Whenever I breastfeed Elliot around Tanzanians, they comment on it. Without fail. They don’t generally ask questions, but they just say, ‘Ooh, breastfeeding!’ or ‘I see you are breastfeeding him’. At first I thought it was just because he is twice the size of Tanzanian kids his age, so he’s often mistaken for a much older child. Certainly there’s curiosity around that but recently I’ve been learning that there’s another dimension to these comments.
Twice in the last week, people have told me that it is very unusual to see wazungu (white people) breastfeeding. In fact, it is believed that we do not breastfeed; we just give our children cow’s milk, not mama’s milk. So people are curious about why I am doing it. I tell them that I breastfeed anywhere because it’s the culture of Tanzania to do so (though truth be told, I’d probably be doing it in Australia too.) I also tell them that health experts say breastfeeding is good for a child’s health and immunity, and they agree that doctors in Tanzania say this too. However, the information in Tanzania is mixed. Another rumour I heard the other day is that breastfeeding is a good strategy for curing juvenile AIDS. The picture below shows an awareness campaign, promoting the benefits of intelligence and bonding with the mother.
It took me a while to work out what was going on, but then I realised why my breastfeeding was being commented on so much. Where Tanzanian women breastfeed anywhere, publicly, without covering up, white women generally breastfeed in private or very discreetly. I think this has led to a belief that white women don’t breastfeed. After all, if you expect to see breastfeeding take place in public, but you never see white women doing it, it would be natural to assume that they simply don’t do it. I’ve been explicitly told that I am an unusual mzungu because I breastfeed. I’ve tried to say that it’s very normal for wazungu to breastfeed, just not that normal for them to do it so publicly!
Tanzanians have a strong notion that when it comes to health, white people know more than they do. They even speak of a good diet as ‘chakula kizungu’ i.e. white people food. (When they say this, they’re referring to eating fruits and vegetables, not Maccas!) That carries over to how we nourish our children, so perceptions of western attitudes towards breastfeeding are actually pretty important in a Tanzanian context. What that means is that if public breastfeeding is not a part of the messages coming from the west, both via media and the example of westerners in Tanzania, the notion that breastfeeding is somehow primitive because white people don’t do it, is allowed to flourish.
When I lived in Australia, I heard lots about how companies like Nestle endangered breastfeeding in Africa by their unethical promotion of formula, but I thought little about how discussions around public breastfeeding in the west affected breastfeeding in places like Tanzania. I’m not suggesting that western society’s hesitancy regarding public breastfeeding directly stops Tanzanian women from breastfeeding. There are a stack of factors playing into the breastfeeding situation in Tanzania, both internal and external. However Tanzanian perceptions of western attitudes to breastfeeding do feature in the discussion. For my part, I’ll keep breastfeeding in public, and having these conversations!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.