Pregnancy Traditions in Zulu Culture

Pregnancy: Zulu Culture (isiZulu)

This write-up will give insight into how cultural traditions continue to shape the maternity experiences of Zulu women. It will also highlight how most women in certain rural communities still adhere to traditional practices and food taboos during pregnancy, regardless of the changing times. The Zulu people have taboos and rules surrounding the concept of pregnancy and childbirth. These rules indicate what to do and not to do during and after pregnancy, from food, visitors, and who should be around childbirth.


In Zulu culture, several traditional practices are performed during a woman’s pregnancy and perinatal period.


Getting pregnant before marriage (out of wedlock):
Like in most African cultures, the Zulu people believe that it is the mother’s responsibility to take care of the household, look after the children, and teach them to respect and conduct themselves, especially when they reach puberty. When a young girl or unmarried woman becomes pregnant, it brings shame to her parents, and the blame is usually placed on the mother. It is not any parent’s wish or pride to see their daughter falling pregnant out of wedlock as it gives a bad name to that family for not properly raising their children. 

When a Zulu woman falls pregnant out of wedlock, certain traditional procedures need to be adhered to, including “inhlawulo” (payment for damages to the pregnant woman’s family). The pregnant young woman may hide her pregnancy from her parents for fear of being reprimanded or chased away from the family household when they find out about the pregnancy. However, the pregnant womans’ mother will eventually notice the pregnancy signs on her daughter and confronts her. The young girl/woman may approach her mother privately and inform her about her pregnancy in certain situations. The mother would then sit with her husband and tell her about the pregnancy.

This matter is discussed between the two parents, and later some of the close relatives are involved. They will question the young girl about the issue (from courtship until pregnancy) that happened and would also want to know about the background and family of the responsible man. A decision on which women’s family members would go and report this incident, a day or date will then be appointed and finalized amongst the family members. According to African customs, the man responsible and his paternal family have to wait to be approached by the pregnant woman’s family.

Ukubika isisu (Reporting the Pregnancy):
On the specified day, two or three elder women relatives, including the pregnant woman, visit the father-to-be’s home to inform them of the pregnancy. The visit takes place in the early morning hours, before sunrise. The outcome of this visit may be in one or two ways, either acceptance or denial of the pregnancy. 

The Zulu people believe that once you have taken their daughter’s virginity, you should marry her because the woman’s chances of getting married to a different man are significantly reduced once she has a child. They also believe that the man who marries such a woman will not afford her the respect she deserves as a woman. Other families will even take it further and take their daughter by force to go and stay with the family of the man accused to have impregnated her without even approaching his family regarding this matter.

The rest of the discussion will depend on the man’s acceptance or denial of the pregnancy.

Denial of Pregnancy:
The elderly women’s party sent to probe the pregnancy issues will introduce themselves outside the gate. Once they are allowed entry, they will be given a place to wait for some of the man’s members to come o them. They will then tell their reason for their early visit, that one of their cows has eaten in their field (enye yeenkomo zabo idle insimu yabo). The girl’s family may be asked to show proof of their accusation. They will then uncover the pregnant young woman (who will be covered in a blanket) and ask her to show her breasts and tummy as proof of her pregnancy. The man accused of impregnating the young woman will then be called and be asked to acknowledge or deny the pregnancy. The denial can take shape in two forms:

  1. A) The man can deny having anything to do with the young woman brought before him. Should this be the case, the woman’s party will question why their daughter would point him as the father while she knows he was not. Discussions will follow until they are convinced that he vehemently denies the pregnancy.
  2. B) Sometimes, the man will not immediately acknowledge the pregnancy. He will discuss this in private with his family and then inform the woman’s family that they insist that they will not pay any damages until the baby is born to see if they resemble him as the father or any family members. This refusal or denial is seen as a shame and humiliation to the young woman’s family. In some families, it may cause misunderstandings and arguments between the pregnant woman’s parents.

Acceptance of Pregnancy: The acceptance and the acknowledgment of paternity by the father-to-be is seen as a good thing. It is seen as a relief as it takes away the shame and brings back the dignity and respect of the woman’s family in the community. The father-to-be acknowledges his mistake and takes full responsibility for his deed or offence. The discussion thereof will rest upon the further steps following this acceptance. The two families will then agree on the day they will discuss inhlawulo. Inhlawulo is a traditional procedure for paying damages done by a man who impregnates a girl or unmarried woman. It is a way of acknowledging the offence that he has done and an apology for denting the dignity of the woman’s family. It also restores respect and dignity to the impregnated woman, unlike when the damages have not been paid. Inhlawulo will be based on two decisions that the father-to-be has to consider, as discussed below:

Isinqumo sokungashadi (Decision not to marry): On the appointed day, the two families, represented by the elderly men, will meet at the woman’s homestead to discuss the inhlawulo. According to the Zulu culture, the inhlawulo is paid in cows. These cows are:

Inkomo yobulunga (the cow that reconciles) as it brings two families together. The payment of this cow is compulsory as it opens a way for the father-to-be to have access to visit and play a father’s role to his child. It builds and strengthens the relationship between the two families).

