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The worst country to be a mom

Beth Whitehouse, center, with friend Fati and her

Beth Whitehouse, center, with friend Fati and her children during Whitehouse's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa, in the early 1980s. Credit: Handout

Save the Children’s released its 13th State of the World’s Mothers report today, and it shows Niger is the worst country in the world to be a mother. I know firsthand why. I lived in Niger — a country in sub-Saharan West Africa just north of Nigeria — as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980s, and the moms in my rural village were some of my close friends.

Take, for instance, my friend Fati, who is seated in this photo to my right, on the ground. All the people in this picture (except me!) are her children. As a single mother, she supported the family selling doughnut-like pastries every morning and on Thursdays, the village market day.

No dishwasher for her. No stove. No refrigerator. Not even electricity or running water. No doctor in the village; very few fresh vegetables. No birth control for women then unless their husbands agreed to it, not to mention could afford it.

Not a great place to be a mother.

Another of my friends, Amina (the woman on the right in the second photo), was one of several wives who shared one husband. I met her when one of her children had ringworm and the family didn’t have the funds to pay for medicine. I was able to help them, and they were so grateful that Amina’s husband continuously supplied me with what they had but I didn’t — fresh eggs from their chickens. But can you imagine your child being sick and you can’t help?

Not a great place to be a mother.

I did, however, take away some lessons about being a great mother while I lived in Niger. For one, I have no problem with the “family bed” concept so controversial here in the United States. At Fati’s, for instance, the family slept lined up together (though they slept on mats on the floor and not beds). It seemed so cozy. When my son was young, I never minded when he climbed into bed with me. I didn’t blame him for wanting that togetherness.

I also embraced the concept of “baby on the back.” Moms there were adept at attaching their babies to their backs with long cloths. They’d carry them while they collected wood for a cooking fire, pounded millet in a mortar and pestle to prepare it for dinner. When my son was young, I frequently carried him on my back, albeit with a baby backpack I purchased. He loved it up there.

And moms breast-fed. Everywhere. Totally acceptable to feed a child wherever necessary. When my son was born, I followed suit.

So there were some great things about being a mom in Niger, even though I have to agree with the Save the Children study — it was, and still is, one of the worst places in the world to be one.
 

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