For our Motherhood Around the World series, our third interview features Sarah (top) and Jill (bottom), two American friends who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa with their husbands and kids. Here are 13 things that have surprised them about motherhood in Congo...
Jill's and Sarah's backgrounds:
Jill, 31, and Sarah, 30, are both teachers, originally from Virginia. "We’ve known each other since we were 15,” says Jill.
Sarah and her husband moved to Congo six years ago, driven by a sense of adventure. “We had been living in Egypt for a few years and wanted to experience something different,” Sarah says. “We moved to Congo and had both our baby girls while living here.”
Meanwhile, Jill and her husband were living in Virginia with their young son and daughter. “Sarah and I were emailing about what it was like to live in Congo, one thing led to another...and now we’re all raising our kids here."
Sarah, Jill and both their husbands work at The American School of Kinshasa. The two women chronicle their experiences in the hilarious and eye-opening blog, Mama Congo.
“According to Save the Children’s annual rankings, Congo is currently 'the worst place in the world to be a mother,' " says Sarah. [These rankings are based on infant and maternal mortality rates, education and income for women as well as other factors.] “But still, we feel so fortunate to live in such a tight-knit community of the kindest, most caring people imaginable. We love that our kids are raised by a ‘village’ and are exposed to a completely different world than the one they see when we visit the States. Next year will be our sixth year here, and if and when we do leave, we hope to stay in French-speaking Africa.”
On hiring nannies and housekeepers: Jill: We had never hired people to work in our homes before moving to Congo. But it’s expected here for families who are relatively well off to use some of that income to provide work for others.
Even Congolese families who aren't well off often hire or ask someone to help with a new baby. For the first three months, babies’ necks are too weak to be carried on their mother’s backs. However, work still must get done, so someone—often a young relative—comes to carry that baby around while the mother works. Then, at three months (usually, on the dot!), babies are tied on their mothers’ backs, where they stay most of every day until age two or so.
On "Mamas": Jill: Our kids are super lucky. They have two biological parents, but also Mama Vida, Mama NouNou, Mama Youyou, and Mamitsho to look out for them, wipe their crusty noses, say "Sorry, sorry" when they fall down, and laugh adoringly when they say something cute. These “mamas” are the Congolese women who help us care for our kids and our homes. Mama Vida is our nanny, who comes every weekday to take care of Loulou while we are at work. Mama NouNou cleans our house three times a week, but her passion is food, and we love it when she makes us a dish to try.
In Congo, all women are called "Mama So-and-So" out of respect, whether you’re a mother or not. I thought I would be uncomfortable sharing my mama title, but I’m not. It's a strange relationship—that of nanny and parent and child—but one that is less threatening and more loving than I expected. Now it’s hard to imagine raising children without so many mamas.
Sarah: Mamitsho showed up at our house when we first brought newborn Charlotte home. She’s worked with us ever since. Later, I did an exhaustive, Mary Poppins-esque search through word of mouth and the classifieds in the U.S. Embassy’s Newsletter to find Mama Youyou. She has not only been a “mama” to our girls, but also a role model for me. When in doubt, I think ‘What would Mama Youyou do?’”
On breastfeeding: Sarah: When your baby makes the slightest cry in public, Congolese women come out of the woodwork to insist that you nurse immediately. I’ve had mamas nearly reach down my shirt to get me to give my baby what she wants. Most moms nurse their babies anytime anywhere, and I've wholeheartedly adopted this cultural norm.
Another expat friend and her husband went to the grocery store here in Kinshasa with their three-week-old in a front baby carrier on her father. The baby began to cry. Three or four Congolese women rushed over and admonished both parents for having the baby so far away from the breast: "She must eat! She shouldn't cry! The mother must carry her!" Mama NouNou told me that in her experience, if there is a baby crying on the bus, all the women on the bus shout, "Feed the baby! Give it the breast!" She explained it as, "Everyone wants the mama to know that she should feel comfortable feeding her baby—no matter where she is."