Inkomo yesigeza muzi (the cow to cleanse the homestead): Since getting pregnant out of wedlock is seen as a shame in the family, this cow will bring back the dignity of that homestead. If the man’s family cannot afford a cow, a goat is acceptable.

Inkomo yomqhoyiso (cow for retainment of virginity): When a young woman who was itshitshi (virgin) becomes pregnant and loses her virginity, inkomo yomqhoyiso is paid for damages to the mother of the pregnant woman to restore her humiliation. 

If the father-to-be cannot afford to pay the inhlawulo at once, his family may plead to pay it in instalments, paying only the inkomo yobulunga for that time being. The woman’s family usually agrees to this. Accepting the pregnancy indicates that he is fully responsible and can be trusted.

Isinqumo sokushada Decision to marry: Should the father-to-be decide to marry the young woman, they will include the cows mentioned above in the lobola, and lobola negotiations proceedings may occur. The rest of the family members will welcome this decision. It will give the child a good sense of belonging and upbringing with two parents, taking after his father’s lineage, surname, clan, and totem, thereby building a strong relationship with his maternal kin.


Recommended food

Food rich in nutrients,  fruits, and vegetables is recommended during pregnancy to avoid malnutrition and deficiencies in unborn babies.

Pregnancy requires a healthy diet that includes an adequate intake of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals to meet maternal and fetal needs. 

Some of the recommended foods are:

Igushe (imfino) – This is a slimy green leafy vegetable. Its consumption is believed to assist in dilating the uterus during delivery.

Pumpkins/ Squash: Eating this kind of vegetable is recommended during pregnancy because it is believed that it will enhance the way the fetus is positioned in the womb and increase body water for the mother, making it easy for her when she is in labor. 

Ijuba (traditional beer): This traditional drink is made from unprocessed sorghum grain malt mixed with yeast. Ijuba is usually given to the pregnant woman in her second trimester as it is believed that by consuming it, she will give birth to a pretty and lighter skin-colored baby.

Isibindi (Liver): It is believed that eating liver during pregnancy will help to restore, increase, and cleanse the blood.

Amadumbe: This resembles a sweet/potato. It provides good nutrients to the pregnant woman and is believed to enhance the delivery of a healthy baby.

Amakinathi (peanuts): It is believed that that peanuts will protect the baby from infections and provides them with good, saturated oils,  making them to be healthy and full of energy.

Inyama nophuthu (Meat and crusty maize pap): These are a good source of vitamins and energy.

Restricted /Taboo Food
Some traditional beliefs about avoiding certain foods during pregnancy are still highly practiced in the Zulu culture. Restricting pregnant women from eating some types of food was seen as an aid to unhealthy eating habits, such as the belief that they are eating for two. A few examples of such foods are mentioned below:

Amazambane (Potatoes): It is perceived that consuming this kind of starch food may affect the newborn baby’s breathing and speech development.

Amadumbe leaves: Consuming them may lead to blindness of the baby or poor eyesight.

Umkantsha (bone marrow): This may lead to a baby having a runny nose and always full of mucus.

Uphayinaphu (Pineapple): This may cause miscarriage in early pregnancy, especially if consumed during the 1st trimester.

Inyama yembuzi (Goat meat): A certain clan believes that the baby may be born with a mental disorder or hearing defect when a pregnant woman eats this kind of meat.

Umoba (Sugarcane): It is believed to make your baby drool a lot. 

Citrus fruit and any fizzy orange drink: It is believed to cause jaundice in the baby.


Postpartum recovery and infant feeding, rather than modern medical practices

Prenatal Massage

Ukubeletha (Delivery of a newborn baby)
Like in many Nguni tribes, childbirth or delivery in the Zulu culture is a concern for women only. Only women are allowed to be around the mother in labor. Delivery usually takes place in a round hut with a thatched roof and a floor cleaned using cow dung. During the pregnancy stages, they will choose older women in their menopausal stage (past child-bearing age) to assist with the delivery as there are believed to be clean/pure and will not bring any infections that may be harmful to the newborn baby. These women possess vast knowledge and experience in midwifery duties to avoid putting the mother and her unborn baby at risk during delivery. Any person suspected of witchcraft among the family members is prohibited from partaking in this so that they don’t bring bad muthi (traditional herbs) that may be harmful to the mother and the baby.

Only the older women assisting in delivery may cut the umbilical cord as they are perceived to be clean. Young women who are still sexually active are not permitted to cut the cord as it is believed that they will cause the baby not to heal and develop sores. Some of these midwives will use the scissor, while some families with a strong traditional belief may insist that a sharp part of Umhlanga (the reed) be used to perform such cutting. 

