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A question of balance

Andrew Harding | 16:15 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Apologies for the long absence. I'm just back from an unexpected trip to Chile, where I was lucky enough to report on the miners' rescue. Hats off to the rescue team (a truly global effort, including some South African technology), to the Chilean government which handled the whole affair with great verve and efficiency, and to the resilient miners and their families - I spent 10 days living alongside the latter in the cheerful anarchy of Camp Hope - a clutter of tents and caravans in a desert moonscape just outside the mine entrance.

But back to things African... Trudging through reams of unopened emails in Johannesburg, I've come across this new bit of research about an activity that I would guess millions of people across the continent - particularly women - do every day.

Women carrying buckets on their heads in Africa

It's always an impressive sight - and almost impossible for a novice. But is head-carrying done for reasons of convenience, habit or culture? I had always assumed it was a mixture of all three, and had something to do with the lack of straps and other alternatives in poorer, rural communities. Does anyone with personal experience have any insights to offer?


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  • 1. At 5:59pm on 20 Oct 2010, tenchi wrote:

    Really, it is a matter of convenience, speaking as a women, but who as a child performed such tasks. The weight is carried appropriately and you have the opportunity to use your hands - to buy and compare other items on your journey. Sure it is arduous, but the best alternative. Side benefits are wonderful shaped women, able and active throughout their years. Do not forget it is not only a practice of Africans, even the Asians and South Americans employ the same methods, as did you Europeans in past decades. As an aside in Nigeria, we also have cultures that carry on the shoulder - that is in their culture - the Gwari's and that is tedious. In Ethiopia, they carry on the back, as a contrary example the method there is pureley cultural. On the whole, it has been practicallity

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  • 2. At 08:01am on 21 Oct 2010, jonathan_twite wrote:

    When I in Ghana, I saw women and men, young and old carrying everything on their heads. For the small things it allowed them to use their hands for other uses, but it also allows the carrying of much larger objects that might usually require two people to carry. In the capital Accra, we saw a man walking down the road, carrying a dinning room-style table on his head.

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  • 3. At 10:24am on 21 Oct 2010, DrBabu wrote:

    One time some one had done some research not this to see how much energy people use when they carry loads on their heads and it was see that energy use was much lower than carrying the same load otherwise. May be in addition to other benefits, these people have realized the improved use of energy, akin to carrying the bag by females in the nook of elbow rather handing by the finger tips.
    Carrying the load on head also improves posture and strengthens the neck and upper back muscles, in addition to leaving free hands for other purposes.

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  • 4. At 10:54am on 21 Oct 2010, Alan Szmelskyj wrote:

    Although having hands free to do other things may be convenient, intuitive logic posits that there must be long term collateral consequences on the cervical spine, in particular earlier onset of arthritic changes?

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  • 5. At 3:38pm on 21 Oct 2010, JKeller wrote:

    Serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi we learned quickly to carry things on our heads, simply for convenience sake. Try carrying a 25L bucket of water in your hand for half a kilometer and you will quickly understand what I mean. Carrying heavy or even awkwardly shaped large things on ones head is much more practical because it distributes the load into the back which can support much more weight than a single arm. At the same time, I could see there would be a potential for spinal damage or even, in smaller children, skull damage from the continuous weight carried. But until water and markets are closer to home, roads have been drastically improved and everyone can afford a bicycle or car, the women (and men and children) of Africa will continue to carry the oddest things for great distances…on their heads.

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  • 6. At 7:24pm on 21 Oct 2010, Pax Africana wrote:

    It's always an impressive sight - granted!!!

    But it also represents a wider lack of innovation on our part that we've done something this dangerous and potentially brain-damaging for so many centuries. Asians for example learned to balance twice as much water balnced on a lever across the shoulders.

    Memories from my childhood in Ghana include waking up just before dawn to balance a bucket of water on my head for 4 miles in the return direction only to wash my uncle's parked car with the water. Talk about misplaced priorities...

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  • 7. At 9:51pm on 21 Oct 2010, AKPAN wrote:

    Mr Harding, may I suggest you read John Pilger's article on the Chilean mine in the Newstatesman and compare it with your post here? I used to think he'd exaggerated the extent to which "corporate media" journalists like yourself routinely misreport global events, but am astonished that you covered the entirely man-made and easily avoidable tragedy in Chile, for example, without any reference whatsoever to the fact that the mine's owners had received a warning shortly before its collapse pointing to certain apparent defects, which were ignored.

