“My sista, where are you from?”, Yaye asked me with her beautiful toothy grin as I perused fabric at her market shop. As a Black woman whenever I travel, especially to Africa, this tends to be a complicated question to answer. “I’m from America, and my family, we’re from Ayiti”, I say in broken English, French/Kreyol, and Wolof. “Oh Ayiti!”, she exclaims proudly, “Pale Francais?”. I giggle nervously and shake my head. See, I was able to get by in Senegal with 3 broken languages, rizz (charisma as the Gen Z-ers say it), a wish, and a prayer. I felt so affirmed in my interactions with the town locals, a voice whispering in my ear, “You are meant to be here” on loop. What I came away with was more grounding than I could have imagined, more questions than answers, but something to guide me into this new year.

Hey Fam,

Thanks for sticking with me through the hiatus of this newsletter. It’s taken me some time to put into words what I experienced and learned during my time in Senegal. As some of you have been following my journey on social media, I recently returned from my much anticipated Wombs of Wata (WoW) birthkeeper workshop in Senegal. An opportunity that so many of you gifted, donated, and contributed to. I am forever grateful.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

With the assistance of local community members and birth keepers, the Wombs of Wata workshop was developed and facilitated by head birthkeeper. Joyell Arvella. Let me explain my understanding of what a birthkeeper is. Birthkeepers choose a life where they support people during the full lifespan of the uterus. From prepubescence, menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, menopause, and through various uterine related illnesses. Pretty dope huh? This has also made me rethink how I define the work that I do, and what kind of work I could be expanding to. We also participated in some amazing introspective sessions facilitated by thee Shaconna Haley, MA, CHD. An integral part of being a birthkeeper is to know yourself. What moves you, what triggers you, stalls your movements, who are you?

MAMI WATA

To start, we stayed in the charming coastal town of Somone, in a beautiful pink villa, a 5 minute walk to the beach. Yall know that I was on that beach EVERYDAY. One way or another, I found myself at the water. We started each morning with a moving meditation, setting intentions for the day. On our first full day, we had a sacred water blessing ceremony at the ocean. Asking permission to be there, calling on Mami Wata to help us release things from our current lives and things that we might unintentionally be holding onto from generations past. Afterwards, we all gathered to discuss our birth stories and how that connected to the insights that were revealed to us at the water ceremony. An interesting point about sharing our birth stories is the realization that so many birthkeepers seem to have complex mother/daughter wounds. Hello therapy! Amiright?


BIRTHING PRACTICES IN SENEGAL

For our first workshop, we met with 7 month old Ndebele, her mother Awa, Ndebele’s maternal aunt and paternal aunt (badjenu). As the father’s sister, the Badjenu is almost like her brother’s representative/replacement in child care for the first few months of life. Because dad’s primary role is to financially support the family. But really the Badjenu plays this important role in their niblings’ lives for the rest of their lives. She is the second mother, confidant, mediator, etc. She also assists in any marital tension/issues that arises between her brother and sister in law. On this day, our Badjenu demonstrated a typical infant massage, which Ndebele delighted in. It consisted of movements that helped to strengthen the spine, enhance flexibility, tone muscles, and shape the body (hips, breasts, buttocks). We all had an interesting conversation about the need for breastfeeding support specialists in the US. The family was genuinely baffled that breastfeeding specialists are even a need in the United States. We tried our best to explain the factors that impact breastfeeding like time, access to resources, societal pressure, public judgement, work schedules, etc. But it was definitely an interesting cultural perspective that I didn’t think about until then.

Next we met with Fanm Saj (traditional midwife) Baty. She traveled 11 hours to be with us that day! Before she even proceeded with her presentation though, she made time to shower, change her clothes, offered her salat (prayers), and eat. In such a seemingly small way, this pause to handle her needs before presenting to us taught us the importance of taking care of ourselves even in the midst of servicing others. She taught us about the important herbs that are needed for postpartum healing and brought shea butter and massage oil to demonstrate postpartum massage. She used banana leaves soaked in a hot water tincture to begin her demonstration. A funny, and incredibly magical moment happened. Confused about having to demonstrate this massage on a large water bottle, she asked for a volunteer. One of our amazing participants agreed to be her subject. Little did we know that the volunteer would have to strip down completely naked, in front of a room full of 15 strangers. Charnise took it in stride and did what needed to be done. She laid on the table, awaiting instruction, and in the blink of an eye Baty jumped up on the table, straddled Charnise, and commenced to vigorously massaging her. It was almost like an instinctive dance between the two of them.

