The South African Balancing Act

Have you ever tried to carry anything on your head? Maybe a book to practice your good posture? What about a bunch of sticks or a 10-liter bucket of water? How about a large bag of maize?

In South Africa we saw women everywhere carrying everything and anything on their heads. Most of the time their hands were free and often babies were on their backs. According to one young woman, the girls begin learning the technique when they are 8-years old. My daughter was 13, and I was a few years older when we tried.

On the “Women’s Power Tour” in Bulungula on the Wild Coast of South Africa, our guide, Mtomboxolo, took us to the village spring. She gave us each a small container (margarine size) and told us to fill it up with water, cover it with a lid, then put it on our heads before carrying it up the hill on a rooted dirt path. Tentatively, I put the tub on my head and walked up the hill, both hands by my sides. A few minutes later we arrived at the hut, our water intact. Proud of myself, I turned to see Mtomboxolo carrying a much larger container on her head.

Now it was time to gather wood. We walked to a wooded area with small trees and shrubs and gathered dead branches. Mtomboxolo gave us fabric to tie up our bundle, then, to my surprise, told us to carry the bundles on our heads as well. I retied mine, placed it on my head and balanced the lopsided bundle back up the hill.

Around a fire that night, we spoke to an orthopedist who volunteers in the village. She told us that many women come to her with back pain yet even after telling them to stop using only their heads, she will see them later that day, balancing heavy loads, their arms and hands empty and free.

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