Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stories Which Make News: Salma Hayek Breastfeeds "Hungry African Child" as ABC News Records

My friend Therese sent me this article from Time Magazine about Salma Hayek, who they describe as a "beautifully busty actress" breastfeeding a "starving" child in Sierra Leone. Therese says she's not sure what taboos exist elsewhere in Africa concerning breast feeding so she will hold off her comments on that. What she does know is that in Ghana, many women have no problems breast feeding their children and she personally knows many women who have even breastfed children whose mothers could not breastfeed them because the mothers were 'dry' or died during child birth.

One of Therese's friends posted the article on her facebook and received the following comments:

Vongai, zimbabwean

I am flabberwhelmed, confused...and everything else in between. I will likely make this my departure point at CIES because this eccentric act sits on the frontiers of ethics, culture, realism, women's choices, and Western notions of solutions to structural causes of Africa's material deprivation. about emotionally confusing these children...huh?

Epiphania, GH

What a tiring and boring day it was when movie stars started to think that they were 3rd world philanthropists, hopping around adopting poor African and Asian children ad infinitum -despite the many ignored possibilities for adoption in their home countries. and now we are breastfeeding Africans into civilization. What an utter lot of racist rot and foolishness!!!

Shea, American

WHAT????!!! Okay - I don't know what Africa's (sweeping continental phrase) notions of breast-feeding and sex are, but how on Earth can anyone fault a woman (celebrity or not) of feeding a baby(African or not) breast milk??!!! I don't understand why this offends people! Who cares where it's taking place? Who cares if there were cameras? The fact is, that child, whose mother is dry, got some VERY necessary nutrition! I'm MORE offended and confused by the comments than by the original story.

Dela, Ghanaian

Well, that's the point, Shea. The context within which this child was given breast milk by a busty celebrity is utterly manufactured. It is the only way it would end up in TIME magazine and be sensationalized. If the mother had no milk, it is NOT Hayek's job to take out her breasts to feed the child. To nurse this "starving child" only conjures up images of Africa that, quite honestly, are mostly erroneous. Most African cultures have systems in place to take care of their own, way before Tinsel Town was created. Breast-feeding as far as many of us are concerned is NOT a taboo. Babies were being fed before Gerber and Nestle came along. So what happens to the baby now? Say the mother is STILL dry and Ms. Hayek is busy making a movie or feeding her own child.... what happens to those women who are lacking milk? Why are they lacking? These are some issues we need to address...Afterall, Hayek was not the only lactating mother around. No one asked why did others not feed the child.


I'm confused about whether the issue here is one of new moms being dry or one of new moms plainly refusing to bf (given taboo). Seems like the two are conflated in this story....which gets me to the point that the solutions for either would be so radically different.

Also, can't speak for all of Africa, but it's news to me that brestfeeding is taboo in what in this story is painted as most of the continent. Quite the contrary in places with which I'm familiar; there's lots of stigma associated with not brestfeeding....But hey, I applaud Hayek for being champion for what is, very frankly, a non-existent cause.
Dela, Ghanaian

Exactly right, Peris. I was thinking about this conflation while I was supposed to be listening to a someone's presentation. The are two stories here: Breastfeeding as a so-called taboo that Hayek is trying to bring awarness to and (2) a mother not having milk to give her baby. In the latter case, we cannot tell whether that mother also does not breastfeed.

So yeah... I am still waiting on the Sierra Leonians on enlighten me on which part of their country has this taboo...

I remember when my sister had her first child and was feeling a little uncomfortable taking her breast out to feed her 'starving child,' my mother and aunts just looked at her like: "what is WRONG with you? Your baby needs feeding. Clearly, you have spent too much time outside Ghana!" So yeah, the taboo is news to me too.

I'd be interested to know what you think about the story given what you know about breatfeeding in your own communities. I'll begin.

Esi Cleland, Ghanaian

What irks me about this article is that Sierra Leone is mentioned once at the beginning, and subsequently, the stigma (if it exists) is described as an African problem. I would be very surprised if this taboo is everywhere in Sierra Leone. My guess is that if even there is a stigma, it is probably in one small village somewhere in Sierra Leone. That's not to say that there is no need to educate the women there about the benefits of breastfeeding but the story has been blown way out of proportion. Traditionally, Ghanaian mothers are encouraged to drink lot of soup so that they will have milk for their children. I do not know of any taboos surrounding breastfeeding, and we don't need Salma Hayek to come and teach us something we've been doing for ages. Next thing we know, she'll be launching the "breastfeed a hungry child in Africa" campaign. As Therese suggested, maybe someone should write a rejoinder.


  1. John Schaefer, American (here via EK Bensah's blog)

    This is a very complex issue. We might begin by considering the cases various contexts. For one, Selma Hayek is an Arab-Mexican, Catholic. But she operates within the US as an "ethnic" movie star and sex symbol. So work out some of the contextual issues of political and religious beliefs associated with public breastfeeding and cross-breastfeeding in Arab, Mexican, Catholic, and US contexts. Readers of Time tend to be middle-class Americans, so recent arrests and fines for public breastfeeding will be central in the minds of the editors. Yes, you read that right! In the US women have been fined and banned from shops and airline flights for breastfeeding in public. Surely this was a major consideration.

