My conversations with Zinzile were rich and fulfilling while I was in South Africa. I used every available opportunity to ask questions about her work in maternal health with the Human Rights in Childbirth Summit: South Africa 2015, her experiences as the Zulu Doula, and her expertise as a town planner and the co-owner of Azania Strategic Urban & Rural Developers (Pty) Ltd in South Africa. I always find it intriguing to consider others’ processes and perspectives… Zee has much to share.
As we were awaiting our meals at a restaurant one day, we were discussing some of the experiences we had had together. We had visited some new mothers and their newborns the day before where out of the six mothers who had birthed, four had birthed by cesarean-sections, which they call caesars. Zee explained the high rates of c-sections at South Africa’s public hospitals and even higher rates at private hospitals.
Modern technological advancements in maternity care include c-sections for mothers that face medical challenges. Still, as with any major medical surgery, there are possible complications that have prompted the development of global initiatives to reduce c-section rates in an effort to improve maternal health.
At some point, Zee turned the video on me, asked me about my motivation for being a birth mentor and doula (among all of the other hats I wear), and pushed record. Here was my impromptu response:
Do you remember the Doula Perspectives Survey? It was an opportunity to answer the question – What is Your Doula Perspective? I was overwhelmed by the responses from doulas of all ages, experience, expertise, and opinions. There were so many responses! I was even more excited when a fellow researcher reached out to me from Tokyo, Japan to inquire about translating the Doula Perspectives Matrix into Japanese and present it through her work.
Her name is Rieko Kishi Fukuzawa, Ph.D. and she is a nurse-midwife and assistant professor at University of Tokyo. She has been presenting information about doulas through Doula Laboratory in Child Research Net, a web-based research institution, in the Japanese language for Japanese people. Of the Doula Perspectives, Rieko stated:
“Although doulas are very newly emerging in Japan, I have noticed that there are already very diverse doulas, and people in the society also tend to perceive doulas
variously. So your new theory is very interesting, clear, and very helpful.”
Here are two links regarding her work and research and work regarding doulas that may be of interest:
What an exciting connection! My desire in presenting the Doula Perspectives was to encourage doulas, prospective doulas and those who might desire doula support to consider the diverse perspectives involved in doula care. As I have stated before, I have encountered few people whose perspectives are confined to boxes. I have noticed that most doulas overlap perspectives based on various personal beliefs and perspectives. That means that doulas are more likely to hold different perspectives than they are to view their doula work in exactly the same way.
If you did not complete the Doula Perspectives Survey in February, PLEASE DO! I am extending the Doula Perspectives Survey until April 30, 2015. I would appreciate you adding your perspective to the responses if you have not already.
THANKS IN ADVANCE! I am looking forward to MORE responses! 🙂
Marianne Littlejohn is a midwife from Cape Town, South Africa. She is legendary for her commitment toward empowering midwives and improving birth outcomes through workshop trainings about shoulder dystocia – situations where a “baby requires an assisted maneuver in order to allow the baby’s shoulders to pass through the birth canal” – and Helping Babies Breathe.
When I was first researching Black midwives in South Africa, I found Marianne’s article Midwifery and Apartheid in South Africa, was one of the few places I was able to find out information about African women’s roles in childbirth from a historical perspective. I also appreciated that she honored a very notable midwife, Albertina Sizulu, for her contributions, especially toward ending apartheid.
I really enjoyed meeting Marianne and seeing her passion for women, birth, and healthy babies up close and personal. She was gracious and granted me an interview.
“Thank goodness there are some Black women here!” Those were the first words I heard Marianne Littlejohn say as Zee and I found seats. We all giggled at the remark. I told them Iam accustomed to being one of the few or the only Black person at birth workshops and conferences I attend in the U.S. and asked if they usually have more Black women in attendance? Several of the women replied: No… It is the same way here… There are mainly white women at these workshops.
Zee had told me that the situation in South Africa was similar to that the U.S. where few Black women were involved in birth work, but I didn’t believe her. She said that even among African midwives there were cultural changes that did not allow African women to benefit from more recent practices that promote gentle birth. How is it possible in a place where 80% of the population is Black African?
