[in]fertility, shame, & women’s bodies in african cultures

A friend of mine recently connected me with a colleague of hers, a White-American herbalist and natural fertility counselor from Minnesota, with a question about pregnancy among African immigrant women in the States. It was an interesting question that made me think more deeply than I had expected, and as I love cross-cultural musings, I thought I’d share the question and my response here.

She wrote:

“Each and every day I educate couples, primarily women, on natural ways to support their fertility and support their efforts toward conceiving. Each and every day I hear from a woman from Africa who often shares sheer desperation to become a parent. Many of these women have also shared that they are about to or fear losing their marriages as a result of not being able to become pregnant.

Why is this? What are the cultural implications for African women who can not become pregnant naturally? It seems to me that the value of their lives is almost solely based on their ability to conceive? What is the importance of bearing a child for your husband if you are African and why is this?”


My humble thoughts on this immense and controversial topic:

My father is Nigerian and, although we grew up in Minnesota, I’ve gone back several times as an adult and have worked with East African women in Minneapolis and on maternal and reproductive health research in Benin, Congo, and Haiti (which is very culturally similar to West and Central Africa). The issue you raise is complicated, but I really appreciate your curiosity and reaching out to better understand your customers. It shows you care, and we need that in holistic health.

There used to be intense pressure on women in the U.S. to bear children – I think of the 50’s and 60’s – and certainly still today. As soon as a couple has been married a few years, grandmothers start asking about when they will see their grandchildren – we hear this all the time. The difference is pushback. Here, pushback is respected on some level, and even featured on TIME.com.  There, and among many sub-communities in the U.S., Africans and other cultural groups, the pressure is stronger and pushback is ridiculed. “Older” women (read: older than 25) are relentlessly persuaded, cajoled, and nagged from all directions to finish up their education so they can settle down, or to get pregnant immediately after the wedding so as to not “waste time.” Some hold out, for a while. Eventually, most give in.

Me, cousin, and kids at a wedding in Kaduna, Nigeria. 2010.

I think it all stems from a culture that is extremely family-focused and considers married life with children as the “good life” – meaning – there is companionship and support. In the U.S., and especially in major cities like New York , there are lots of couples without children and lots of single individuals who are more career-driven than children-driven. For most African cultures, this would be fine while someone is in school, but after getting a job this lifestyle would be considered lonely.

My experience of African cultures is that family is absolutely central, and if one ISN’T able to have a family (and the guilt of infertility usually falls on women, as unfortunately colonialism brought some crazy strong patriarchy into African societies), then comes the shame. Some women are only valued for their ability to birth. Some cultures consider women as property, and their children as property of the husband or the husband’s family. Some women are only praised for their ability to birth sons, who will pass on the family wealth and line, while daughters will eventually be “given away” to their future husbands’ families. Many African women are working hard to change this, but yes, it is reality.

Most women there are very fertile (as in, they don’t have the freakish infertility epidemic we do, nor are as many women postponing pregnancy until late in their childbearing years), so its uncommon that a woman can’t have a baby. Uncommon that she would choose not to. Not that it’s her fault or that she is unworthy, but that people pity her the way people here pity a woman who miscarried or had a baby with disabilities. She won’t have the same joy in her life as other women. [Or so they think.]

Safiya in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. 2010.

Norms are also changing  in Africa due to economics and social values. The Economist and Population Council concur. Fertility rates are dropping across the continent, and fastest in urban areas as the number of working women increases and as family incomes increase. As health care improves and more children survive past infancy, fertility drops. As couples see that their urban children need an education and a job to succeed as opposed to their rural cousins who help on the farm, they realize it’s better to have fewer children for the “good life.”  Fertility drops.

But I think most women everywhere find joy, on some level, in having a baby. And yes, there’s more pressure in societies where a woman has traditionally gained value and status by being a mother, rather than for her independence and talents. But city women are different from rural women, wealthier women are different from poorer women, and ethnicity/tribe and religion also play a role. Then there’s the added layer for immigrants that they’ve moved to the U.S. and are influenced by a yet another culture. Maybe there’s extra pressure to continue the family line in their new home. Maybe they reject all their traditional norms. Maybe they cling more tightly to them because it’s all they have left of “home.” I’m just saying, it’s complicated.

As they say, there’s no “single story.” Which brings me to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, acclaimed Nigerian writer who paints a beautiful picture of many different Nigerian family values and how in Africa, there are many different cultures, just like in the diversity of the United States. I highly recommend her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” and her book “The Thing Around Your Neck” if you want to go deeper into African cultures. Enjoy!

Elementary School in Rinkwavu, Rwanda. 2010.

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