Breast Strokes

The first time I became aware my breasts were a problem, I was running up the stairs to my teacher’s flat. I was in middle school, bra-less. She watched me panting and said, “Your chest just keeps expanding and expanding. When is the rest of your body going to catch up?” I looked down in confusion at my bosom. I hadn’t noticed any expansion, just that I had breasts with big nipples that always seemed to be in the way, and feeling them had become a habit.

I was unconscious of playing with them. I’d be talking to a friend, and she’d draw my attention to my chest. There I was, one hand on each breast, brushing the nipples up and down. I’d stop, laughing at myself. I didn’t realize how entrenched the habit had become until the day I found myself standing on stage during a debate with Mfantsipim Boys Secondary School. I was giving a rebuttal to an issue when my friend at the back of the assembly hall caught my eye. She stood flapping her wrists madly, eyes bulging out. As I raised my brows, she pointed at my chest and beat her breasts. I looked. My fingers were moving on my nipples in full view of the audience. I dropped my hands and continued talking as if nothing was the matter.

I didn’t touch my breasts because they felt particularly good. I touched them the way I’d absentmindedly play with a pen on a desk while listening to the teacher. When I started growing breasts, no one at home paid attention to me. No one bought me a bra, and I didn’t long for one. I liked being unbound. As a child, I hated clothes.

Many times, I ran around the house in my drawers, and when it rained, I would run outside and feel the rain trickle down my lashes. The water would flow over my chest and into my drawers. I would squeal while my mother shouted helplessly for me to come inside. At night, I slept with only a sheet over me, no night gown. When my breasts developed ,I considered them just another part of my body to be freed from clothes. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that my father suddenly decided I should wear a bra. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about, but I complied for peace sake.

I hated harnessing a part of my body for no reason I could understand. In our house, no one talked about sex. I attended a girls’ boarding school, and though I had a boyfriend for the holidays, he wasn’t eager to get into my drawers. I felt safe with men. What’s more, growing up in small towns, women with bare breasts were ubiquitous. My big sisters wore bras to lift their droopy breasts and I assumed that was the only reason for restraining them. I hated pulling off my bra to discover the imprint of seams on my breasts. I would scratch and rub, feeling sorry for them.

Now a full-grown adult, I loathe constricting my breasts as if they are something to be ashamed of. I imagine that if I were a man, I would hate having to harness my testicles. I’d let them swing freely. I can’t imagine the heat generated, the sweat and the urge to scratch.

I’ve tried to respect society’s sensibilities by wearing a bra, but my nipples remain visible. Shortly after college, on my birthday, a man asked me to dinner. Weeks before, he had interviewed me for a job I didn’t get for lack of qualification, but I bore no grudge. Over lemon chicken, he asked me if I had been nervous during the interview. I said yes and asked why. He laughed and said, “Your nipples tightened.” I laughed too. I felt no shame and we moved on to other subjects. However, when years later a Christian school secretary remarked on my pokey nipples, I took to flattening them with sellotape before wearing a bra. Peeling off the tapes hurt and made my eyes water. I would stare at my nipples that looked ashy, rubbing and rubbing until they felt better.

Today I sometimes get fed up and discard my bra. Fellow women nudge me, asking why I don’t wear one, usually with a look of disapproval. For church and formal events, depending on my attire, I wear it. Recently, on an evening out with my friends, I wore a strapless jumpsuit that precluded a bra. I was going to tape my nipples down as usual, but in my rush to get out of the house, I forgot.

At the club, I sat at the table, unwilling to get up and dance because someone might see my nipples. While others thrilled to the afrobeat, I remained glued to my seat, saying I just didn’t want to dance. When I finally confided in one friend that it was because my nipples were showing, she said, “It’s okay. Aren’t they part of your body?” I smiled with relief and let loose on the dance floor. I shouldn’t have been filled with shame, but society has shaped women that way.

