To celebrate the international relaunch of www.thebemagugu.com, I am proud to introduce the 2nd instalment of our acclaimed Heritage Series - story exclusive to British Vogue. We focused on celebratory and totemic studies of 9 South African cultures, illustrated through a “Mother & Child” motif by artists Phathu Nembilwi.
The short essays below are written by Dr M.E Chauke [Dept. Of Health Studies, UNISA], Prof. J.D Mokoena [Dept. Nursing Sciences SMHSU] and Prof. M.C Matlakala [Dept. Of Health Studies, UNISA] explaining each culture’s folkloric childbearing rituals and beliefs, written exclusively for the capsule.
The 9 images illustrating each dress, to be released over the next two weeks, sees subjects carrying a multitude of objects on their heads, much like my own family, who swung between South Africa and The Kingdom of Lesotho. Seeing the women in my family have to carry children on their back and necessities on their head always reminded me of (incredibly chic) Afro totem poles; a showcase of utter strength both physical and symbolic and I wanted to pay homage to this memory. This has been photographed by fine art photographer Tatenda Chidora and art director Chloe Andrea Welgemoed.
Tswana Mother & Child Practices:
The Batswana, like most African cultures regard child bearing practices as integral to the welfare of the family or the “losika” clan. Growth or multiplication of the latter is thus very important. Hence all the precautionary practices that sought to enhance or protect the woman throughout all the stages of child-bearing; from pregnancy, during labour and after delivery are handed down from generation to generation; usually by the women themselves. These practices and passed on by the women in the family through oral tradition and experiential learning. In this instance, emphasis will be placed on the cultural practices related to both mother and child during the period after delivery of the baby.
It is common knowledge that labour (delivery of a baby); which includes all the experiences and processes leading to the final delivery of the baby is an arduous task that is undertaken by a pregnant woman. Hence the mandatory rest period for the woman immediately after delivery and including several months thereafter. During this period, there is strict seclusion of both mother and child. The period is called “botswetsi”. During this period the mother is also referred to as “motswetsi” and the newborn baby as “lesea”
As highlighted above, this period starts after delivery and may last for several months thereafter. During this period Mother and baby are kept indoors and the baby in particular may not come into contact with people who are not immediate blood relatives. For example, siblings are allowed to visit and hold the child if old enough to do so. So is the father of the child and the mother in law. Older women in the community who are post-menopausal and respectable are allowed to visit; they may be friends with the woman who is in confinement. From observation, the visit for such women may be strategic; to invoke sentiments of facial similarity of the newborn to a long dead member of the clan if it happens that that the child bears no resemblance to any member of the immediate family and disputes may arise. Their pronouncements therefore are helpful in quelling any doubts as to does the child look like. There is a saying that all babies look alike! However, many many years ago our ancestors expected newborn babies to immediately display their familial features already; whereas, they tend to manifest later as the child grows and develops. Pregnant women are also not allowed to visit.
As indicated above, concession to visit is only given to certain individuals or groups of people. Restrictions are based on the overriding reason to allow both mother and child to rest as the journey of labour is one that involves lots of excruciating pain, expenditure of vast amounts of energy, lack of rest and sustenance to replenish the lost energy. Furthermore, support is given to the woman to help her cope with the demanding role of early motherhood as well as to allow the infant to successfully adapt to semi-independent life outside the former totally dependent life within the uterine confines of the mother.
Support for mother and baby
In order to enhance the much needed periods of rest, the woman is exempted from doing ordinary domestic chores like cooking, cleaning etc. It becomes the sole responsibility of an older woman in the family to cater for the needs of the “motswetsi and lesea”. Nourishing meals are served to motswetsi as well as healthy warm drinks. This is believed to promote breast milk production including watery warm soft porridge “leshele-shele” or “motogo”. Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden. The lying in woman is also assisted with hygiene as she continues bleeding from the vagina for a while the baby is born. Intimate relations with her husband are forbidden at this stage. She will be assisted also with the daily bathing of the baby, which gives the carers an opportunity to attend to the stump of the umbilical cord at which was cut birth. The area where it was cut takes about seven to ten days to heal. As soon as the stump completely heals and fall off naturally, there is great jubilation in the family as the baby is regarded to have succeeded in the first rite of passage of fending off sepsis of the stump as the immune system of the newborn is underdeveloped at this stage. This phenomenon is joyfully announced to interested parties. The saying is “lesea le godile”.
