Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cross cultural infertility

Besides having a real, live child of my own, another thing I often dream about is travel. And by travel, I don't mean 5-star, all-inclusive resorts. I much prefer places where I am crammed into a 15-passenger mini-bus with 20 people, their luggage, several chickens pecking @ my feet & an angry baby camel strapped to the roof bleating for 5 hours pretty much nonstop. And yes, all of that actually happened in a magical place called Burkina Faso. :)

Vid & I have often talked about living abroad in the future. I've lived in several African locales for extended periods of time & he's been living abroad as an Indian in the US for almost a decade now. But right now packing up & leaving is not an option so instead I check in on some of the International Nesties every so often.

One of the ladies I lovingly stalk is Melaina @ Transatlantic Blonde as she & I started on a TTC board around the same time. She lives in Glasgow with her Scottish hubby & 1/2 Scottish baby (LOL). She recently had another international lady do a guest post on her blog which really hit home for me. Sandy @ How Beautiful Are The Feet lives in Namibia with her husband (both Americans) as a church planter.

Sandy's guest post was on her own experience with infertility & that of a friend in Namibia who lives a traditional lifestyle. I've copies it below to share it with my followers as I think it's spectacular & felt like expounding on it a bit. It's nice to actually get to use that not-quite-PhD in anthropology for something even if it is just on a blog post! Here's Sandy's post:

I usually write about life in Namibia and what is going on in the lives of the students that my husband and I work with. Not many people know about our struggle to get pregnant, and it is not something I have discussed on my blog. When Blondie presented the opportunity to write a guest spot for her I thought it would be a great way to share some of the things I have noticed in dealing with IF in a foreign country.

In 2002, when I lived in Namibia, I met a lady who could not have children. Her name is Watjantja, she lives in Swartbooisdrif, one of the most remote villages in Namibia. There are no medical doctors there; in fact, there are no fertility specialists in the entire country of Namibia. In the Himba culture (recently showed in the movie “Babies”) children are life. Without children you are doomed to be forgotten. Her husband did what almost any Himba husband in that situation would do, he took a second wife who bore him many children without any problem. At the time I was sad for her, but I could never grasp the full force of the devastation behind her expression as she told us all of this.

Fast forward to 2009, my husband and I are about to finish college and we are finally ready to begin our family. I remember that day like it was yesterday, we sat in a restaurant and decided that it was finally time to start trying. The absolute possibilities of what that decision meant for our future made both of us cry. Now here I sit at the beginning of 2011, it has been almost two years and we are no closer to having our family than we were that day in the restaurant. In the last two years I have had several diagnoses thrown at me from doctors thousands of miles apart. (Including PCOS, Endometriosis and Anovulation “here have some Clomid!!!”) Who knew that trying to have a baby included so many needles and an absolute stripping down of one’s dignity?

In 2010 we returned to Swartbooisdrif, Watjantja’s village. She was still there, as barren as ever. When she saw me her eyes lit up, then she looked down at my arms searching for a child. When our eyes met again she read me like a book, her expression said : “You are like me aren’t you?” In an instant she recognized the pain, the emptiness, the hopelessness, and the loneliness in my eyes and in my empty arms. Watjantja can speak no English and through a translator she said “Don’t be like me!” To this day it is one of the hardest and most comforting things I have experienced on this road of infertility.

The one lesson I have learned in dealing with IF and traveling across the world is that women of every culture language color and economic standing share the same feeling of emptiness and heartache when it comes to IF. Anywhere on earth you will be able to find someone who has been touched by this relentless pain and someone who, without having to say anything, can understand the hurt that you are feeling.

After reading her post I must admit I teared up a bit; it really hit home on so many levels. Once I regained my composure, I headed to my basement where the walls are lined with bookshelves as I felt moved to revisit the long abandoned anthropology texts dealing with reproduction. I find it ironic that even before I had issues with getting pregnant the whole process of baby making was fascinating to me, but I digress.

