I am usually greeted with surprise when I tell people in the United Kingdom that I have moved to Ghana with my one-year-old baby. They tend to question why I would want to raise a child in the capital, Accra. They seem to imagine that, as a West African metropolis, it must be poor, hot and polluted. It is, but it is also well connected, safe, breezy, coastal and filled with children and trees, which makes it a lovely place to work and raise a family.
When I explain that the reason I moved here was to become a foreign correspondent, the response turns into one of bewilderment. Just last week, while listening to BBC Radio4's Woman's Hour online, I heard my colleague Zoe Williams exemplify this. She said: "You couldn't be a foreign correspondent and have your children: it would be completely impossible for you emotionally."
What followed was a discussion of "extreme jobs", and how these are generally impractical for women and incompatible with motherhood.
This to me represents one of the major differences between perceptions of working women in Western society and those in Africa. In Ghana, the reaction I get when I tell other women about my job and baby is usually a knowing nod. Most women here have a very simple solution to the challenge of working motherhood. They just strap their babies to their backs and carry on.
I am not saying this is easy. One of the things that annoys me most here is that women are so capable of combining carrying an infant with all their other tasks, that men get away with murder. I cannot count the number of times I, with babe in arms, have had a door slammed in my face by a Ghanaian man. I have never been one of those women who have a problem with chivalry. I am also not saying I do not feel guilty about some of the places I have dragged my poor daughter so that I – unwilling to leave her behind for days at such an early age – could cover a story. It is far from ideal.
African women do not waste much time feeling guilty about the inevitable imperfect situations that come with being a working mother. Instead, motherhood is a celebrated part of prominent women's credentials. When Joyce Banda, now Africa's second female president, was appointed in Malawi, the Ugandan Daily Monitor described her as "motherly and resplendent in rich African colours" and said she "came across as the perfect embodiment of African feminine grace".
I love the ease with which powerful women across the continent are simultaneously seen as mothers, daughters or wives and as presidents, chief prosecutors or chairs of the African Union – all recent examples of titles taken on by African women. The flip side of this is that women who have not had children are chirpily described in the press as "barren", something that will never cease to horrify me.
There is a debate among African feminists about whether the way women on the continent bear children – in many cases a lot of children – while farming, trading and keeping house is a source of empowerment or patriarchal oppression. There are also valid grounds for questioning whether those women who have made it into positions of political power really represent progress for the majority.
While people like me question such things, most women are having their children and getting on with their work. I am not trying to romanticise their daily grind – women suffer disproportionately from poverty and underdevelopment, which is all the more reason for their major involvement in politics, policy and development to be non-negotiable. But for women who choose to be mothers, and to work – even as foreign correspondents – I can definitely think of worse places to do it. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Afua Hirsch is The Guardian's west Africa correspondent