I was raised in Kanye, as a Mongwaketse of the Ruele ward: kwa Goo-Ruele, Bangwaketse tota. This was during the rule of Kgosi Seepapitso IV, the son of Kgosi Bathoen II. As a young boy growing up in this part of the world, in the middle of the debilitating drought and poverty of the 1980s, I saw women walk around sweeping the yard, half naked from the waist up ÔÇô breasts exposed.
There was nothing sexual about breasts. Breasts’ primary function was nourishment for babies and never the admiration, fondling and enjoyment of the older members of the opposite sex. Yes, a naughty young man could flirt and touch a young woman’s upright breasts; but that would never or rarely happen with mothers; that would never happen with a breast which had been suckled multiple times. But things have changed now. A Motswana woman’s body has been redefined, remapped, reclassified. Her breasts are not primarily for breastfeeding her young. Her breasts have followed the Western breasts. They have become sexual symbols, instead of sources of milk for the young baby. Actually their role of nourishing the young has been rejected by many young women living in the 20 & 21st century. Many Batswana women have gone further to deny their own children the breast because they fear that once suckled by their young it will lose its firmness; its sexiness; its attractiveness to men. Their children therefore grow on milk of other animals of God’s creation.
The denying of a child’s breast hasn’t been the only change in the Motswana woman. She has heeled away from the firm knowledge which in the past was received from her mother and the village women. This was knowledge of how to raise her children. How to wash them, wash their clothes, cook for them, feed them and medicate them ÔÇô a ba baya phogwana. Now clueless, it is the maid, the helper, the home assistant who has taken on these roles. She knows how to bathe and feed the Motswana woman’s children. She washes her children’s clothes and medicates her children. Instead of cooking for her husband, the Motswana woman has relegated that role to her maid. The maid cooks for her husband. Instead of making her bed, it is the maid who makes the bed she has slept with her husband. This is in part because the roles of the Motswana woman have changed and become more like those of the Motswana man. So she leaves in the morning with her own husband to assume similar roles as her husband in the concrete jungle of our cities. She therefore has no time to give her child a breast because she is as much of a breadwinner as her husband. The breast which was once common in the public domain ÔÇô almost communal has become private, privatized! It stays tucked away, wrapped tightly to her chest by modern bras. The hidden has become the mysterious ÔÇô something to be discovered ÔÇô to be conquered, to be possessed.
The Motswana woman used to breastfeed her babies until they were about five years of age. Such breastfeeding was not done in private as westerners do. She did not have to cover her breast or cover the baby with a blanket when breastfeeding. Actually she would produce the breast in full view of those present. She would point to a child and say: “Come and get nyanya!” The baby would respond and come and enjoy the breast. This would happen in the fields during harvest, at the shops or when the women were at the river washing clothes or getting water for the house. There was no place where the breast could not be produced for a child’s enjoyment. The mother could produce the breast at meeting or at a church gathering. Whenever the child wanted a breast; the child got the breast. There was absolutely no rush to wean the child off the breast either. It was believed, as the medical doctors keep telling our young mothers, that breast is best ÔÇô breast milk is much superior to all the modern children formulas. It made the children strong and healthy then as it does now. It was a defence against all manner of infection. A child whose mother fell pregnant while she was still breastfeed, became malnourished since she could not get sufficient milk that fought off infections. She became weak. Such a child was known by one of worst terms in the Setswana vocabulary to ever refer to a child: serathana. Borathana was a result of primitive pregnancy preventative measures which failed periodically.
The image of the breast has changed quite dramatically in the last 30 years amongst the Tswana. The gender roles, education, media, television, western magazines, and the over eagerness to embrace the western has resulted with young women reassessing their values and the image and position of the breast in the wider Tswana socio-cultural makeup. It has therefore now become difficult to see women naked from the waist up exposing their breasts in public. Even female traditional dancers who only a few years ago danced with no shame with their breasts exposed in public, now dance with their breasts covered. Like western women, the Batswana women dance not only to a western song but their breasts have now become western.