Pregnancy Traditions in Xhosa Culture
BEING AFRICAN- AFRICAN CULTURE EXPLAINED
Pregnancy: Xhosa Culture (isiXhosa)
Like in any other African culture, pregnancy plays a significant role in the life of Xhosa women. In the Xhosa culture, pregnancy is regarded as an important event in a women’s life. Pregnancy brings about joy and respect. When a woman becomes pregnant, it validates her femineity and masculinity in her man.
Western Civilization has brought about a lot of influence on African cultures. However, the Xhosa culture remained rooted, keeping various aspects intact, such as pregnancy traditions. When a woman falls pregnant, the whole family rejoices. There are special traditions to be followed when a woman falls pregnant.
Certain procedures are followed when a woman gets pregnant, whether married or out of wedlock. These are explained below.
STEP 1. THE EARLY STAGES OF PREGNANCY
- Pregnancy before marriage: No family rejoices when their daughter becomes pregnant before marriage. It is seen as a disgraceful event for the mother when this happens. In the Xhosa culture, it is believed that the mother is supposed to look after the female child and teach her how to conduct and preserve herself until the right suitor comes to ask for her hand in marriage. A female child is the family’s pride, and such pregnancy spoils the family’s image. At times, the pregnancy can jeopardise the possibility of that daughter’s future marriage and welfare.
- The woman who falls pregnant out of wedlock or before marriage will always try to hide the pregnancy as she knows the negative impact and shame on her family. But at some stage, the mother, aunt, or grandmother will confront their daughter once they suspect that she is pregnant. When confronted, she will tell them the man responsible for her pregnancy.
This period is difficult for the pregnant girl’s mother. In the Xhosa culture, the pregnant girl’s mother is held responsible for failing to instill the cultural values in her daughter, thereby disgracing the family. Some families may even disown their daughter to avoid such stigma. The mother has to inform the head of the family about this incident. At this stage, the details about the pregnancy will be restricted to the daughter’s family. The mother will organize a meeting with the grandmother and the aunts of her daughter and finalize the day to report the pregnancy to the responsible man.
- Reporting the Pregnancy (Ukubika isisu): Only the females (mother, aunts, and grandmother) are allowed to go and report the pregnancy to the man’s family that has impregnated the woman. The pregnant woman will accompany these women as evidence of the pregnancy. Reporting the pregnancy is done early in the morning before sunrise. When these women arrive, they will notify the man’s family. They will be designated a place to sit and wait for the man’s family to attend to them. When the family arrives, the woman’s family will inform the man’s family members of the purpose of their visit; that is, their son has brought shame to their family by impregnating their daughter. The man’s family will have a private meeting, where the man is called upon to answer for himself the allegations leveled upon him. If he knows the family and the woman, he will accept that he knows about the pregnancy. If he admits to the deed, they will release him from the gathering and finalise the payment settlement with the elders from the women’s side. This fine could be in the form of a female cow called inkomo yobulunga (a cow that reconciles the families). This cow creates a relationship between the families so that the child’s father can be granted permission to visit his child.
- Declaration of commitment to marry (Ukuzibophelela ekutshateni): When the agreement with the female elders of the woman’s family has been reached, the male elders of the man’s family will gather with the man that has impregnated the woman and find out about his intentions regarding the woman at hand. If he intends to marry the woman, this will bring a sense of relief to the man’s family. It will also bring dignity to the pregnant woman’s family and wipe away the woman’s shame to her family. The woman’s family will also applaud him for being a responsible man, rather than ‘ngokudla esibayeni senye indoda okwesela‘ (eating in another man’s kraal like a thief). The acceptance of the pregnancy by the man will bring joy to both families and will result in the forging of a new relationship.
- Declaration of intent not to marry (Isigqibo sokungatshati): The practice of ‘intlawulo‘ is seen as a means of securing moral legitimacy and connection with the paternal family. Sometimes the man gets a woman pregnant with no intentions of marrying her. He will then make his intentions of not marrying the woman known to his elders. His family will inform the woman’s family that their son will not be marrying their daughter but would play the role of a father to his child. The two families will then discuss and agree on the ‘intlawulo’ versus maintenance of the baby when they are born. A part of this will be in cash, and the other part will be in the form of a cow, known as inkomo yesondlo (maintenance cow). Maintaining the child will allow him access to visitation and involvement with the child’s upbringing. In this case, the newborn baby will take the mother’s surname.
STEP 2. MID TO LAST STAGES OF PREGNANCY
Since the practice of going to the clinics or hospitals for antenatal check-ups was not commonplace among the Xhosa people, the expecting mother was monitored by one of the older women close to her family throughout her pregnancy. This woman was appointed because of her knowledge and wisdom in pregnancy matters. The woman would monitor the expecting mother in all aspects of pregnancy; changes in her body, any sicknesses that may arise, and the food she would consume for the well-being of her unborn baby. The monitoring was done to ensure that she gave birth to a healthy baby when it was time for her delivery.
- Prenatal Massage: Once or twice a month, the appointed older woman would act as a midwife in modern-day terms. She visits the pregnant woman to monitor the growth prenatal development of the unborn baby. She would assist in massaging the pregnant woman to relieve any swelling in the ankles and give her massages, especially in the last trimester of her pregnancy. They believed that gentle rubbing the belly during pregnancy makes the unborn baby happy. They also did this to reduce any pains and strains during this period. In the last two months of pregnancy, the older woman would assist the pregnant woman in turning her uterus to prepare it for the correct delivery positioning of the baby. Only the woman knowledgeable in this was given this crucial role to avoid putting the life of an unborn baby in jeopardy/danger.
