Pregnancy Traditions in Bemba Culture

Pregnancy: Bemba Culture
Pregnancy is deemed to be an important milestone in one’s life. The pregnancy euphoria runs across all the Zambian tribes and most African cultures. It is a time of celebration if it happens within a marriage set-up and is usually stressful outside wedlock. Pregnancy and childbirth in the Bemba culture are surrounded by many myths (this is prevalent among all Zambian tribes). This write-up will explore pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for the newborn within the Bemba culture.

STEP 1:  The Early Stages of Pregnancy

1. IFUMO (Pregnancy)
a)  Mucupo –  Pregnancy In a Marriage Set-up:
There is a great deal of joy when a wife informs her husband that she may be pregnant and confirms her pregnancy with a doctor. The husband usually buys presents to give to the wife for giving him such a wonderful gift.

This news is kept secret until the first trimester elapses because they believe people with evil intentions can cause a miscarriage (myth). This concept of secrecy is common in both urban and rural settings. The only thing that might alert people that one is pregnant is food cravings and in cases where the woman suffers from morning sickness. Nonetheless, it is kept secret and regarded as a personal concern. Announcing a pregnancy is not common among the Bemba Culture. The woman’s stomach bulge is enough to show that she is undoubtedly pregnant.

b) Ifumo lya mushimbe – Pregnancy of single woman:
Getting pregnant outside wedlock is a challenging time for the woman. The woman is usually anxious because, in the Bemba culture, it is considered an embarrassment to become pregnant outside of marriage. This predicament affects everyone, including professional women who live alone. The girl still living with her parents is usually the worst affected.

The pregnant woman is scared to tell the mother or elderly women in such cases. However, they will eventually notice the tell-tale signs of pregnancy. Upon noticing signs of pregnancy, they will then summon the girl to explain how she got pregnant and who is responsible for the pregnancy (especially if one is still living with her parents or relatives).

 After the lady tells the guardians about the person responsible for the pregnancy, a meeting on how to tackle the case is called. Usually, the close uncles (Yama) and aunties (Mayo Senge – Auntie from the father’s side of the girl) attend the meeting.

c) Imilandu ye Fumo (Case for the Pregnancy)
The unmarried pregnant girl will inform the guardians about the man responsible for the pregnancy during the meeting. This meeting is usually not pleasant; there may be a lot of scolding from the relatives, and tempers may be high towards the girl for getting pregnant outside wedlock (ukupula ifumo –  borrowed pregnancy). Some parents may even beat up the girl for bringing embarrassment to the family. In both urban and village set-ups, such pregnancies usually cause annoyance and sadness because it reflects the lack of discipline and bad parental upbringing. Although this is against the girl’s parents’ or guardians’ desires, it does not stop the community from gossiping and pointing fingers at them.

After the meeting, one uncle and one aunt are chosen to go and approach the man’s parents and present the case. Unfortunately, in most cases, the boy absolutely refuses to accept responsibility and denies any involvement in the pregnancy. (what is the process to be followed after this???, does the child assume the girl’s surname after birth, who is responsible for the upkeep of the child???)

When the boys’ and girls’ parents meet, they usually scold the boy and the girl and ask him how he intends to resolve the situation. If the boy can take care of the girl and the baby, they will quickly make marriage arrangements before the pregnancy advances. Both parents from the boy’s and girl’s side will do their best to ensure that the child is born in wedlock. If the girl and boy are both at school, it will be agreed upon that the boy will continue school, and the girl will commence school after giving birth.  

The Zambian law has recently changed. In the past, the Education system never allowed girls who had children to resume school and be in the same class as those who were not yet mothers. They used to assume that girls who have children will corrupt the morals of the other girls. Most girls’ education ended when they became pregnant. The only education they could attend was ‘Night School – Adult Education,’ attending classes in the evenings.