THE GODMOTHER OF BIRTH

We then met with Marie who has been supporting families for 40 years. She is called a Badjenu Gox. Remember that Badjenu is auntie. And Gox means neighborhood. So she’s known as the neighborhood auntie or godmother, so to speak. Her role expands way past birth and postpartum. She’s also responsible for mediating issues among members of her community, arranging visits to the hospital, and negotiating payment for medical services. Fees for services are a huge barrier to receiving perinatal care, contraceptive care, and routine medical care. She is the fixer, the handler, the Olivia Pope of her town.

The Badjenu Gox are chosen by the people in her neighborhood and supported by government funding. It is an honor and a privilege to serve as one. What was also interesting was learning about the ways that the Badjenu Gox and the Traditional Midwives do and don’t work together, and how colonization and subsequent policies have significantly impacted that. Check this article out for some interesting facts about the 2010 origin of the Badjenu Gox in Senegal. If you really wanna nerd out on health/birth stats in Senegal, check this one out. This experience with Badjenu Marie was of course an exchange of resources and information, and so we had the opportunity to share with her what we do as birthworkers in the US. She said several times throughout her few hours with us, how proud she was of us. It was so affirming to hear, and incredibly humbling how generous she was with sharing her knowledge.

CAKE FOR BREAKFAST?

In the midst of this absolutely transformative experience, I celebrated my birthday! I actually had the pleasure of sharing birthday festivities with three other women in my cohort who had birthdays the same week. There was a local patisserie that sold the most delicious croissants, baguettes, and sugary confections. So a lil birthday cake for breakfast was only fitting. At the encouragement of one of my cohort buddies, we treated ourselves to a photoshoot with Mamy Photography and a spa day by the ocean. Best decision ever.

MARKETPLACE MEAL PREP

Towards the end of our time together, learning, reflecting, shedding ego and expectations, we engaged in a really fun activity. The plan was to explore the produce market in Somone, practice our language skills at the market by purchasing ingredients from the vendors, and develop a collective postpartum meal based on what was in season. With the help of our market Yaye (term of endearment and respect for an older woman) and Joyell, we decided to make couscous, stewed veggies, fried plantain, garden salad with homemade honey mustard dressing, and a tropical fruit salad featuring one of my favorite postpartum fruits, the Papaya. Just know that this meal was absolutely scrumptious!

DOULAS IN DAKAR

On our second to last day, we traveled to Dakar for the day, spent some time on Goree Island, and visited a few other sites in Dakar. What I learned and felt on Goree island was both heavy and empowering. I’m still processing what we learned about the brutal history of the slave trade, seeing and feeling things when entering the slave dungeons, juxtaposed to the stunning coastal view of the ocean. The same ocean where old, weak, and rebellious enslaved people were carelessly tossed to die because they were deemed useless. We also had the opportunity to visit the local clinic on the island. We took a tour of the midwife’s office and the birthing room next door. Because of funding resources there were some deficits in the resources and equipment available to birthing people. So they refer many people, especially complex cases to birth at the hospital in Dakar, which is a 30 minute ferry ride away.

 

MOVING FORWARD

What I learned during Wombs of Wata has shaped me not only professionally but also personally. I learned the importance of introspection, deep diving into my sense of purpose, and engaging in routine self evaluation. I learned to surrender, listen to receive and not to react, and to call in patience. My journey to and time in Senegal reminded me of how unfair this world can be to the underprivileged, but also how much beauty, grace, and love exists to combat the dark. I’m always in awe of Black women/femmes and how brilliant and resourceful we are. I am reminded of how our softness is our strength. I am so honored to continue to do this work and to inspire and teach newer birthworkers. Thank you for taking the time to read my reflections. Feel free to reach out if you have questions/comments.

With much Love & Gratitude,

Doula Jo

Special recognition and thanks to the following:

Joyell Arvella

Shaconna Haley

Our incredible Wombs of Wata Cohort 2023

Interpreter: Kanur Raïssa Minkilane

Photographer and videographer: Mamy Hawa

Awa and baby Ndebele

Traditional Midwife: Baty Gueye

Badjenu Gox: Marie Thiane