On breast milk: Sarah: No one thinks twice here about sharing breastmilk. Why let something so valuable go to waste? Not long after my second daughter was born, I went on a work trip to Kenya. I pumped the whole time I was there and couldn’t bear to throw away my breast milk, nor imagine the nightmare scenario of leakage in my luggage. So I saved it all up in the hotel fridge in Ziploc bags. On the day I left, I took all the little bags to the local market and said, “All right, ladies. Who’s got babies and wants breast milk?!” Not a single Kenyan woman at the market thought twice about taking a random white woman’s breast milk. My driver even heard I was handing out milk and asked if I could pump some extra to take home to his new baby.
On weaning: Sarah: I’m still nursing Annaïs, my nearly two-year-old, and every time our nannies see her they say (in French) “Oh, Ani! You’re not a baby anymore. Have you no shame?!” At first I was confused because, come-on, this is the world of no-rules-nursing. But then I realized that if she were a true Congolese baby, by this age she should be learning to carry things on her head and helping to fetch the water.
On preschool: Sarah: This photo shows Charlotte and Loulou's pré-maternelle (preschool). It was the first day of school when all the students were finding their classrooms. The man playing guitar is Monsieur Papy. He comes around to all the classrooms EVERY morning and sings cute little songs with the students. Our girls' favorite song:
Montre moi tes cornes
Ou sinon, je te mets
Dans la casserole
Show me your horns.
Or I'll put you
In the pot." (To be cooked, one presumes!)
On baby slings: Jill: Even though she’s three, my daughter LouLou will still ask to go au dos when she is very tired or sick. Au dos means “on the back”—where, around here, it’s understood that every baby belongs. It’s a cozy and easy place to be. And in Congo, it doesn’t require any fancy equipment, buckles or straps. A simple, six-foot piece of pagne (amazingly useful cloth that everyone uses and wears) is enough. Many women wear one piece of pagne as a wrap-around skirt and another around their waist or draped over their shoulder just in case a baby needs a ride. It’s simple, cheap and practical.
On REAL gripe water: Sarah: When I gave birth to our daughter Charlotte, a South African nurse, told me about being a nanny for a colicky baby. “Never slept. Always cried,” she said. "But it was fine, we just Gripe Watered it out of that baba." I remember thinking, ‘I have no idea what that sentence means.’ I would soon learn.
Gripe Water, sold in Congolese drugstores, promises to "Comfort Babies with Gripes." It’s a mix of sodium bicarbonate, dill seed oil, sugar...oh wait, and alcohol. 4.4% alcohol! You may have seen “Gripe Water” in an American drugstore, but it’s not the same at all. The U.S. version has no alcohol and thus doesn't really do the job. So I bring back a bottle or two for American friends with new babies and simply say: Use it. Thank me later. Really, for humans of any age, is there nothing a little sugar and alcohol can’t fix?
On food: Sarah: Both of our girls have lived in Congo since they were three weeks old and will eat anything. And when I say anything, I mean goat, snails and all manner of exotic vegetables. We don’t have the luxury of chicken nuggets or Goldfish crackers. Food is expensive and precious, so there’s really nothing worse than your children wasting food. When we visit the States we secretly love to watch them go nuts over graham crackers, popsicles and fresh milk! They try to get in as much of this as they can because before too long we’re headed back to the place where a “treat” is a piece of bread topped with Laughing Cow cheese.
Sarah: The photo above shows Papa Mathieu, a local gardener who agreed to cook the girls some escargot. There are snails the size of kittens all over Congo, but only people from certain areas of the country like to eat them. Mathieu boiled them till they came out of their shells and then cooked them with tomato, onion and peanut butter!
On clothes: Jill: Congolese women have serious style. Everywhere you look, they’re wearing fabulous, wild-colored, curve-hugging dresses. Old, young, thick, thin. There are no allowances for “mom-uniforms,” like workout clothes. If I wear sweatpants on a vacation day, the nannies all give me looks and suggest I have a dress made. Hiring a tailor for some custom work is not something reserved for the rich in Congo. Most people own several custom garments made from pagne, the colorful, wax-print fabric everyone uses for everything around here. Second-hand clothing is sent by the baleful from the West, and people wear it. But no one ever looks like they are wearing thrift-shop junk because everything is adjusted for a perfect fit.