It is shameful that Black midwives have played such a prominent and sustaining role in childbirth historically (only 50-60 years ago) yet they are almost non-existent in the 21st century. It is sad that for many Black women, should they desire to birth with someone who looks like them, that option would not be available. How does that happen in only half a century?
I have always believed that in a different life… Under different circumstances and in simpler times, I would have been a midwife. When my children were younger, I considered disregarding my B.S. in Mathematics and my Masters in Education and beginning my education all over again to become a midwife. At a cellular level, I know that I have been called and purposed to connect with women and girls in this way.
In my real life current situation, however, I know the bureaucracy that surrounds birth and that is not for me. Birth is considered a medical emergency by many. Women are treated as if they have an illness for which the only cure is the birth of the baby. So women may be rushed and their births medicalized to the point where many women no longer believe they can experience childbirth as more than a passive observer. While infant and maternal mortality rates have definitely decreased over the past 100 years with the medical advancements, one would be hard pressed to find a balanced and holistic approach to childbirth in many areas of broader society.
I was grateful to be in attendance at Marianne’s workshop with the other midwives and doulas. Resolving a shoulder dystocia is primarily the responsibility of the medical professional tending to the mother, still I am grateful for the additional knowledge that will allow me to be a better support for mothers. I was appreciative of the opportunity to learn with other individuals who are persevering beyond the obstacles to help women birth in hospitals, in birth centers and (if they choose) in their own homes.
One day, Zinzile and I ventured to Sophiatown for a mid-day snack. From what I understand, I imagine that Sophiatown was similar to Harlem in its historical context to jazz music and culture among Blacks.
A quick wikipedia glance states this: “Sophiatown was a legendary black cultural hub that was destroyed under apartheid… it was the epicentre of politics, jazz and blues during the 1940s and 1950s. It produced some of South Africa’s most famous writers, musicians, politicians and artists.” A google search could provide you with more information.
Gene asked me about the Museum Africa shown in the photos. He had looked it up on Google Map and told me it looked interesting. I did not visit that day. That will be a special destination for me and Gene on our next visit to South Africa.
While we were there, Zee introduced me to some South African cuisine… And she let me try a bit of something she ordered…
I always torture my third son Andreu when he is being picky about his food. I say: “You have to be open to trying different types of foods because when you travel to other countries one day, people may eat different types of food.” Go figure…
It was Zee’s birthday and she had been talking about this dish all day… She had such a taste for it… She told me about how kids sometimes take them to school for snacks… She tried to describe the taste to me… (I think) she said they kinda tasted like wood… I did not ask Zee how she knew what wood tasted like… And for the life of me, I cannot remember if it actually tasted like wood.
Well… Here is the menu… and the plate is pictured above… You get three guesses which dish I tasted and your first two guesses don’t count.
I’ll say this… I hear it’s a great source of protein. I tried it… Not bad… It didn’t kill me…
But um… chitterlings (or as we call them chittlins)… Yeah… still not really fond of those…
While I was at Marianne’s midwifery workshop, I noticed that all of the dolls that were being used in the workshop were brown babies. The babies were actually brown like me. I mentioned it under my breath once, “Wow… brown babies…” Some women laughed.
When I actually held one of the dolls, I mentioned it again, “Oh wow… This baby is almost as dark as I am…”
Once we completed an exercise and I had “birthed” my little brown baby through shoulder dystocia, and they had placed the doll in my arms, I said, “Ohhh… Look at you… I am just IN LOVE with this little brown baby! And all of my babies came out very light. I wish I could find these in the U.S.”
A couple of the women looked at me strange and perplexed…
Marianne said, “You know those were ordered from the U.S.?”
“What? Really?” I replied.
“Yes…” she and another midwife answered.
“I can never find brown dolls in the U.S.” I said. They went on to tell me where I could order them.
Funny thing… I can’t find the paper where I wrote down the information. I have tried Googling childbirth education resources/supplies/dolls/models… I added “black” and “brown”…
I was just about to give up, because (once again) all I saw was pink babies… But wait… I think I found one… Look at this little cutie from Birth International… I can get it shipped directly to my home… From AUSTRALIA!
