In Senegal, The Grandmas Are In Charge Grandmothers in this West African nation have traditionally passed on health education and childbirth tips to the pregnant women. Now, health care workers are coming to communities to teach the elders modern medicine and discuss topics like breast-feeding — so there isn't conflict when the baby arrives.

In Senegal, The Grandmas Are In Charge

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host: Now we had to west Africa for the latest in our series, Beginnings. In Senegal, song and dance are being used to break down barriers to modern health care, and to help women talk about a subject long considered taboo for public discussion: Pregnancy.

Central to this model of health education are grandmothers. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton introduces us to a few of them.


OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: You feel their exuberance and warmth long before you reach the circle of women dressed in gaily colored boubou, the voluminous traditional gowns worn by the women of Senegal, with dramatic matching head wraps. They're seated on a large pink and mauve plastic mat, one drumming her fingers on an overturned bucket as they prepare for their health care session.

These are the grandmothers, fondly called Les Grandmere.

This is the village of Guereo, near Mbour, a seaside town south of Senegal's capital, Dakar, where the grandmothers have gathered. Here, tradition meets modernity when it comes to passing on health education and childbirth tips to the pregnant women in the community.

Maimouna Mbengue is one of the grandmothers.

MAIMOUNA MBENGUE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Mbengue explains that they learn as much as we teach during the discussions. We talk about the different health care problems our families face, she says, including during pregnancy. And with the help of the health professionals, we learn to adopt a more useful approach to deal any problems, says Mbengue.


QUIST-ARCTON: And as if to reinforce her point, one grandmother twirls herself and her colorful flowing gown like a fan in a vigorous dance.

In Senegal, there is a tradition of solidarity called bajenu gox, where the older woman helps the younger. [End soundbite]

ChildFund International's strategy is inspired by the Grandmother Project, pioneered by Judi Aubel, to involve and empower senior women in the community.

Julia White is with ChildFund, which is continuing that program here in Guereo, Funded by USAID.

JULIA WHITE: In Senegal, one of the major decision-makers is grandmothers and, specifically, also mothers-in-law. And so these women have a huge role on the decision-making in terms of health and the health of the child.

QUIST-ARCTON: White says the older women get to discuss topics that affect the entire family. These include their daughters-in-law who live with their husband's families.

So what are some of the problems?

WHITE: For example, if teach the mother that exclusive breast-feeding right after birth is the way to go, but the grandmother doesn't get a chance to talk about that and be taught about that topic, she might not agree.

QUIST-ARCTON: And there are other misunderstandings and possible friction, explains a Guereo grandmother, Maimouna Mbengue.

MBENGUE: (Through Translator) For instance, traditionally it's recommended that a pregnant woman should does a lot of hard work because that helps during childbirth. But now, we've learned during our health care sessions that on the contrary, it's dangerous for expectant mothers to do heavy lifting.


QUIST-ARCTON: The grandmothers use music, allegory and storytelling to broach subjects that are still considered taboo in Senegal.

WHITE: Traditionally, pregnancies were hidden, and not something that you talked about openly and socially. Therefore, women had trouble to sort of openly talk about the problems they were having. If I'm dizzy at this in point in time, is that a problem? If I'm vomiting all the time, is that a problem? What can I do to be ready for the birth when it happens? And so, it allows them to sort of work together as a team.

QUIST-ARCTON: Hear, hear, concurs Hogaye Diouf, one of the young pregnant women.

HOGAYE DIOUF: (Through Translator) It's like an apprenticeship. The grandmas are learning. We are also learning.



QUIST-ARCTON: The otherwise serious proceedings are punctuated by song and dance, lightening the mood, but for a reason, says grandmother Aby Ndour.

ABY NDOUR: (Through Translator) I just want to explain that the songs we sing help spread the word among all the women, including the grandmothers and those expecting babies - in fact, the entire community.


QUIST-ARCTON: As the grandmothers wrap up their session, the young mothers-to-be join them on the pink and purple mat for a final song and dance to send off their visitors with a promise to come back to meet the newborns.

Ofeibea-Quist Arcton, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is NPR News. [End soundbite]

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.