On female facial hair: Jill: Having a little chin hair—or even a beard—is a sign of female beauty around these parts. Yep. You heard me. In order to properly research this phenomenon, I sat down with Evelyne, a friend and coworker who has that rare gift of being able to seamlessly bridge American and Congolese cultures. I asked her about women and beards. She sighed, saying, “It’s not like in America or Europe where the bearded lady appears as a circus attraction...” Evelyne said that personally, she would never want a beard. However, she said, in Congo, having hair in as many places as possible is considered a womanly accomplishment. I said, “So, do the men like it?" And, Evelyne said, “Well, obviously, some of them do very much!” So, I grilled a twenty-something male Congolese friend about the girl-beard issue. He said, “Oh, I love a beard! If your wife has a beard, you leave it alone and let it grow. It means that she is special because not every woman can grow a beard.”
On weight: Jill: There’s no need to step on a scale on the continent of Africa. I know I’m gaining weight when I start getting compliments on my appearance. More specifically, my butt. I’ve been told, with great kindness, that I looked “nice and fat” after returning from a vacation. The tailor who recently made me a dress looked at my lackluster curves and reassured me that she could figure out how to add in boobs and a butt via some magical seams.
Sarah: Recently I took some photos of some of the Mamas in my children’s lives, and Mama Youyou gently brought me Mamitsho’s photo (above) saying, “Madame, umm, hmm, well...Have you seen this photo of Mamitsho? Well, hmm, has she seen it? Is she okay with this?" I told her I thought it was a lovely picture of Mamitsho, and in fact everyone who has seen it comments on how nice she looks. (In retrospect, I guess it was only Americans giving the compliments.)
“Well, Madame, it’s not a good photo,” said Mama Youyou. “She looks skinny. It must be embarrassing for her. You can see her”—and then she yell-whispered—”collarbone!” Body fat is a precious thing here; a sign of nutrition, comfort and a good life.
Jill: The different perspectives on bodies and beauty are something that comes up fairly often. I just read an article in a local magazine about tia foin, the dangerous trend of women using prescription medications to fatten up a bit. It’s the same discussion as we might see in the pages of Marie Claire or Elle about weight-loss drug use among women, but with a completely different spin.
On birth: Jill: Neither Sarah nor I actually gave birth in Congo, which is fairly typical of expats. I had both my children in the U.S., and Sarah had hers in a modern hospital in South Africa. I’m trained as a labor and delivery nurse, though, so I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the birth options here, and I’ve volunteered at a local charity clinic. Birth is a huge, huge issue. The DR Congo has some of the worst infant and maternal mortality statistics around. It’s difficult to even compare the birth experience here and in the United States, because where does one start?
For a woman who gives birth in one of the many tiny maternity clinics around the city, the result of not paying the bill is often hospital lockdown—for mom, baby or both. You can’t leave until the bill is paid. Each additional day adds to the total, which usually starts out around $200 to $300 for an uncomplicated, vaginal delivery. Since most jobs don’t include health insurance, most folks struggle to pay this fee, which is equal to around a month’s salary. For some, the fear of not being able to pay means that they never receive prenatal care and may give birth at home without a skilled attendant. A woman who can afford to have her baby at a clinic (where a doctor with some or a lot of training will be present for the delivery) is among the lucky. We visited a friend’s charity clinic where women can receive care for no fee, but most American women would be shocked by the conditions. We wrote about them here.
If you'd like to help, Every Mother Counts accepts donations to help with the issue of safe motherhood around the world.
Thank you so much, Jill and Sarah!
P.S. Motherhood in Norway and Japan, and why French kids eat everything. And babies sleeping outside in Denmark.
(Thank you to my fantastic friend and writer Lina Perl for help reporting and interviewing)