It means the umbilical stump has completely healed and has fallen off naturally. During this period the father is allowed more time to visit with the baby. It is believed that the baby is now strong enough to withstand bad spirits carried by the father if he has been with other unknown women.
Throughout the seclusion period, the woman is encouraged to wear a tight cloth around her waist in order to encourage the uterus to move back into the pelvic cavity and ensure a flat stomach which is more desirable in the structure or figure of a woman. She is also encouraged to lie on her stomach from time to time for the same reason.
Culture resides in the people who practice it. Therefore family members carry the cultural practices based on their family values, traditions and customs. These are passed on among family members through generation via the oral traditions. However, there appears to be commonalities among the different African practices in South Africa
Xhosa Mother & Child Practices:
Once the child is born there is what we call “ukuwisa” referring to “ukuwisa inkaba” (umbilical cord fall of). The maximum days of the umbilical fall off is 10 days, although in some cases this can happen even earlier. After the fall off the “inkaba” (umbilical cord) is taken to “ubuhlanti” (kraal) to be buried there, although some bury it in the yard or “endlini enkulu” (sacred house, dedicated to the family’s ancestors). The reason for this practice is associated with one’s identity/ background, that this is where you are from/ belong and that the person will always remember his/her home. That is why in some cases when people greet each other they will say “iphi inkaba yakho?” (where are you from?).
The new mother is referred to as “umdlezana”. While waiting for the umbilical cord to fall off she stays in a particular house/room and that process is referred as “ukuba sefukwini” and only “impelesi” (nurse) or elders are allowed in that house. If the mother was an “intonjana” (never had a baby before), “impelesi” is someone who is there to assist in terms of education for the mother on things that relates to child care such as feeding, and bathing of the child. The “umdlezana” has a special diet known as “izibhembe” that is believed to be rich in nutrients and will assist the new mother in what is known as “ukuhlontla/ukwehlisa” (breast engorgement) so that the baby can have more milk, and that the new mother can gradually get back to her usual self in terms of weight gain amongst other things. The baby during that time, apart from being fed milk is also given what is known as “isichakathi” (medicine) and it is very important for this medicine to be measured correctly, and is believed to help with cleansing the child and if the medicine works the elders of “impelesi” will know that simply by looking at the child’s faeces known as “ijekesi” in terms of colour and what it contains. After ten days the father gets allowed to see the baby, and the naming of the child takes play in that 10 days as well. The new mother cannot have sexual intercourse with the father of the child for a certain period of time, as doing so is believed to temper with the milk and that can result in malnutrition and the child may lose weight and not be likeable.
Vhatsonga Mother & Child Practices:
Like many groups in South Africa, the Tsonga People also welcome the birth of a new born baby as an event of much jubilation and joy. Hence after the birth, both mother and child are secluded from the greater community so that both can be given special care during this vulnerable period. Mother and child are confined to a special and can only come into contact with very close family members as well as older women within the family.
The strict period of seclusion includes the first seven to ten days after delivery. Like with the other groups, the mother is exempted from carrying out any household chores, including cooking for the husband. Close female family members are usually charged with this responsibility. During this period nourishing food is given to the lying in woman with the purpose of increasing the production of breast milk. The mother is assisted with bathing to ensure her own hygiene needs as well as that of the baby including special care to the umbilical cord. Care is taken not to get the umbilical wet and a dry dressing is applied over the umbilical area to allow it to heal naturally; shrivel and dry up and to eventually fall off. The latter series of events are a phenomenon of joy and calls for the naming of the newborn baby. The honour of doing so is normally given to one of the grandparents. A suitable name is chosen for the baby after much thought and consideration. The name would invariably have meaning in relation to the family situation or to what is happening in the society at that time.