2. Ukusumina fumo (Accept) nangu or Ukukana fumo (Deny) the Pregnancy 

(a) Ukusumina fumo (accepting the pregnancy) – When the meeting is called, and the boy /man accepts responsibility for the pregnancy, an agreed amount of money is charged by the girl’s parents. This fee is called damage fees (indalama sha cisungu – price or fee for destroying one’s virginity before marrying her). After that, they will ask if the boy is willing to marry her. If the boy accepts to marry the girl, then they will all suggest a later date to give them time to appoint ‘Bashi bukombe’ – Middleman or Spokesman. After finding and appointing the middleman, who is usually an uncle or someone highly respected in the community, the marriage proceedings will commence.

(b) Ukukana fumo (denial pregnancy) If the boy/man refuses responsibility for the pregnancy, it is very embarrassing for the girl’s parents. Additionally, they now must take on the role of parenting the grandchild. In the Bemba tradition (all Zambian tribes), a child always takes on the father’s surname whether they are married or not. In this case, the boy refusing responsibility means the child will take on the grandfather’s surname, which is degrading for both the girl and the girl’s parents.

The solution to the denial of pregnancy in urban areas is easy. They wait until the girl gives birth and conduct a DNA test to ascertain if the boy is certainly not the child’s father. In the village, they also wait until after the child reaches between 3 and 6 months, then check whether the child bears any resemblance to the father or not before holding another meeting. If the child resembles the father, the man will be charged more money for refusing the pregnancy. This will be followed by a subsequent meeting to discuss if the boy still wants to marry the girl. If he is not interested, he must commit to taking care of the child.

 In the olden days, they gave a solution called ‘umwafi’ (truth serum) to ascertain the truth. This solution is rather poisonous and is made from herbs. Upon drinking the solution, if one is lying, their stomach will start bulging until it bursts and causes death. But if he surrenders and confesses that he was the one who impregnated the girl and intended to evade responsibility, he was given another solution to neutralize the poison. If one is innocent, nothing happens to the person, even if he consumes all of the solution given to him. This is a mystery.

This umwafi was administered to any person in the community suspected of a crime and deemed to be dishonest about it. One such case is when valuables go missing in the village, no one owns up. They would round up the suspects and give them umwafi to bring out the truth from the suspects. However, the use of Umwafi has been dealt away with since the adoption of Christianity by the Bemba people. The missionaries believed that innocent people would lose their lives and that people should walk in forgiveness.

STEP 2: Mid to Last Stages of the Pregnancy

The second trimester to third trimesters are quite crucial. The expectant mother goes through several changes.  In the urban areas, antenatal visits would have already started in the first trimester. The expectant mother is given special diet plans and vitamins to take during the pregnancy. They encourage the mother to eat balanced diet meals containing many leafy vegetables, eggs, meat, chicken, fish, nuts, okra (without soda). It is believed that soda is not suitable for the baby. All the relish is served with carbohydrate-rich foods such as rice or nshima (hard porridge made from maize, sorghum, millet mealie-meal) – the staple food for Zambia.

 During the antenatal visits, they are told to refrain from heavy duties, especially during the third trimester. In the village, the pregnancy is usually taken care of by midwives called ‘bana chimbusa .’They give them advice on how to conduct themselves. During the pregnancy, the expectant mother continues to eat the regular foods they usually eat, beans, fish, leafy vegetables cooked in peanut soup, sweet potatoes with nshima. They are discouraged from eating eggs; they are told eggs will affect the baby’s hair (myth).  

In most cases, expectant mothers eat whatever they desire, whether in urban areas or villages, though they are encouraged to maintain a balanced diet.

In the village, the bana cimbusa always tell the expectant mothers to be active during the pregnancy because if they are not, they will fail to give birth. So, in the villages, you will see many heavily pregnant women digging at the farms, fetching water, cooking, etc. 

 In the villages, the clinics are usually in distant areas, and in the olden days they were no clinics at all; the midwives did deliveries. There were no caesarian births; everyone gave birth the natural way. 

For those who have understanding husbands, pregnancy is the time to enjoy being pampered by their husbands. When the husband cannot help with house chores, they usually employ a maid or find a relative to help their wives.

In the villages, the midwives give women herbs to drink, especially towards delivery. It is believed that these herbs help women to give birth quickly and not endure long and painful labor. Some women in urban areas also take these herbs, though the doctors and nurses discourage them, advising them that since they are not scientifically tested, they can cause harm to the babies. However, most women do not adhere to this advice; they trust bana cimbusa’s advice more than doctors’.

