Swing low, sweet chariot! – By Bernadette Araba Adjei

Photo Credit: Demetrice

Anyone who has lived in and or visited sub-Saharan Africa must have observed something about childcare, a child being carried on the back of a woman and strapped with a piece of cloth! And this is culturally a common method of carrying children by a mothers or female relatives. This is done by putting the child on the back and anchoring the upper part of a  piece of clothe – usually the 2 yards length ntama – under the armpit of the child, across the child’s back,  with the ends of the piece of cloth joining on the top of the breast of the woman and then firmly tucked in. The bottom part of the cloth goes under the bottom of the child, joining at the waist of the woman, to be twisted across and tucked into the opposite ends! Now this process might look complex but is often achieved with flair.

The ‘carrier’ of the child will swing the child from the front unto the back and tuck the child’s arms under her armpit as she readies the clothe to tie the child with.  A new mother or a cautious ‘carrier’ may ask for the assistance of another person to put the child on the back.

However this skill is one acquired growing up as a girl child is likely to be required to assist her mother or aunt by carrying a child – and some girls as young as 8-9 years achieve this feat!

I have not been able to get a history of how the practice of carrying children on the back started, but the common reason is “convenience”!

Once a child is strapped at the back, the mother’s hands are free for any other chores such as washing clothes, cooking, or even weeding. It is common to see a woman dancing with a child strapped on the back with the child enjoying the swing and picking up the rhythm. The child falls in tune with its mothers’ movements. The walking gait of the African mother lolls the child into a rhythm and quite often into sleep! Many a child will sleep faster if strapped on the back.  And of course the woman with a board based backside will provide a good seat for the child.

The art of carrying a child is a status symbol for some women and it is not uncommon to hear a mother urge her adult offspring to produce a child for her to carry on her back before her ancestors call her to her maker!

Of late, one observes mothers using ‘baby straps’ to strap the child on the front and this also allows fathers to also carry children in dignity as the task of carrying a child on the back is seen as purely a woman’s  job and a man who does it may be the recipient of some derision.  In modern times many educated women will not carry the child on the back (In fact I have been questioned once as to why – at my level – I will use clothe to carry a baby at my back) and  I have on occasion seen a mother who is walking and transporting her child in a baby seat and have wondered how kind such a carrying system will be on the arms of the mother!

Carrying a child on the body is not a unique feature of West Africa or even Africa alone as in some parts of East Africa and Asia, children are carried in a sarong sling style at the front of the mother. I do believe for the people in those cultures, that system works for them.

The age at which a child may be carried on the back is not specified as some suggest waiting for a few weeks before starting the practice, however at post natal visits I have seen two (2) weeks to six (6) week old babies strapped on the back. Usually a child may be carried till two to three years, but it is not uncommon for a mother to carry on her back, a sick child of about ten (10) years to and from the hospital.

Since the practice of trapping and un-strapping the child may be cumbersome for a mother, some sit in public transport with the child still strapped on!

So yes the mother will carry her child for her own convince, but then the child enjoys this – the swinging low and the sweet chariot of mums back as she carried them home!

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