Of peculiar cultural practices

Breastmilk in a bottle.

All my son had to do was drink a few drops of the breastmilk of a woman who had given birth to twins and the sores would disappear within no time

About a year ago, my youngest developed sores in the mouth, which I attributed to a particularly bad cold that he had come down with, (when you become a mother of more than one child, you appoint yourself a doctor, having seen specific symptoms over and over again).

I was preparing to take him to hospital when my house help commented that where she comes from, such “small, small” illnesses do not require a visit to hospital. All my son had to do was drink a few drops of the breastmilk of a woman who had given birth to twins and the sores would disappear within no time.

And I didn’t have to look far, she pointed out, since our neighbour next door had breastfeeding twins…

And then she looked at me expectantly, hopefully.

I stood rooted on the spot, shocked beyond words, and when the shock wore off, I could not help laughing, laughter that offended her. But I wasn’t laughing at her, I was laughing at the thought of approaching my neighbour and requesting her to squeeze out some of her breastmilk to give to my sick son. She would have probably quickly closed the door on my face and then barricaded it before saying a quick prayer that involved casting out the devil.

She probably also would never have talked to me again, having concluded that I belonged to some cult. I imagined, also, that she would have recounted that ‘strange’ encounter to other neighbours who would have been even more appalled than my neighbour, and from then on, my family and I would have become pariahs, the ones that others whisper about and point fingers at.

Later on, it occurred to me that if the neighbour with twins came from the same community as my house help, the request might not have seemed strange because it was something she too might have believed or heard of.

When I shared this story with a friend, (I don’t recall how we got to this point) she told me that where her help comes from, men are so revered that even small boys are viewed to be superior to their mothers and are given special treatment not accorded the females in the household.

My colleague, who has a 10-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son, sees this in the disparity with which her house help treats her children.

Her son gets most of her help’s attention, (and no, it has little to do with the fact that he is younger) and when they cook a dish such as chicken, he gets the choicest parts, such as the drumstick. He also can never do any wrong in her eyes. But what is even more apparent is the reverence with which she treats the boy, a factor that comes from her deeply ingrained socialisation. Her house help is in her late forties.

I could not help thinking just how interesting our cultural beliefs are, and what a wonderful read they would make were they all to be compiled into a book. With the rate at which modernity has been encroaching on our society, it could just be a matter of time before our rich cultures disappear for good.


The writer is editor, Society & Magazines, Daily Nation. Email: [email protected] ke.nationmedia.com

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