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  • 8. At 3:23pm on 25 Oct 2010, EMC wrote:

    Honestly, I find this question a bit disparaging. That's my opinion. It kind of falls short of following up the question with why they don't use more advanced methods such as cars, for instance. I do understand there may be an element of culture shock here, but you can't go round questioning the logic behind everything you find in another culture.

    Just leave them to it, Andrew!

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  • 9. At 4:31pm on 25 Oct 2010, Andrew Harding BBC wrote:

    Many thanks for your comments and experiences.
    AKPAN - a little harsh! I don't imagine any journalists covering the rescue failed to mention at length the very obvious problems in the industry there.
    EMC - no culture shock, just plain old curiosity.

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  • 10. At 7:25pm on 25 Oct 2010, EMC wrote:


    Well, there's a fine line between the two, and in any case not many people admit to culture shock, initially.

    @JKeller, I agree. It's about practicality, convenience, given what's available. Rural Chinese have a different but equally raw way of carrying stuff, whereby they use a bamboo stick across their shoulders and balance a load on either side. They can probably carry a bigger load, but the hidden danger to your spine may not be known to them. I guess that method works for them because of their physical structures.

    We're also heard of and seen bamboo scaffolding being used to construct sky-scrapers in Taiwan, and that they've been known to withstand hurricanes while their metal counterparts crumbled! Westerners would wince at a bamboo scaffolding, but the Taiwanese seem to not mind.

    I guess development is about identifying a need to perform something faster, easier, safer, more convenient, etc. I know that Africans are well aware of the pain of carrying something on their heads. If they had more effective and affordable means at their disposal, they would go for it. In fact some have. Jonathan Dimbleby's documentary a few months ago featured a man in Zambia who had invented a new wheelbarrow by replacing the conventional wheel on it with an old car wheel. The car wheel works very well, he discovered, on wet, muddy or uneven ground, essentially where there's little road infrastructure. The man had even setup a business manufacturing and hiring those modified wheelbarrows. Raw, but effective solution to a problem.

    In that documentary, Jonathan was curious, but not disparaging. And was supportive too.

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  • 11. At 11:01am on 27 Oct 2010, sasena wrote:

    It is one of the unique, stunning and amazing sites that you can only get back home. I used to carry things on my head as kid and we found it fun. It is easier and more convenient. Just one of the things we do and one of the things that make us unique. whether the western man gets it or not is his headache. We dont need doctors to tell us how we should be carrying our load (literally). You dont see us wondering around europe, opening a blog and asking Africans,why europeans eat themselves to obesity or die alone and are found 30 days later after your neighbor, who lived next to you for the last five years only noticed because they could no longer stand the stench.
    Live and let live folks.

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  • 12. At 2:14pm on 02 Nov 2010, AKPAN wrote:

    To Mr Harding: I appreciate the response; thank you.

    I am sure that some Western journalist may have alluded to "the other side" of this story, but my point was that none of this was evident in your report here. It may well be that you didn't see the point in repeating what others may have already said, but if so, why repeat the rescue story itself, given how much coverage it had already received? Either you thought this was still newsworthy (in which case, there was a need to put it in its proper context - of abysmally dangerous working conditions, etc), or it no longer was (in which case, why present only one side?).

    If you had been just another "corporate" hack, I would not have been surprised at this omission at all: I'm concerned precisely because you have established for yourself a reputation for insightful objectivity. But thanks again for your response, anyway.

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  • 13. At 11:49am on 27 Jan 2011, Duncan1111 wrote:

    Am new today to BBC blogging. I read your comments on water-carrying with interest.As a keen supporter of a charity that works for human rights on water and sanitation, I know how life-inhibiting it is for women and girls to have to walk miles and give up hours each day, just fetching and carrying often unhealthy water.

    I have what might seem a strange question. Do we know how easy or difficult it is to learn to do that? Does anyone know how we can get our hands on the same carrying equipment to draw attention here in the UK to the issue of water-carrying for women and children?

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