- Diet for Pregnant women (Ukutya kokhulelweyo): When a woman is pregnant, the type of food she eats plays a vital role as she is no longer eating for herself only, but for her baby’s nourishment as well. Having a balanced healthy diet is beneficial as her body goes through many changes that require lots of energy. A balanced diet also assists her with unpleasant pregnancy-related issues like morning sickness, the possibility of miscarriage, and avoiding congenital disabilities on her baby. Eating a good nutritious diet with well-cooked vegetables and cleaned/ peeled fruit is needed during this time. Even though many pregnant women go through unusual food cravings during this time, some of the food cravings are perceived to be harmful to the unborn baby. They need to be avoided during this time as they may put the unborn baby’s health at risk or be born with some defects. Some of the food that the Xhosa recommended to avoid during this time are as follows;
- Chicken feet (Amanqina enkukhu): There is a belief that if the pregnant woman eats these during her pregnancy, she may give birth to a baby with many fingers or toes. Therefore, a pregnant woman in the Xhosa culture is forbidden to eat amanqina during her pregnancy.
- Fermented porridge made mixed with mealie-meal and flour (Amarhewu): A pregnant woman is not allowed to drink this beverage as it is is believed to cause breathing difficulties and speech development problems to the baby.
- Pineapple and honey (Ipayinapile nobusi ): Although they have diseases-fighting antioxidants, are a rich source of vitamin C, and boost the immune system, a pregnant woman is prohibited from consuming them as it is believed to cause rash and cracked skin (eczema) to the baby.
- Isibindi (Liver): Regardless of any cravings that a pregnant woman may have, she is not allowed to eat this for fear of a miscarriage.
- Ukubeleka (Delivery): When a woman is approaching the delivery of her baby, some precautionary measures are taken to ensure that she delivers without any complications. In the last month of her pregnancy, the elder woman monitoring her pregnancy keeps a closer look at her, monitoring any minor signs of labour like contractions or breaking of the water (placenta). Three more older women must be present when she gives birth, including her mother. Men are prohibited from entering the house where the woman will give birth in fear that they may bring in “bad luck and spirits” and bacteria from outside as they usually travel to many places for work and socializing. They are considered “dirty.”
- Due to changing times, this practice is done only in most rural areas where access to nearby clinics is impossible. In a case where a midwife is residing in that area, the pregnant woman’s family will request her service to look after their daughter throughout her pregnancy, monitoring her until delivery. For those with access to clinics and hospitals, the pregnant woman will be transferred to the clinic or hospital where this whole procedure will be conducted when the delivery time arrives.
- Ukungena efukwini (Postpartum period): The new mother is expected to remain secluded in her house for at least ten days. During these days, the new mother and the baby will be taken care of by the grandmothers (older women in the family) until the umbilical cord falls off. During this period, the only people allowed to see her are her mother and those present during her delivery. At this stage, the only information shared with the baby’s father is news of the successful delivery and the gender of the baby. That is all he needs to know at this stage.Once the umbilical cord has fallen, the baby is initially introduced to only female family members. During all this time, the new mother will stay indoors for ten days, expected to do nothing except being taught how to take care of her child; (breastfeeding, changing, dressing, and bathing her newborn baby). She is fed specific food like soft maize porridge to regain strength and facilitate lactation. The woman is given certain herbs, such as
- a herbal paste made from a tree called Umthuma (bitter apple) mixed with sugar, ashes to hasten the drying and falling of the umbilical cord.
- When it’s time to introduce the baby to the female family members, a ritual called isifudu is performed to clean and purify the baby. A fire is made, and some of the leaves from a sacred pungent tree are burnt. The baby will be held naked upside down and passed over the smoke three times. During this time, the mother of the child is sitting down. The baby will then be passed to her under her right leg first, and the baby will be bathed and smeared with Ingceke (white ochre powder made from umthombothi wood – with spiral spikes). This ritual is significant to the Xhosa community to protect the child from evil spirits.
- End of Post Natal incubation (Ukuphuma efukwini): After ten days, the presumption is that the umbilical cord would have fallen, an important ritual called Imbeleko will be held. Imbeleko is one of the most important rituals in the Xhosa culture. This ceremony is held in high esteem by the family and close relatives. When imbeleko is performed, the umbilical cord and the afterbirth of a new-born baby (placenta) called inkaba are buried on ancestral grounds, usually near the kraal, as a means of introducing the baby to their elders, ancestors, and the spirit world and to the clan. A white goat that signifies the child’s purity is slaughtered, and traditional beer, umqombothi, is made. The child’s face will then be smeared with a red paste called imbola, and a piece of the hide is taken to make a necklace called ubulunga and a metal bracelet the child will wear until a certain period. The family elders will then introduce the child to the ancestors and ask for their guidance and protection in their child’s life. The child will then be given a name. They can be named after an event or as per the family’s wishes. The child will keep the hide of the slaughtered goat as it becomes one of the essential parts of their future. They will sleep on it when seeking a connection to their ancestors and when in trouble.
- Ukubona umntwana (Visiting the newborn): Once this ceremony has been performed, female family members will come and see the baby with gifts like clothes and all that the baby might need for their growing stage, assisting the parents of the baby. The new mother is helped with looking after the baby for three months.
Most African traditions have been neglected due to the Western influence on the African culture. The adoption of Western civilization has impacted African traditions in positive and negative ways. Only a small part of the traditional Xhosa pregnancy traditions still follows our tradition due to the introduction of health facilities beneficial to women during this period. Most babies are now delivered in the hospital, where a woman is not be given the placenta. The newborn’s family may decide when to perform the Imbeleko as it is compulsory in the Xhosa culture. If this is not done when the child is born, it still needs to be performed at some stage during the person’s life.