If any of you that work in childbirth know where they are hiding the brown childbirth education dolls in the U.S., please let me know in the comment section.
As home schooling parents, it was always important for our sons to understand historical context and the meanings behind places, things, and ideas. We have spent many years answering our sons’ WHY questions, and there are few times of the year that those questions are as intense as they are at holidays/holy days.
Some of the greatest discoveries have been made, cures have been found, and ideas that led to resolutions have been developed because individuals have been willing not only to ask WHY, but also WHY NOT. We encourage our sons to be critical thinkers and to ask questions about whatever does not seem to make sense to them. If we do not know the answer or have an answer that quenches their curiosity then we explore those topics together.
We came to one of those moments during this year’s Passover/Resurrection/Easter time.
The emergence of Spring overlaps various traditions to create a composite of celebrations. It is similar during the Winter holiday season when Jewish Hanukkah, Christian Christmas, and [pagan] Winter Solstice coincide. (Note: Pagan is used by some to refer to any religious practices and beliefs that are not a part of the world’s main religions).
At Passover/Resurrection/Easter, there are remembrances for the Jewish Passover that commemorates the Israelites’ emancipation from the Egyptians; the Christian Death/Burial/Resurrection of Christ; and [pagan] Easter celebrations named after Eostre/Eastre/Oestre, the Goddess of Spring representing fertility and new birth during Spring Solstice. Our family had a really interesting conversation about how the bunny rabbit became a part of the festivities. You can read about that here. The author offers this summary:
Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, the dawn that arrives with resurrection of life, and the celebration of spring all serve to remind us of the cycle of rebirth and the need for renewal in our lives. In the history of Easter, Christian and pagan traditions are gracefully interwoven.
A Facebook friend mentioned attending church last Sunday where they would emphasize all three observances. Some churches observe Passover and have Easter egg hunts with a bunny rabbit and take pictures with the kids in their brand new outfits carrying Easter baskets full of candy. To each his or her own. It’s all so interesting…
I have been thinking about the diverse interpretations of these traditions. I said to myself again (just as I had done during the Winter holidays), “Drea, people are just kinda celebrating whatever they feel like… however they feel like. What will the Little Masons be doing this year?” Gene and I have been considering the legacy we are leaving to our sons around beliefs and traditions. We want to make sure that our family’s observances are intentional and serve a purpose toward our larger goals for legacy with our sons.
So we went to the labyrinth in our city.
Labyrinths are pretty amazing. They have been used to symbolize the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ since well before the 5th century BC when the Greek historian, Herodotus, gave an eye witness account of the Egyptian labyrinth of Pharaoh Amenemhet III from the 19th century BC. Though this site has met the fate of many other locations that have been pillaged and plundered across the primogenitor continent, it was described as being a structure whose wonder eclipsed that of the Pyramids at Giza.
Our local labyrinth is located outside of a church in our city, but that morning it was not an ideal situation. When we got to the labyrinth, we saw there were areas that were flooded. The guys had on gym shoes, but I had not worn shoes equipped to handle water. We could not NOT do it just because there was water though, right? I decided I would try to walk where I could and walk on the stones when the water became too high. Eventually, I took my shoes off to maneuver the labyrinth more easily.
Most often, the labyrinth is intended to be a place of quiet contemplation, meditation, and prayer. It was that for us, but it was so much more. It became a teaching time about life… Understanding the challenges involved in making a journey and the triumph that comes with completing it; how we can feel like we are close to God, but still have to journey to connect at the Source; how we can feel so far away from the Divine, while being only a few steps away…
Our journey through the labyrinth wasn’t quiet. There were moments when we were sharing our thoughts or encouraging each other. At one point Andreu said to me (I was the last to approach the center of the labyrinth), “Keep going, Mom, you are almost there.” All I could manage was, “I am? Thank you, Andreu… I was starting to wonder when I would get there…” I told him that was exactly what I do for women as a birth mentor and doula as they are journeying into motherhood through birth.
Personally, I was at a place where I had begun to regret my suggestion to walk through the waterlogged labyrinth and was irritated that it was not as AMAZING as I had fantasized it would be when we planned it.
