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West African childbirth traditions

by R Hallgren
Jordemodern ()

Abstract

Religious and medical practices are steeped in the traditions of West African culture vis-a-vis childbirth. It is customary for delivery to occur with the woman squatting on the ground surrounded by sisters and female relatives, some of whom function as midwives. Midwives get paid only if delivery is successful. A stool is also often used in childbirth. The name given to a child in the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria has to refer to the circumstances of the individual's birth. The contact with the earth (as in the squatting position) has religious overtones--it indicates the fecundity of the earth, and the mother's contact with it. Infertility is considered the greatest tragedy in traditional African society. In Senegal, a childless woman pays a fertile one a certain sum in return for bearing her a child who would be raised as her own (this tradition is not unlike surrogate motherhood in Western countries). Men are never present at birth; however, in urban settings this practice is changing. The burial of the placenta and umbilical cord is thought to restore the woman's fertility and help heal her womb. This practice was even recorded in 19th century Sweden harkening back to heathen times. In Ghana, an infertile woman urinates on the ground where the placenta is buried in the belief that her fertility will be restored. The birth of twins is regarded as a great blessing, and as a sign of fertility; however, the inability of the mother to breast-feed both twins may result in the death of the weaker child. The harmony of nature, animals, and human beings is paramount in traditional West Africa religion and life, and undoubtedly Western culture could learn from some of these beliefs.

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