way a marriage ceremony is celebrated in Gambian society is overwhelming.
Relatives gather and ululate for the new bride who is a symbol of fertility in
the home. The elderly people begin to eagerly anticipate that within the next
few months, the bride will be holding a baby in her arms.
The marriage celebrations will have barely ended, and the in-laws are already daydreaming and anticipating the baby’s gender and the names they will give to the new addition to the family. Every day, people in the homestead expect to see a bulging belly; at times they speak with their eyes, staring at the new wife’s tummy.
When months become years, the elders secretly begin to gather and express their dissatisfaction and utter dismay at the wife’s supposed infertility. It is disturbing how barren-ness is quickly blamed on a woman. In actual fact, misfortune is always almost exclusively blamed on women in our Gambian culture. The elders then quickly begin to decide what steps to take, and in most cases, the conclusion will be to send the daughter-in-law back to her parents.
The poor woman may be very unlucky if the elders decide to bring in another woman for their son because they want him to have an heir. The “infertile” daughter becomes a laughing stock as she becomes the topic for discussion and gossips (now embellished with onions, seasoning and salt) and many in the community starts to avoid her. These and other signals are evidences that she is no longer welcome or at most just tolerated. Barren-ness is always associated with women, even though in some cases the husband might be the one who is infertile. In cases where the man is infertile, and the man is humble enough to subject himself to a test to confirm it, the issue is discussed in a secluded place and members of his family will try to secretly fix the problem. In the Gambian set-up, it is believed that a man is never infertile. It is unfair how a barren man is protected compared to the undignified treatment experienced by a woman in the same shoes. The worst part is when it is the man who is infertile and the woman is unjustly labeled infertile
An infertile woman is treated shamefully, like someone with leprosy. The in-laws will not hide their disappointment and make sure the bride feels unwanted and useless. No matter how capable she is with other things, failure to produce a child will make the wife an outcast. From now on, nothing she does will be appreciated and she is constantly told in riddles that she is childless. It becomes worse when the mother-in-law begins to sing hymns about how she longs for a grandchild or how sorry she feels for her son. This can wear out a daughter-in-law. She becomes vulnerable and begins to lose her self-worth.
Without the necessary support, she can also suffer from insomnia, depression, among other things. One other thing that causes psychological harm is when the whole community begins to gossip and give her the name ‘barren’. Many people in the neighborhood will ridicule her, especially when she passes by groups of elderly women who gossip. She becomes the village laughing stock and will begin to hide herself from public view. The fertile women will become protective of their children for fear that the so-called ‘barren’ might steal their infant. It is problematic to note how women disregard, shrug it off or actively become part of the gossip mill instead of supporting a woman who is infertile. The shocking part is most Gambian men partake in calling the wives barren and useless.
The Patriarchal Nature of Society
In Gambian Culture, it is a taboo to point out that a man has failed in the bedroom. In reality, we have countless numbers of men who are sterile but it is shocking how they plainly and unashamedly refuse to be labeled ‘infertile’. The other challenge is that most men marry for the sole reason of childbearing because they want to leave an heir when they die.
A big problem arises when there is infertility in the home. A man will not give up until he proves that it is the woman that is barren. Also, a man would never want his ego to be crushed by admitting that the problem is from him because people will laugh at him. So at times, he may be forced to father a child by any means necessary (even by proxy) just to prove to his parents and friends that he has not failed. These days, a very small number of men would accept their infertility, due to modern medical understanding, but a very significant number wouldn’t.
I believe the word ‘support’ should be emphasized in the vocabulary of Gambian men. If your wife has a challenge with infertility, she needs to be supported all the way rather than letting her suffer on her own. A husband should provide the support needed to help his wife go through such a difficult experience.
‘Woman to Woman’ Talk
What’s with some of our women? I have discovered that when a woman is suffering, other women can worsen the situation. As women, it is very difficult to practice sisterhood among ourselves. Women should be there to support one of their own instead of back-biting a sister who is experiencing difficulty. If men are not there to support us, we should be the first ones to bear each other’s loads. (As they say be your sister’s keeper)
Then there is also the classic mother-in-law/daughter-in-law feud which can make things even worse for the woman. Most times, mothers-in-law are behind the chucking out of “infertile” daughters-in-laws. It’s surprising how mothers-in-law tend to forget that they are also daughters-in-law to someone else. At times, a mother-in-law can chant about how her own daughters are fertile in comparison. She can even say at the top of her voice that she is so and so’s grandmother which is done to create a sense of low self-worth in a listening daughter-in-law. If the same treatment they give to their daughters-in-law who cannot bear children was given to them, how would they feel? I have heard of one mother-in-law who ran around in search of a new bride for her son because the current daughter-in-law was infertile. A mother-in-law should be motherly in good or bad circumstances and she should never treat a daughter-in-law like an outcast because she is childless.
Besides, the most crucial help needed is to support a woman who cannot bear children for whatever reason. Being infertile is never a woman’s choice. At times, infertility is caused by certain disorders in the body but this does not mean that one is not entitled to a normal life like everyone else. Stereotypes associated with barrenness must be done away with in our society. Everyone should accept that even men can be infertile. People shouldn’t stand on roof tops celebrating that someone cannot bear children!
Do people marry for the sole reason of birthing children? No. Now is the time to renew our mindset about the reasons for marriage. If a woman cannot bear children, it does not mean that she cannot live in a happy marriage. Marriage is for two mature, educated people who then have to decide for themselves the outcome of their infertility.
By: Sainey M Ceesay
Founder & CEO Safe Haven