The guys all seemed to be getting “revelations” about the water. Gene mentioned how our perspective about the water would shape whether we saw it as a challenge or something that provided the opportunity for cleansing or renewal. All of them had something “insightful” to say about the water… But I was not impressed, because they all had on gym shoes… I was walking with bare feet.
At a certain point, I told Gene, “I keep hearing one of our songs, ‘When you go through the water, and through the flood you will not drown, when you go through the fire, remember I’ll always be with you…'” I started singing it as I walked… As I got closer to Gene I heard music for I Will Be With You. He had found the song on iTunes and handed his phone off to me with a quiet cheer, “Go, Momma, Go…” as he walked away.
Was it that obvious to my guys that I needed some inspiration and encouragement? I continued to walk, avoiding the water when I could… I mean, you never know what’s in the water, right? As that thought and others like it were rolling through my mind, I heard a question that turned into a rebuke from within:
“What has happened to you? You are the little girl who ran around with bare feet on red dirt roads in Alabama. You all walked those roads at night without fear of anything. You swam in a lake with frogs, lily pads, and dragonflies for a swimming pool during your summers. You are the woman who was not scared to do something different and stand out, even when you stood alone. You resigned from your job to home school your children even when on lookers suggested you were not being a helpfulwife because you were not using your education to “help” your husband support the family financially. When people said you would surely cause damage to your sons by not allowing them to experience “real life” as black boys you continued to follow your inner promptings. You followed your intuition even when there was no road map laid out for you or tangible proof of your actions leading to inevitable success in the future. You have always been willing to take the plunge and step out into deep situations into the unknown. And look at how I have taken care of you. Look how you have been sustained. Why are you so afraid now? Get off the stones and walk through the water…”
The song was still playing in my ear and I was in tears… My fear of the water was reflecting internal fears I have been dealing with about other situations in my life.
Andreu had already finished and exited the labyrinth, but asked if he could take his shoes off and walk the rest of the way with me. His intuitive soul and keen spirit reminded me of ME and was inspiration for the rest of my journey through the labyrinth.
Gene always admonishes people to “be intentional.” We have such gratitude for the sons we have been blessed to steward and nurture toward adulthood. We are always humbled by the work involved in parenting and preparing them for the world they will have to navigate. It was fulfilling to hear their thoughts about our newest family experience.
I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on February 24. There were many things that we had planned on our itinerary for the two weeks. My visit was to involve visiting universities and exploring birth in South Africa. Two days into my trip, Zinzile found out that a family member had passed away. I understood that birth would be unpredictable, but had not anticipated the unpredictability of death and how it would transform my visit into a once in a lifetime experience.
I will admit I have spent the past two weeks since I returned trying to figure out how to process my experiences. I have been waiting to feel “normal” again, but I am not exactly sure what my “normal” is anymore. I can hardly look at depictions and interpretations of Africa without recognizing how skewed and incomplete the perspectives are that I have viewed all of my life.
I have personally been concerned about making sure that my photos and depictions of the beautiful people I have eaten, slept, and WORKED with do not reinforce a perception that Africa is dangerous and should be feared; or that the people are ignorant and are in need of rescue and deliverance from some intrinsic evil. Of course… ultimately, people will see what they see based on the core beliefs they hold about people, places, things, and ideas.
I planned my trip with an itinerary and specific expectations. The funeral plans fell right in the middle of my visit. There was a part of me that became VERY anxious and VERY concerned about accountability to Harmonic Connections PLUS’s board for the way I spent my time and the professional connections I was planning to make.
I tried to play tough, but the truth is I called Gene (the Managing Director of HC+) in tears, trying to figure out how to refocus.
He listened to me and then he said, “DR. MASON… I am about to say something important to you… ARE YOU LISTENING?”
“Yes… [sniffle]” I answered.
“Are you SURE you are listening, Dr. Mason?” he asked again.
“[sniff] Yes, I am listening…” I said.