    Now, we come to the issues of neocolonialism and racism. Of course a white breast feeding a black baby is controversial. As well a wealthy woman feeding a poor baby, an outsider feeding an African baby, and continued representations of Africans and West Africans as poor, diseased, and violent. Clearly the editors had no business crossing these lines and thinking they would not be judged by it. However, we must also consider that Hayek herself is positioned outside the mainstream in the US, and she is trying to use her recent high profile for at least some more general good. Maybe this smells of opportunism and guilt-assuagement, but it's a legitimate thing for her to do, given her privileged upbringing in Mexico and her current wealth.

    Finally, do we not all remember the advertising campaigns in West Africa by Nestle and other companies advertising powered milk as an alternative to breastfeeding? Yes, these companies were rightly punished in the media and (I hope) by boycott, which still affects me when I see the name "Nestle." And the bulk of the blame still lies with them for dreaming up such a deadly untruth that powdered milk is in any way comparable to breastmilk. However, what about the fact that most of the people selling the powdered milk to Ghanaian mothers were themselves Ghanaians? How much profit was spread as well within the trading communities of West Africa, which is also very much Lebanese? In other words, extended members of Hayek's own family, perhaps?

  2. yet another clueless celebrity with delusions of grandeur!!!

  3. I am a Ghanaian who grow up in Sierra Leone and traveled extensively through the uplands (villages) I never heard of any taboo surrounding breastfeeding. Unless the taboo came about while the country was busy during the bloody civil war which is highly unlikely.

    This story is just another fine example of western media’s portrayal of Crazy Africa and African taboo’s

    Adjoa Fourjour

  4. My problem with this whole 'awareness' thing is how they are going about it. I didn't know African women needed awareness about breastfeeding, because in Ghana, I have never yet come across someone who didn't breastfeed.
    But exactly how women are going to be aware and suddenly breastfeed their babies just because Salma Hayek breastfed some baby she met in Sierra Leone is lost on me. (Plus, who says just because she is famous in US and stuff, she is famous in Sierra Leone?)
    A better way to create awareness would have been to talk to the women, explain to them why breastfeeding is important (which is what i thought they are taught by the nurses and community health workers and stuff).
    Oh well, whatever they want.
    Where in Africa at all is breastfeeding taboo? I didn't know it was!

  5. Good intentions gone bad? or portrayed wrongly? The problem with outside media when it comes to Africa is always generalizing everything. It really irks me when people talk about America, India,Japan and then "Africa"...seriously when are people going to realize that Africa is not a country!...yes people, Africa is a continent!

  6. I have a big problem with Salma Hayek's action, not because of the celebrity, african wahala. I like to look at it more from the medical/health angle. Was she fit to breastfeed? One of the precautions taken to prevent vertical (mother to child) transmission of HIV is advising against breastfeeding by HIV-positive mothers, in the light of its numerous advantages. There is a 5 - 20% probability of HIV transmission through breastfeeding by a positive person. I am not speculating but is she sure of her HIV status? What amount of risk did she expose the baby to by breastfeeding it?

    Contrary to Bubu's comment, a lot of work needs to be done on creating breastfeeding-awareness in Ghana and in Africa, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months that is. But the way to do it is not the Salma Hayek style! A lot more needs to be done than just having a celebrity breastfeeding other people's babies to ginger others up to do likewise. What is needed, i think, is to stress the benefits of (exclusive) breastfeeding (for the first six months of life) - it is cheap, at the right temperature, contains the right nutrients for the baby (including water), there's a lower risk of contamination, etc and i think this can be better achieved through public education.

    And yes, Africa is not a country!!! Well, not until Gaddafi and co succeed in making it...

  7. Who is Salma Hayek? Honestly guys, I know of Friedrich Hayek but Salma Hayek? No idea who!

  8. read an article on this issue but there was no mention of an "african men taboo". The article just said the mother was no longer lactating. By the way I am an african man so how come I have never heard of this taboo?

  9. if there's no danger to the biology, then i don't see the big deal!

    but of course, any commercialization must be condemned!!! be it advert or whatever!


  10. If she wanted to breastfeed, fine, but why the camera and the news article, with the blatant misrepresentation of breastfeeding as taboo? Where did she hear that from? And why, oh, why, did Time magazine not conduct a bit more research into it? That is the part that annoys me most. And I am yet to hear any African man say that he doesn't want to have sex with his wife because she's breastfeeding. If that were the case, I wouldn't have friends whose babies are months apart.

  11. Salma Hayek could breastfeed me anytime.

  12. The problem is the claim that 'breastfeeding is taboo in Africa.' It's true that in a number of societies it was taboo or discouraged to have intercourse while breastfeeding; and that practice certainly had its benefits in terms of spacing children, etc. But breastfeeding is certainly not taboo.

    The other problem I have with this article, like most other media from the U.S., is the suggestion that Africans don't/can't help themselves. As the article rightly mentioned, crossfeeding isn't nearly as taboo in many parts of Africa as it is in the Western world. In fact, in certain African societies (e.g. the Igbo town of Nnobi among other places), other women breastfed a child before the child's own mother did. So to give the impression that children in Africa would starve from lack of breastmilk if it weren't for people like Salma Hayek is wrong. I'm positive that women step up to feed children whose mothers aren't or can't breastfeed them all the time, but of course those women would never make the news in the U.S. When the West publicizes something good about Africa, it must be a Westerner doing something good in Africa. The only time we publicize Africans as doing anything in Africa is when they're doing something bad. It just serves to perpetuate the colonial mentality that agency belongs only to Westerners and not to Africans.