Anthropology as a discipline is usually divided into 4 sub-disciplines: biological, socio-cultural, linguistic & archaeology. The boundaries of these areas are very fluid & it is common for an anthropologist to jump between them. I concentrated on socio-cultural & biological, the combo of which is sometimes thought of as "medical anthropology". I was & still am infatuated with the intersection between cultural beliefs & medical diagnoses/treatments. Hence, infertility in non-Western cultures is both an academic & personal pursuit of mine, as I am married to someone from another culture & country than mine.

Within these 4 sub-disciplines, infertility can be seen through a different lens. In socio-cultural, we can look @ cultural attitudes towards infertility as a disease & those who suffer from infertility. Biologically we can explore reasons for said infertility & possible treatments. Linguistically we can learn about the special language of infertility with acronyms galore (PCOS, IVF, etc.). And we can even learn from the past about historic infertiles via archaeology: think about all the infertile women in the Bible, for example.

Thinking about how the experience of infertility really is a shared feeling of hurt & longing, I remembered 1 book right off the bat: Baba of Karo most likely because it's essentially an oral history in written form of a Hausa woman, a language which I used to speak "dha kyau" (very well) for an "ansara" (white lady).

Like many well off Hausa women, her marriage was polygynous as her husband could afford more than 1 wife; up to 4 are allowed under Islamic law. Women who live in such a setting don't commonly distinguish between their biological kids & any others in the household; in fact, it is quite common for them to nurse children they did not actually bear. But Baba could never nurse these other children as she herself had never been pregnant.

What's interesting is that in the book infertility is everywhere but not there @ the same time. By that I mean Baba's childlessness makes her an "other" (to give a nod to Edward Said's "Orientalism") in her own country. Even now, the Hausa of Niger have among the highest fertility rates in the world, averaging over 8 children per woman, which doesn't even take into account the numerous miscarriages & stillbirths many women in Africa deal with due to a lack of prenatal care. And even as an "other" in her own culture, it's interesting (suspicious?) that the author didn't write about Baba's thoughts and feelings on her infertility or that Baba never mentioned it to the author. Perhaps it was because of the time in which the book was written & published (1950s/60s)? I dunno.

She was married 4 times total; all of her co-wives had born children yet she never was able to. But in her 4 divorces not 1 seems to be directly related to her infertility; rather, it was (and in some Hausa subcultures, is) acceptable for people to marry & remarry @ will. This of course flies in the face of the widely hold Western notion that Muslim women have no free will of their own. Think about it: even with an inability to reproduce she still had a high worth as a member of society & was well respected by co-wives & others in the community.

Even if she couldn't give birth herself, she could still be an excellent mother in many ways. She taught her co-wives' children the ways of their culture & taught the girls of her compound how to be a good wife (and maybe mother) some day too.

It was common until recently for Hausa families to give extra children to infertile friends or relatives to be raised as their own. In Baba's case, she adopted her son, a young freed male slave, of a family member. Even though everyone knew he was adopted, "Malam gave Usuman to be my son, just as if I had borne him". Although I'm not a huge Oprah fan, I do love her quote that "Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother"; this is especially true in Baba's case.

So here I sit, a Catholic American, married once, post-graduate educated, sharing my infertility with a Muslim Hausa, 4-times divorced, illiterate woman who's been dead for over half a century. It's amazing what a blog post can conjure up. And very profound as well.


Kerrik said...

I loved this post, and not just because I also failed to finish my graduate education in anthropology.

Personal thought - Having an Indian husband, it has been interesting to see how the members of his family handle discussion of our problems conceiving, and how women without children are thought of in a culture where children are everything, and a woman is expected to live only for her children. I wonder sometimes, and fear, if they will accept an adopted child (should it come to that), and how they will ever accept me if I can't give my husband of child of his own.

Anasara said...

@ Kerrik: you raise a question I also think about often. I think I will put it into a separate blog post @ a later date as my thoughts are far too many to put into a small comment. Thanks! :)