “if its ok with Winnie’s bambuya, its ok with us.” Weaned at 21 months, but don’t worry, you’re still in our good graces. 

This best practice/maternal conformity does have its down sides. There are certain "best" practices that the bambuyas advocate and young mothers follow that are actually unhealthy for mother and baby. Part of our health education efforts involve debunking animistic myths, and explaining the biology, chemistry and physics that point to cause and effect relationships. If a woman eats eggs while pregnant, her baby will not be born bald, and the mother will actually be stronger because of it! Bambuya, please let her eat eggs.

Even with its flaws, I still can’t resist the inherent beauty of a strong network of concerned women who care enough to speak up when they think a mom could do better. I will probably never beat Bronwyn if she chooses to wean her own offspring before two years of age, but I hope she knows I love her enough to, if necessary, bambuya style lay the smack down. 


  1. Oh, Bethany...I haven't had a cry like that in a long time, it was well-needed, thank you :) I'm so sorry you had to go through that, but I feel so blessed to be able to be a small part of your experiences there in Zambia through your blog! It's just absolutely amazing how different the culture is there (be it beautiful or ugly, but it all its rawness). Thanks again! Love and hugs to you all!

  2. You are so discerning and patient. I also love the last picture. God sure knew what He was doing making you Bronwyn's mom