“YOU ARE IN AFRICA! [paraphrased] You have been called to the continent during this time for a reason. Stop thinking about YOUR agenda… God has another plan for you and has caused the whole universe to shift to make sure that you see and hear and experience all that you are supposed to during your visit. Focus on connecting to the spirit of the continent…”
Gene slipped from his Director role into his “ride-or-die” role as my best friend, confidant, and vision partner. Then he messaged me on Whatsapp: “Turn it over to HIM. He will touch the hearts and by design you will see what you need to see. Take notes by smell, touch taste & sight… Take it in… Then write about it!!! Don’t forget to find a quiet corner and sing to your ancestors a new song… Leave a piece of LittleMason until you return (smile)”
So I am finally ready to WRITE ABOUT IT! And the very first thing I have to do is introduce you to the family I made in Clermont, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The place that was not on my itinerary was where I became most grounded and where I saw my connection to the continent and its people.
The family I made in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) reminded me of my family in Alabama. It felt the same in many ways and reminded me of the time I spent with my grandparents each summer as a child. The values systems were very similar with some differences based on tradition and culture, which is common all over Africa.
While in the Clermont Township near Durban, the greatest noticeable difference I found was the language… And even in verbal communication we figured out ways to find each other when necessary. We connected through UMSEBENZI – WORK – preparing for a funeral where there would be an unknown number of guests in attendance.
I was so worried that Zee’s family would see me as an intruder of some kind. Besides receiving several lectures from her about what it means to be “family” in African culture, Zee assured me that they would welcome help during UMSEBENZI. I found the opposite of my worries to be true. They embraced me as I embraced them. Zee’s mom (I call her Mama Maureen) shared this with me after I returned:
“We must always remember that God has a Master Plan with a chapter on pairing people across the world, thank you for being paired with my family… Ubuntu embraces among other things caring & loving others as you love yourself. Going hungry to offer food to others, sleeping on the floor with others, being humble… (just like you did). You represented that and reminded us that Madiba preached ubuntu wherever he was. So my home is your home.”
I am excited about the time when the entire Little Mason crew will be able to visit. I made so many new connections in different parts of South Africa, but let me begin by introducing you to my KZN family! (Mama Maureen is the one telling us to get back to WORK! Lol!)
I woke up at a little after 4am this morning, looked around me and in the shadows of my room, I couldn’t quite figure out where I was. It is hard to explain. For about 30 seconds, all I saw was shadows and figures and I was trying to figure out where I was. I sat up on the side of the bed for a better view and couldn’t figure out what house I was in.
I had the pleasure of being welcomed into several homes and hosted by several families during my stay in South Africa. In each of the homes I felt safe. Whether I was in a home in a gated community in a suburb of Johannesburg, a well-secured gated home in a suburb outside of Pretoria or homes in townships outside of Duran, KwaZulu-Natal, I always felt safe. (They call it KZN. It is pronounced like /kay – za – REN/ with a roll on the R sound.)
So when I woke this morning, I wasn’t concerned about my safety as much as I was with knowing where I was.
Then my feet touched the floor and I heard the squeak of wood. My sight had not been able to ground me and now my hearing was struggling to adjust as well. Why? Because in the areas of South Africa I visited – from Johannesburg to Pretoria to Durban – I do not recall seeing wood being commonly used for floors and I never heard a floor squeak.
Every place I went – from homes to grocery stores to restaurants to wherever – had beautiful ceramic tiled floors or some other stone flooring. There was so much tile. Someone always seemed to be cleaning the floors, so they were extremely clean as well… So much so that in some places people walk around without shoes. Ceramic tiles even beautify outdoor spaces.
I accidentally hit my head on a few walls while I was there as well and found they were made of strong material as well. But I don’t remember wood. The floors never squeaked. The ground beneath my feet was always solid, sure, and unwavering…
I guess Gene heard me shuffling around and woke up. He got out of the bed and asked if I was okay… I didn’t want to alarm him, so I just said I was gathering my bearings. His voice and presence helped ground me and remind me of the familiarity of my home and bedroom and squeaky floors.
And the shadows began to make sense again… and then I remembered and the familiarity of my home came flooding back to me.
I’ll have to ask Coach Green Gene about how the differences in building and construction materials affect the environment and why people choose to build and develop differently in different environments.
Now, if I my body could just remember when it should sleep and when it should be awake…
Oh, why fight it? Maybe I’ll just use those off-schedule waking hours to get caught up on some work and reflections about South Africa through my blog posts until things get back to normal.