BREASTS: Lessons from Malawi

It’s time we talked about breasts.

In Malawi, breasts enjoy a life on display. Plump and perky young breasts, wrinkly old sack breasts, breasts the size of cantaloupes, empty bag breasts that hang flat and long, or tiny stunted breasts that never really had their growth spurt. Here in Malawi, a woman’s breasts are the exclusive property of her nursing child, be that a newborn babe in arms or a swarthy two-year-old. Whatever milk may be coming out—and even in their mid to late forties these breasts are still producing—that child will guzzle up with pleasure, squeezing out every last possible drop. I see breasts everywhere. Breasts around town, breasts bumping up and down on minibuses and in the open-backs of  pickup-truck matolas, breasts sitting next to me at breakfast and staring at me out of shop-fronts, nipples of all lengths, shapes and sizes following me with their brazenness, their unabashed existence in my every day.

So, I’m not at all surprised when I’m greeted by the breasts of my 33-year-old interviewee, clutched in the mouth and fingers of her toddler. The saggy deflated-bag breast sits there, stretched down to this woman’s navel by the little girl who hangs on to it with her teeth, head lolling back in weighty pleasure. Aging stretch marks are thrown into sharp relief as this feeding vessel is stretched out with all of a toddler’s might, pinching and squeezing with chubby fingers to pump out milk.

This toddler is the seventh child these breasts have fed. It’s like driving past a car crash. I don’t want to look but I can’t look away. “Face…face”, I am thinking. “Your eyes belong on her face.”

“Doesn’t that hurt?!” “Doesn’t she mind?!” I am screaming inside of my head. Is this what giving birth is really all about? Donating time, energy, sensitive body parts…all over to the selfish, greedy little palpating fingers of a two-year-old?!

My own breasts start to tingle. I find myself hunching my shoulders, folding myself inwards in an effort to protect myself from the onslaught, nipples brushing against the fabric of my bra, perky and whole; safe, and protected inside my shirt. All mine.

I am here in Malawi to interview women about their beliefs about malaria. Malaria during pregnancy can dramatically affect the health of the developing fetus and young child. With the average family size in the villages at about seven children (who have survived birth and childhood), these women have a lot of pregnancies to practice on. One woman I spoke to had had 18 pregnancies. Yes, eighteen.  And six of those children were still alive when we spoke. So, be it witchcraft or the doctor, a woman’s belief on how to prevent and treat malaria in the villages can dramatically affect pregnancy outcomes and the life of future Malawian babies.

“So…is this a matrilineal village?” I find myself asking. “Yes” my interviewee responds, casually popping one breast (now thoroughly milked) back inside her shirt and just as casually flipping out the other one, seeming not to notice the child now using her whole plump little fist to ball up a lump of breast for squeezing. I am definitely having trouble concentrating on my interview.

I was inculcated early on to the cult of sexy boobs. Barbie and women in movies and years of middle and high school hallway comments taught me that boobs are a lady’s assets; her feminine wiles; her allure. And there was nothing remotely alluring about this soggy, deflated milk-bag so firmly clenched in the babbling, suckling maw of this child.

“And who is the head of your clan?” my interview continues.

I am thinking of a bitch I’d just seen have puppies, her swollen udders dangling beneath her wherever she went, preventing her from running and playing and jumping. Huge and painful they almost reached the ground, hindering her every movement. Is this what it takes to have kids? The incalculable sacrifice of your time, your energy, your body…? I started reflecting on the nice things I’d done for my mother lately. Calling her in a panic at 1’oclock in the morning to head over to the police station and beg them for a report of my criminal history so that I could obtain a proper Malawian Visa comes to mind…

It seems that while I may have given up the breast, I still feel some strange entitlement to her time; her absolute, unconditional love for me; always; despite it all.

With the holiday season approaching (Christmas, a holiday I don’t get to celebrate in Islamic Lungwena District, Malawi) I was asking Jureka, my host mom, what holidays are celebrated here. “Well, Mother’s Day is big” she says right away. And it is. They even make special zitenje’s for the occasion. Brightly-colored cloths wrapped about the waist and splattered with the jolly “Happy Mother’s Day” slogan showing some smiling Malawian woman’s face. And, of course, some smiling Malawian woman’s gurgling baby.

So where does that leave us? Us needy, self-absorbed little miscreants metaphorically suckling away at our mother’s breast until we are old enough to stand on our own? I am reminded of the Billy Collins poem, “The Lanyard” that the president of my university read at my commencement address. I quote an excerpt of it here:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
And I gave her a lanyard
“Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.” she whispered.
“And here,” I said, “is the lanyard I made at camp.”

So, Mom, here is your lanyard. I know I can’t repay any of what you have given me, but boy do I love you. And watching that nursing baby pinch and squeeze at her mother’s breast, that mother just went right ahead and put her arm around that two-year-old. Clutched her to her breast and held her there. Put a cloth down so she could rest her head when she fell asleep. And yes—that is love.

Launiala, Annika; 2010. Prevention of Malaria in Pregnancy in Malawi, Encounters and Non-Encounters Between Global Policies, National Programmes and Local Realities.


Claire Donnelly (Yale University)

31_Very Exciting Lizard!A native of Berkeley, CA, Claire has always had many interests and passions–people being one of them. She grew up juggling and unicycling, riding horses, waterskiing, and roaming the hills and beaches of the Bay Area. One auspicious summer, Claire discovered molecular biology and has never looked back. She received her degree in the subject from Yale in 2014, and is now spending a year researching malaria in pregnancy in a tiny village in northern Malawi. Claire is new to Humanism, but hopes to use her love of people and stories to expand her thinking, especially through her work with this blog. Claire loves to receive emails, especially regarding thoughts about her writing and other stories.

One response to “BREASTS: Lessons from Malawi

  1. Every time I read your posts, I hope that some of your writing talent wafts through the computer screen and into my brain. I’m always looking forward to the next “Lessons” piece…so keep em’ coming, please!


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