December 6, 2004
Mothers and Babies
The Merrys got great news this weekend! There is now another Merry in our family. Dan’s brother’s wife, Tamara, gave birth to bouncing (9 lbs. 3 oz.) baby Alyssa in Kansas City! We were delighted to get the call at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday. Heather and Brooke have a new cousin. They are so excited! We won’t get to meet her until next summer when we go home, but we have sent her a few gifts, among which is a chitenje (a 2.5 meter piece of brightly colored Malawian cloth). And this is why…
Everywhere you go in Malawi you see mothers with babies slung on their backs. When a Western observer first sees this, she thinks, “That baby is going to fall out of that piece of cloth.”In the states we have backpacks for babies. We used to carry Heather and Brooke around in one we got from L.L. Bean. It had leg and arm holes and a strap to make sure that they were secure. So, I was dubious to see these Malawian infants strapped on with a piece of cotton cloth and a single knot. But after three months of observation, I have never seen a baby fall out or even slip. In fact, I think that the chitenjes are better than the L.L. Bean carrier.
When a baby here is hungry, the mother does not have to stop, un-strap the baby, disengage its arms and legs, turn it over and around and then nurse it. All the Malawian mother does is swing the baby around to the front, while still in the carrier, and nurse it. It is one swift, smooth motion. I have watched mothers do this while walking, sitting in church, working in the fields (although then they usually stop hoeing) and cooking over a fire.
Here in Malawi, nursing a baby is of highest priority. In the states we hide in women’s rest rooms or nurseries, or if we have to feed a baby in public, we throw a blanket over the infant so no one can see what we are doing. Here in Malawi the women have no such scruples. They just open their blouses and nurse the baby in full view. There are no hang ups. It is just a natural part of life. And the babies are very happy! They don’t have to wait until mom finds a suitable spot, they get fed as soon as they are hungry. (This makes church a lot quieter, with very few crying babies.)
As the infants grow, Mom sometimes hands them over to grandma or big sister for short periods of time, but all the women carry the babies on their backs. Little girls (who seldom have dolls to play with) will take tin cans or plastic bottles and carry them on their backs in a small chitenje while they are playing “house.”It is adorable to see. As a result of this practice, they are well prepared when given a younger sibling to carry around.
The babies in Malawi are so happy with this “kangaroo care”(clinical name for the constant “skin to skin”contact) that health officials around the world are taking note. Malawian newborns are happier and healthier than other babies. Western doctors are now rethinking high tech incubators, and advocating kangaroo care for distressed babies. They respond very well to the constant maternal warmth and closeness.
We are thankful that Alyssa Brynn Merry is happy and healthy. We don’t know if Tamara will use the chitenje or not, but it certainly does make sense to hold things that are precious to you close to your heart at all times.