How do You Carry a Load?

How did you carry a load when you grew up? When I was young we carried loads – school books, grocery sacks, etc – in our arms so that our shoulders were rounded forward. Babies, too, carried in the arms. Result: rounded shoulders and backs.

Not so in Africa, where in most areas loads are carried on the head and babies are strapped to the back. This much more evenly spreads weight and transfers it from shoulders and muscles to the whole vertical skeleton.

Elian is carrying a basket of dry beans to a wedding party, weighing about 39kg. Her cousin is imitating

As Blaine Harden says,

[The woman he is talking about] walked five miles with the fifty-pound load on her head. Researchers in biomechanics have found that African women can carry up to 20 percent of their body weight on their heads while burning no more energy than if they were carrying nothing at all.Physiologists speculate that women, who start carrying heavy loads at about age twelve, have learned how to walk with extraordinary smoothness, with no back-and-forth oscillation. They also suspect the women have adapted their spines to carry loads with bones rather than muscles.When Western women or men attempt to carry such weight, researchers, found, they hurt their necks…

– Blane Harden – Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent

Both men and women couldbenefit from carrying loads on the head. Source: Blane Harden

There is much to be learned here. Rarely are Africans in rural areas plagued with ‘bad backs’, nor have I seen cases of disfiguration of shoulders, etc, from a lack of calcium. And for sure, many rural diets of females are probably lacking in calcium.

By contrast, western women and men do suffer from these problems. For babies, the solution is to buy strollers, thus separating the infant from its mother as well as removing its weight from the mother.

Nona carrying her new granddaughter 'the African way'.

Back packs have become quite popular over the last decade in the West. Will that make any difference? Perhaps over the next years we will see.

During a vet training course upcountry, goats being examined hang in back. In front, a man going home with a sack of milled manioc flour

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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14 Responses to How do You Carry a Load?

  1. Petar says:

    Hello, Rachel! I am from Croatia, women on the Dalmatian Coast (and elsewhere around Mediterranean) used to carry loads on their heads. My question, please help if you read this: we are translating some materials on revivals of traditional tools – is there an English noun for the ‘cushion’ women put on their heads before putting on a basket or sth.??? Please ! Thanks so much, visit us, as well!


    • dianabuja says:

      Petar – What an interesting project! There is no specific word, as far as I know; you might just use the phrase ‘small cusion,’ or similar. Glad you enjoyed the blot – and by the way, I am Diana buja, not Rachel; but that is ok!


    • howard says:

      My mum tells me how she used to carry huge buckets of water on her head back in jamaica. In jamaica the cloth is called a ‘kata’, which comes from the kikongo word ‘nkata’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Put it on your Head! « El Salvador from the Inside

  3. dianabuja says:

    Rachel, this recent book (review here) might be useful for you:

    Education, Assimilation and Identity: The Literacy Journey of the French Caribbean. by
    Marie Léticeé

    “Léticée describes the struggle to create a French Caribbean self-identity. He begins by describing the school system and how it is designed to eliminate blackness and “otherness” in pupils while instilling a French identity in all students. The struggle, then, is to create a positive self-identity while fighting the negative self-image that comes from the belief that “all things French” are better than “all things Caribbean.”


  4. Yes as I was saying, You know living there for the past four months and spending time in markets I keep thinking about how much I imagine it to be like Africa (*grammar crime* sorry). Not because I have this romantic, can’t wait to go view of it (although I’m …really looking forward to going) but more because I can’t place any of the stuff I see and link it to anything I’ve experienced in Europe, the States, or South America. I mean I know things are unique to a culture, but some of what I see feels African and I wonder sometimes if it’s in my bones, even though the slate has almost been wiped clean for blacks in the United States in terms of obvious African connections, I wonder. I was commenting to someone that I don’t always feel like I’m in the West (although I’ve not yet traveled outside it) but perhaps some hybrid dominated by sensibilities with which I’m not familiar but that feel vaguely so. I don’t know if that makes any sense. The cooking, the ingredients…they have a coal stove that they use and it looks exactly like an African kitchen utensil/tool like honestly it has come through the ages untouched and unchanged. Bush medicine, everything it’s really an amazing place and I’ve only scratched the surface at this point. I’m really interested in exploring Northern Brazil, Cuba, and Colombia to see if culture has been as preserved. I also want to delve more into why it wasn’t in the United States. It’s really fascinating to me.


    • dianabuja says:

      Makes sense, Rachel. The extent of African culture and cuisine brought to the New World is, perhaps, not well understood by most, one reasong being the miopia in America of realizing that the so-called ‘cultural melting pot’ goes only so far. Though I wonder, is the culture preserved, or simply fused with other items?


      • Fusion. Yes. I have to see just how much but I have no gauge having not yet spent time among Africans. I wonder if the climate also didn’t have a role in cultural retention and I’m starting to think about a theory of culturally significant foods (yam for instance) and their roles in cultural retention.

        I’m looking forward to traveling to other parts of the Caribbean to see.


  5. dianabuja says:

    Rachel Finn worte in FB:
    Diana, I just sat on a bus in downtown Kingston watching a man carry a huge bag of oranges on his head from one end of the Parade (downtown square) to the other. It’s about a quarter of a mile. He walked, back straight without swaying and I… was thinking: I’m going to start doing that! I was thinking abt what you’ve written here, as there is sooo much Africa in Jamaica. I see a few older people carrying loads this way, but in Jamaica it almost seems like only older or country people do it. The “modern, city folk” wouldn’t be caught dead. Hey I’ll tell you it makes more sense to me than anything else. I will say that I’ve never seen anyone carrying babies on their backs.


    • dianabuja says:

      Rachel, yes – and here too folks in the city or trying to be ‘citified’ will not carry things on their head. One of the lesser aspects of upper mobility.



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