Midwives also give these herbs to expectant mothers. It is believed that the herbs protect them from death during childbirth in situations where the husband had been unfaithful by having extra-marital affairs during the wife’s pregnancy (myth). It is believed that if the husband is unfaithful during the wife’s pregnancy, the woman can give birth to a stillborn baby, or the woman can die while giving birth. This occurrence is called ‘incila’ (the husband is unfaithful). It is a big crime in the Zambian culture for a woman to die during childbirth or give birth to a stillborn baby.

Automatically the husband is blamed for unfaithfulness. It is unfortunate. But this tradition is widely believed among most Zambian tribes, be it in the urban areas or villages. Therefore, most women take these herbs for protection and easy labour. However, on the positive side, it is a reasonable belief because it instills fear in men not to cheat on their spouses while pregnant. It also helps to prevent venereal diseases (sexually transmitted diseases) from being passed on to the mother and child.

STEP 3: UKUPAPA (Giving birth) 

When it is time to deliver, in urban areas, the woman goes to the clinic when she feels contractions or when the water breaks. The baby bag with the things needed is usually packed a month before so that if the baby comes early, they are ready. Women are encouraged not to cry when they experience contractions. 

When the baby is born at the hospital or clinic, the mother and the baby are kept in the hospital for a day or two to observe that they are both in good health before being discharged. The health personnel usually give them dos and don’ts on how to take care of the baby.

In the village bana Chimbusa (midwife) are the ones who deliver the baby. They also know how to check the stages of the contractions, though they always tell pregnant women to push and not wait to push when they feel the contractions. This can cause mothers to die during childbirth because sometimes their pelvic bones are not strong enough or well developed (especially young girls). However, death cases are rare because the bana cimbusa are usually experienced in conducting deliveries. The elderly women in the home and bana cimbusa will bathe the baby. The mother is massaged (at least for two weeks) and sits in salty water to aid virginal healing and retention of its form. 

Additionally, in the Bemba Culture, when a woman gives birth, the bana cimbusa will immediately tie a scarf or wrapper around the mother’s waist so that her waistline is retained the stomach does not sag. It is rare to find women with sagging tummies in the village even after giving birth to several children. The tying of the tummy is maintained for the first seven days after delivery (day and night). Bana cimbusa and all women still believe that a woman’s structure should remain attractive even after giving birth.

Ukumona Nyina no Mwana (Visiting the mother and baby)
In both the urban areas and villages, visiting the mother and baby after giving birth is restricted and reserved only for the immediate family members in the home. However, some of them are only allowed to hold the baby when the baby is at least a month old. Those permitted to hold the baby can only do so after the umbilical cord drops (this takes 7 to 8 days). 

Preventing people from visiting and touching the baby is usually for hygienic purposes and prevents the baby from picking up infections since their immune system is not yet fully developed. Mothers in both the urban areas and villages understand this fact very well.

Breastfeeding is encouraged for up to six months, and most women go up to one year six months. Mothers in both the urban and village areas understand this. They all believe that breast milk is the best for the baby. Solids such as porridge are introduced to the baby when they reach about three months old. Feeding the baby in public areas is not usually allowed, especially in the first few months. It is believed the child can suffer from chest pains (myth), though not scientifically proved. They also discourage women from holding the baby on their menses, especially on the first day. It is believed that it causes the child to have rashes and develops pimples (this happens – it is a mystery) with no scientific explanation. ??????

STEP 4: Ukwinika Inshina – (Giving a Name to the baby) 

Baby’s names are usually given while a person is pregnant. But some clans wait until the baby is born before giving the baby a name. Bemba names are generally gender-neutral. Most children are named after a dead relative to retain the person’s importance in the family. Some names are given by living relatives. 

(some are named AFTER or BY living relatives??????)

End of Post Natal Period 

After this period (usually six months), husband and wife are allowed to be intimate. Though nowadays, it is a personal decision. But the intimacy cannot happen before at least three months pass. 

In conclusion, the above depicts what occurs from pregnancy to giving birth in the Bemba Culture.