Ask Aka Tribe Pygmy Fathers Why Men Breastfeed Their Babies


by Jonathan Stern
Originally Published: 
An Aka Tribe Pygmy father standing in the jungle and looking up to the sky

That mug in your hand may say “#1 Dad”, but no matter how many soccer practices or Scout jamborees you attend, the fathers of the Republic Of Congo’s Aka Pygmy tribe will have you beat just based on the sheer number of hours they spend with their kids. But that’s not what earned them the distinction of being “best fathers in the world” — that came after anthropologist Barry Hewlett observed them offering up nipples when mom wasn’t around.

Yes, Aka fathers sometimes #FreetheNipple to comfort an infant. In Western society, this is met with reactions from retching to cries of child endangerment. But for the Aka, who wander around topless their whole lives, a nip is a nip (even if guy nips are basically just their babies’ version of Nicorette … Niporette?)

Children are at the center of Aka society. These are babies who don’t touch the ground for the first year of their life, and would never be put in another room to sleep. Hewlett actually calculated that Aka fathers are within arms-reach of their kids 47 percent of the time. They are not impressed that you made it home for dinner 3 times this week.

They’re also progressive when it comes to gender norms. For the Aka, there is no Stay At Home Dad and no Stay At Home Mom. Parents divvy up the household duties and child-rearing responsibilities equally. That’s not to say that everything is egalitarian — men still hold top leadership positions — but they don’t have any ego when it come to who can hunt and who can babysit.

Life in the Congo has its drawbacks — rates of infant mortality and disease are high, medical care of any kind is hard to come by, and the bugs are murder. But just because you’re not moving the family to the far suburbs of Brazzaville doesn’t mean you couldn’t learn a thing or 2 about intimacy from the Aka. Do you kiss your kids or pat them on the back? Do you feel emasculated or empowered by changing a diaper? Would you let your baby suck on your nipple?

As Hewlett spent more time with the Aka, he said it helped him become a more appreciative father, even remarking that a similar tribe, the Fulani, had a saying: “You’re lucky if you’ve got someone who will shit on you.”

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