Two years ago at Wimbledon, Serena Williams wore a high neck dress with ruffles, a demure affair different from her usual flamboyant style. And yet fellow women attacked her pokey nipples despite her firm bra. In 2013, when the US women’s soccer team won the world cup, Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey and sank to her knees on the field. She got roasted over it, though no nipples poked out and her breasts were fully covered. At this year’s US Open tennis, Alizet Cornet wore a sports bra that covered her small breasts completely, no nipples to speak of, and yet she got fined for changing her top on court when she was about to serve and realized it was on the wrong way. Paradoxically, no one complains about the track and field ladies wearing what looks like panties and bras. Thank God.

I applaud the tennis federation for reversing the penalty. Women spectators get treated to Federer’s hairy torso and Nadal’s rippling muscles. It’s okay for men to display edible, lentil-size nipples. Men everywhere bare their chests. Women don’t complain. No one finds it offensive for men to be semi-nude.

I’m not advocating that men cover themselves. Au contraire, I’m all for people feeling free in the bodies God gave them. Vivre le corps, say I. What I don’t get is why a woman’s body is adored and feared, despised and desired, savored by babies and chastised by the self-appointed breast police, why a woman can’t be free in her body without society condemning her.

Hello, Ghanaians, Colonialism has been over since 1957!

Okay, I’m peeved. More than slightly. Ghanaians, when will you stop this nonsensical self-imposed colonialism?

During my tenure as International Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, some American teachers and I visited an elementary school in Ghana. I was appalled to learn that new students, we’re talking six-year-olds, had to be able to communicate well in English before being accepted into a good school. The result of this stupid practice is that the younger generation can’t speak their native language anymore. Parents want to get their children into the best schools, so right from birth, they speak English to them. This is wrong on many levels.

One of the fallacies of education is that a child will get confused learning two or three languages a time. Because I bought into it, my American-born children couldn’t speak Fanti, my native language, for many years. Even now, they speak it poorly. While it is true that children mix up languages when learning more than one at a time, they sort them out by the time they are five or even earlier. At four years old, I spoke Yoruba, Asante Twi and English. By fourteen, I spoke two additional Twi dialects and Ga.

Children whose parents speak their native language to them grow up naturally bilingual, and develop stronger thinking skills, not less. My Czech friend spoke Czech to her kids; now the children are bilingual and excelled in school. My aunt in Virginia spoke Fanti to her children. They grew up speaking English and Fanti, and have done exceedingly well. These are children growing up in America. So why is it that those g rowing up in Ghana can’t speak their own language? What a travesty!

What is even more troubling is that some of these Ghanaian parents can’t speak English well. I’m talking about those who didn’t even make it to high school, who speak a halting English replete with faulty grammar. They raise children who say things like, “He have came and took my book.” This actually makes the teacher’s job harder. It’s like trying to mold cement after it has hardened. Fortunately, the children, especially if they go on to the university, learn to speak English well, but then they can’t have any meaningful conversation with their parents!

There’s nothing sadder than not being able to have a deep conversation or share jokes with one’s parents. Ghanaians are humorous and sprinkle their language with proverbs. A lot of wit is lost in translation. Children who can’t communicate with their parents end up despising them, which leads to conflict. Even sadder than that is the loss of culture, something parents pass on to their children. Ghanaians have a rich culture, from the naming ceremony when a child is born, the outdooring at three months when the child is celebrated in the community, puberty rites, etc., etc. How are these going to be conducted? Oh, sure, in English, but so much is missed.

It is important to know one’s language well. Language defines a people, whether you’re American or Ghanaian or both. Bottom line, learn your language well; it’s your heritage. People need to have a good understanding of their culture so they can cut out what is unwholesome while embracing newer ideas. That’s how we grow as human beings. So Ghanaians, stop demanding English before enrollment. Stop teaching your children that their language is inferior and hence their culture is inferior. Embrace the best of both cultures. Colonialism is over.