Ukungena efukwini (Postpartum period):
After the baby is born, the mother and the newborn will be isolated for a few days, usually between 4-10 days, until the umbilical cord falls off. During this time, there will be an elderly woman that will look after the new mother and her baby, allowing her to regain her strength. After three or four days, the elderly woman would use isichatha bantwana (something that resembles a syringe) to insert it into the baby’s rectum. It is believed that when babies are born, they have what is called inyoni. Inyoni means a bird, but in this instance, some babies show a sign of restlessness during their sleep and cry now and then. So, using this kind of syringe with herbs will aid in removing inyoni caused by the baby’s first poop (meconium) as they believe that it can be harmful to the baby’s health if not cleaned from the inside from the onset. Certain food/beverages are prepared for the mother to encourage lactation and postpartum recovery. As part of the healing, the mother is encouraged to drink traditional herbs like ugobho and umathunga that will assist her in her womb and uterus to heal fast. Very few people can come into the dwelling or room to prevent infections they may bring to the new mother and her newborn baby. She is also restricted from coming out of this house or being seen by anyone. Not even her husband is allowed to see her or the baby until the postpartum period is over.

Ukuphuma efukwini (End of Post Natal incubation)
When the postpartum period is over, they will thoroughly clean the dwelling where the new mother and her baby were using before allowing anyone to come in. After this, some family members, including the husband, may be permitted to enter and see them. Food and traditional beer are prepared to thank all the women involved during the maternal stages. This celebration of Imbeleko is discussed below:

Imbeleko (Act of giving back/carrying on your back)
Zulu nation does not do the child’s naming ceremony but only what is known imbeleko, which is conducted ten days after the umbilical cord has fallen and the postpartum term is over. This imbeleko is performed to introduce the child to the ancestors and give thanks to them for protecting the child during the pregnancy. 

A goat is slaughtered in the main family hut (used to call upon the ancestors for any traditional ritual or rite) during Imbeleko to thank the ancestors for this offspring’s blessing, as most Zulus strongly believe in their ancestors. This goat meat will be hanged and left to dry throughout the night in this hut to be consumed the following day when the imbeleko occurs. 

A male elderly family member presents the baby, calling him by his given names. A child is introduced to his ancestors according to their biological father’s lineage (clans and totems and will take the father’s surname). When this ritual is performed, the child’s father will be present. The case differs when a child is born out of wedlock as that child is not recognized by the man’s ancestors and is taken as umlanjwana/ivezandlebe.

A piece of the goatskin, isiphandla, is cut and worn by the baby and the mother on their wrists. The purpose of wearing isiphandla is to connect the newborn to their ancestors. This isiphandla is worn until it falls off by itself. The family elders are consulted should there be any need to remove it. The other part of the skin will be cleaned, then sprinkled with salt, and hung to dry. The mother will use it to carry the baby on her back (imbeleko). This goat’s cecum will be consumed later by the baby’s grandparents. They will empty the bile of the goat and anoint their grandchild with it, and the dry sac of the bile is be tied around his neck until it becomes dry. After some days, the bile will dry up, and the grandmother will burn it with impepho as part of the ritual.

After imbeleko, the baby is introduced to a soft liquid porridge called income to relieve the mother’s breast milk.

It is believed that if imbeleko is not performed for a child after birth or when growing up, he may encounter many problems and bad luck at some stage of his life.

Ukubona Ingane (Visiting the newborn baby)
During the early days and months, the baby is still very fragile, and not everyone is allowed to come and see or visit the baby. Only trusted close relatives can visit to avoid infections that could affect the baby’s health and growth. The mother and the baby continue to use intelezi to bath and burn impepho, izinyamazane. 

Some visitors bring gifts in the form of baby clothes, blankets, toiletry, and nappies, and some will bring food to assist the mother during this time. Some will come to give a helping hand with the household chores and looking after the baby while the new mother rests. However, when the child is born out of wedlock, the situation is different. Only the woman’s family and sometimes friends may lend a helping hand.

Isiphetho (Conclusion)
In the Zulu culture, pregnancy is seen as a blessing from the ancestors, and families must acknowledge this blessing. If it happens out of wedlock, certain rules like inhlawulo must be adhered to,  which will serve as an acceptance of such an offense. Should pregnancy occur between two married people, lobola negotiations followed by imbeleko will occur. During this maternal stage, the pregnant woman will be in great care until the delivery of the baby and the imbeleko performance. 

Even though times have caused a lot of changes in some of the cultural rituals/rites, the inhlawulo is one of many practices that still prevails in the Zulu and Nguni cultures. At times, you may find that some families cannot perform imbeleko just after ten days or at a younger tender age due to an inability to afford it. They will do this rite when the child is a grown man/woman so that they do not encounter any difficulties in their lives.