By Rebecca Bacon Ehlers
One of the first memories I have of Burkina Faso, where I lived for two years, was of seeing a little girl through the window of a Peace Corps vehicle who was about five or six years old and had a baby on her hip. It makes me laugh to remember how sad and scared I felt seeing a child so young caring for an infant. Within the span of a month I would realize that the average Burkinabe 5-year-old knows more about caring for a baby than I do as a childless American adult.
There has always been a division of labor based on bodies in Burkina Faso. Some bodies are for patching roofs and slaughtering chickens. Other bodies preside over the collection of water and the creation of life. Like my own culture’s method of distinguishing gender, this system is set up to fail: each body is its own kind of body. But the interdependence of these roles meant at least that neither was superior to each other.
When the colonizers came the choreography of this careful balance was violently disrupted, and it still hasn’t been restored. History has taught us all over the world that misogyny can be highly contagious. Today a poor African woman who wants to determine her own fate in the world faces more barriers than almost any other demographic of person.
A woman from my village needs arms that can chop down a tree or carry a basin of water that weighs as much as I do. She can bike 30 kilometers with a baby on her back. Bring eight children into the world with no anesthetic and live to bury two of them. Sit on the floor so her husband can have a chair. African women are so strong, I hear people from my own culture say. Yes, it’s true, but you would be too if you had to carry the same burdens. How resilient human beings are, how dreadful that they have to be.
Life as a young woman in Burkina Faso involves a great deal of silent endurance and knowing your place, but as you become a mother and your children begin to grow up, the power dynamic shifts. The fuller and more ample a woman’s body becomes, the more her beauty is celebrated. As she ages, she can move through the world with the certainty that those younger and less experienced will make way.
The power that age and motherhood bestows on a person in Burkina Faso has very few limits, for better or for worse. As a young person you know that your mothers and grandmothers are sacred. It’s your privilege to obey them. I have a friend who lived in Ivory Coast for a few years as a young man, working in sugar cane fields and cocoa plantations, trying to save up some money to buy a plot of land there. He was on his way up. When he came back to Burkina to visit, his mother said, “Don’t go back.” He told her he had to. He explained his plans and asked for her forgiveness. The next morning as he packed his bags and got ready to leave, his mother said, “If you go, don’t come back for my funeral.” He stayed.
I wish that my friend’s mother hadn’t chosen to wield her power in this particular destructive way, but what strikes me about this story is just how mighty she is, how unwavering and unapologetic in her decisions. What this type of matriarchy offers women isn’t enough and yet, it’s enough of an escape valve to keep a person sane, a thin crescent of hope because there is a path to being valued, to influencing your world.
I was 24 when I left Burkina Faso, and now I’m 26. My last birthday left me with a diffuse sense of panic. I feel like the important things all have to be done now, because the only part of my life that matters will be over in about 4 years. No one has ever said these words to me but I know them by heart and so does every woman I know. I don’t believe they’re true. I could live 26 more years twice over. Still, I count the months between my birthday and the birthdays of my peers at work. Check the average age of first year students in the graduate program I just applied to. Feel better, feel worse.
Most of the matriarchs in my life, the people I love and admire the most, are already past that threshold. When I think of them, the narratives vanish like steam. Their falseness becomes so obvious. Yet when my mind’s eye turns inward, I feel them vining themselves back around me. They have an allure that’s hard to evade.
Since our brains became able to consider death, we have always carried some degree of fear of irreversible physical change, fear of not-being. That pressure eases when the gifts of aging are also recognized: experience, confidence, wisdom. In my culture there is no pressure release, at least not for women, because those qualities are not valued in us. For decades we hold the fears of aging inside ourselves like stagnant water.
When it comes to women’s bodies, US culture is all stick and no carrot. Even as we engineer technologies to stretch our lifespans as long and thin as we can, youth staunchly maintains its tyranny.
When a person uses their body to create life, that body becomes the subject of derision afterward. Your vagina is loose now. Your stretch marks are disgusting. Don’t let your husband watch you give birth or he’ll never go down on you again. Later in life, when a woman no longer serves a decorative or reproductive purpose, she is allowed to become invisible. If her voice gradually trails off into silence, who will protest? Who will even notice?
In the past women in my culture became mothers because the social consequences of not having children were a bit worse than the social consequences of having them. Now that the pressure to procreate is easing a bit in American society, is it surprising some women are opting out? Parenthood might be one of the most transcendent human experiences, but it also has some built-in disincentives in addition to the baggage culture can pile on. There is no greater loss of control than to become a parent. It is the most profound way we make ourselves vulnerable to the world. Perhaps that is the inescapable result that follows when the most cherished aspect of yourself becomes something that is outside of you, making its own decisions and taking its own risks. New universes of pain become possible.
Burkinabe culture provides a variety of balms for this wound. People spend very little time alone generally, and this is especially true for new parents. When a child comes into the world they are the child of the community. They are held constantly by their siblings, parents, and grandparents. It turns out that babies who spend most of their time against the skin of people who love them don’t cry very much.
The ability to nourish another person with your body is the closest we human beings get to a real life superpower. Burkinabè understand how to celebrate this, and we don’t, which is our loss. The word for mother in the language of my village comes from the word “drink.” There is nowhere a baby cannot nurse. Once while sitting in a café I saw a mother walking down the street take her breast out of her shirt and nurse her baby without stopping. I tried not to stare and I tried not look away. It didn’t feel normal to me but I wanted it to. On another occasion, I was sitting in my courtyard with my neighbor, who was holding her toddler. My neighbor’s sister-in-law casually grabbed the mother’s breast and dangled it towards the baby cooing, “time to drink!” My neighbor didn’t flinch at her sister-in-law’s touch or even bat an eye, she just laughed and started nursing.
Conversely, new parenthood is a time of isolation in the United States. Lack of family leave, taboos against breast-feeding, and never-ending expectations of mothers, specifically, what their bodies should look like and how they are allowed to describe their experiences, create a deceptively secure cage. We react to vulnerability with shame, so when people are at their most vulnerable we make them hide themselves.
My ancestors’ hatred and fear of the female body was so unyielding that they actually believed infants were the active agents of their own birth, battling their way out of the womb. The uterus-havers of today are still living in the shadow of this narrative of conquest from the inside out.
A friend I know who is a doula shared a Facebook post that had images of dozens of women holding posters with the stories of their birth trauma written in their own handwriting. I had never heard the phrase “birth trauma” before, and wanted to understand what this meant. I read most of the stories. I kept reading until after I didn’t want to read anymore, and kept telling myself, “this is the last one.”
My body was cut without my consent because a doctor’s shift was about to end. They didn’t tell me what they were doing. My OB assumed I was a drug user because of my race. They wouldn’t give me an epidural because I was under 18. I gave birth in shackles.
What is there to hold sacred if we can’t even honor the moment we’re created? It makes me want to cry. It makes me fear that so much change is needed to create a good world that I’ll be long dead before it happens.
But I can never lose hope completely, because I was there. I know there are different ways of being and for a while I was able to be a different way myself. When I lived in Burkina Faso, I got used to standing with my legs shoulder width apart, feet pointed out, hands at the small of my back or on my hips. I learned that I could have power by being powerful.
The USA offers me a different, backwards kind of power. As American women we figure out that certain rewards await us for being small, for diligently anticipating and placating the needs of others, for being un-intimidating. It’s hard to say no to this not-power power that I am offered, because it’s all you get. My body wants to fold in on itself here, but my muscles rebel. For now my legs still remember what it felt like to claim that space.
Rebecca Bacon Ehlers is the founder and editor of Culturework.