Salam Aleykoum! This post is part of the Moroccan Fridays series in which I aim to shine a light on the country I grew up in. The series strives to explore various topics, swaying between reality and legends, geographical wonders and curious traditions. You can discover previous posts here.
“He who has no milk has no friend.”
You may spend an hour analysing this Moroccan proverb. It will lead you nowhere. That is, of course, unless you’ve heard of the word “colactation” before. But still. How can friendship be related to the possession of milk?
Somewhere in Pre-Saharan Morocco… in a small oasis community 400 km south of Marrakech, there exists a bond other than blood. A bond based on the practice of colactation, or in other words: milk kinship.
Breastfeeding forges bonds. But this isn’t any kind of regular, metaphorical or just spiritual bond. Breastfeeding has legal, social and cultural consequences for both the mother and the children. Children who have been nursed together thus become like siblings. This bond is taken so seriously that there is a Surah (a chapter) of the Quran stating that milk siblings are forbidden from marrying one another.
Milk kinship bonds can start for many reasons.
- In this particular oasis, there are two prevailing tribes, the Shurafa (highly-respected, land-owning families, considered to be descendants of the Prophet) and the Haratin (dark-skinned farmers standing at the bottom rung of society, thought to be traded slaves from Central and Eastern Africa).In short, the Shurafa and the Haratin symbolise the tip and the base of a pyramid. And yet, Shurafa infants have been nursed by Haratin mothers and vice-versa. The exchange of mother’s milk becomes a strategic tool to begin a long-term exchange relationship.
- Mother’s milk is also considered to have healing powers, especially for eye diseases.
Here’s an example. One Sharifa believed that it was her ‘bad milk’ that caused the early death of her children. When the fourth child was born, she asked a Hartania to nurse her child. Milk kinship thus has the power to create long-term, affective bonds beyond the social status.
Some say that in order for the kinship to be formed, a mother needs to breastfeed the infant five times. Others say that a single drop is enough for a bond to be forged but one thing is certain – mother’s milk is considered as a gift.