There was drama in the Kenyan parliament on Wednesday, when an MP entered the chambers with her five-month-old breastfeeding baby.
Kwale Woman Representative Zuleika Hassan was eventually ejected after the temporary Speaker ordered the sergeant-at-arms to show her the door. It all boiled down to an old rule common in many parliaments that “strangers” cannot step on the floor of the House during proceedings.
SENT A MESSAGE
The silver lining is that several female and male MPs came to her defence, and formed a ring to protect her. In their view, Ms Hassan was doing the honourable thing by placing a high priority on her little one, and the Kenya parliament was in the Stone Age and anti-family, because it had failed to provide a feeding room.
The whole affair left us with one memorable quote, and a memorable threat. The winning quote was by Ms Hassan, who said: “I had an emergency and decided not to miss work but to come with the baby. She is not an atomic bomb and can’t explode.”
The mother of all threats was from Ijara MP Sophia Abdi Noor: “This child has a right; if they don’t establish a breastfeeding room then we will urge all women with breastfeeding children to come with their children in the chambers so as to send a message.”
That would be quite a sight.
Babies, especially breastfeeding ones, can be divisive, because they threaten certain types of men and women in unique ways. That they are feeding off a breast leaves some fellows queasy with its tangential conjugal undertones.
But it is all the conflicted issues about fertility and bringing a new soul into the world and caring for it that unsettles many. Some people who have deliberately chosen not to bring their own or taken on adoptive children may, unjustifiably, feel judged as selfish, as fellows who are living off the fruits of the earth without giving back anything for its sustenance.
However, we are interested in an often-neglected aspect of this vexed issue: It seems that it is the act of feeding itself, and the power of its symbolism that drives some of the resistance to public breastfeeding in “modern” Africa and other parts of the world.
What is the surest and easiest thing an African politician can do set social media alight, and gain gazillions of “common man” credits? It’s to go to a lowly restaurant downtown (having ensured that a few photojournalists have been tipped off), and eat there – preferably with their bare hands. Or, to stop by a roadside market on the way back from an up-country rally, and buy and eat roasted maize or chicken.
You can’t touch a president whose photo just appeared in the newspapers showing him eating roadside roast maize, or lunching at “Mama Antony’s Hotel” in a slum.
While the above grant good populist points, we are all clear that they’re just that, and the president will be having the best filet mignon at State House for dinner, and chasing it down with a pricy chardonnay bought with taxpayers’ money.
A breastfeeding baby feeding and its mother, are not just about the moment’s meal. You can feel that it is for 50 years ahead. It makes many of us feel small.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]