During the period of seclusion the mother and child are protected from other people by the physical barrier of keeping the door to the seclusion room closed to others as indicated above. In addition to that a traditional root herb ‘xirungulo’ also known as the African Ginger or (Siphonochilus aethiopicus) is normally used to protect both mother and baby from bad energies and evil spirits. The grandmother prepares the room by chewing a piece of the root herb and spits it on the doorway of the room to ward off evil spirits. The mother in turn also has to bite off a piece of the xirungulo, chew on it and spit it on the baby and rub it across the body, this is also to fortify the baby against evil spirits and bad energies. This African Ginger has other uses during this time to treat minor disturbances of the newborn like colic. The mother chews a piece of the root once more and blows her breath into the baby’s mouth to allow the fumes of the herb to enter the digestive tract of the baby to get rid of the gas inside the baby’s digestive tract. It is believed that the herb will have a carminative effect on the baby.
Similar with the other groups, the length of the period of seclusion, depends on the family values. Usually its ten days to several months. During this period, the husband is not allowed to have sexual intercourse with the wife. Pregnant women are also not allowed into the room. Once the stump of the umbilical cord falls off, the newborn is regarded as having reached a significant milestone and the child is then given a suitable name. The stump of the cord buried in the homestead to establish a connection of the bay with the place.
Zulu Mother & Child Practices:
The Zulu folk practices differ with the clan names. More like the rest, it is important to take care of the umbilical cord which signifies the growth of the baby. Once the umbilical cord has fallen, it is given to the family members who will then have to go and throw it in the river. The interesting thing is that the river should not have frogs because if the cord is thrown and eaten by frogs, the belief is that the baby will not prosper in life. Therefore, the family will take many trips to find the correct river that is clean and clear to deposit the umbilicus. At the river they will recite the clan names when throwing the umbilical cord. The clean river signifies prosperity as the umbilical cord will float in peace. The mother is treated like the other folk practices.
Basotho Mother & Child Practices:
After childbirth, a new born baby and its mother are placed into seclusion for a period ranging from one month to a year depending on the family values. This cultural practice is known as “setswetse”, and the woman placed into seclusion is a “motswetse”. The seclusion is intended to protect the mother and the baby from exposure to evil spirits and illnesses because they are vulnerable.' Other reasons for seclusion are to provide women rest after labour and delivery and to promote breastfeeding and bonding between the mother and baby
Rest & support
During this period, rest and support is organised for the woman. Organised support refers to the involvement of the family members in caring for the new mother and her infant for a specified period of time. It is provided in the early period after child birth by those close to her, in particular older women in the family for example her mother, mother-in-law, other female relatives and respected elder female community members. The support often includes practical assistance with household chores and cooking, as well as information for the mother regarding how to care for herself and the baby.
During the seclusion period, no visitors and outsiders are allowed especially a woman in mourning because they are thought to bring danger to the child. A wheat straw (lehlaka in Sesotho) or tree branches are placed across the entrance to warn others not to enter the house.
A common practice in the Basotho and other African cultures is binding of the abdomen to return it to hasten uterine involution and to flatten the abdomen. The baby’s abdomen is bound around the umbilical area to prevent abdominal colic. Women in seclusion are not to wear black clothes as its believed that the black colour is for mourning
Hygiene practices, diet and breastfeeding
Postpartum women are considered to be unclean until the post-partum period of rest has been completed or bleeding discontinued and therefore special hygiene practices are required. Prior to this, women are often prohibited from sexual intercourse
Healthy foods are encouraged to promote healing and restore health. Warm drinks such as tea and porridge are encouraged to increase milk production as breastfeeding is encouraged and promoted. Women may hand express the first milk, as long as it is expressed either over the sink or so that it may not be used. Due to beliefs surrounding colostrum, breastfeeding may be delayed. Colostrum is perceived to be dirty and stale and therefore unsuitable for the baby and the practice of withholding colostrum may be widespread
Swazi Mother & Child Practices:
In IsiSwati, when the pregnant mother is due for delivery, for those that are married, she is then sent home to her parents’ place - the reason being that she should be protected from working hard at the in-laws’ house. She stays for a month with her parents after delivery, and then return to her marital place. At her in laws house, she must be placed or secluded in the granny’s house and stays with her for another month - The reason being that she must not or is not allowed to cook for anyone in the household, while still fresh from delivery. The baby is worn a string around the waist (Lucotfo) to see or check if she or he is growing. At the granny’s house the baby is given a name that is not the same as anyone in the household, then be introduced to the ancestors so they can accept the baby as one of them and protect the baby as well. The baby is blown with herbs to protect him/her from getting any illnesses. On the third month, the mother can return to her house and start cooking for everyone. The baby is once again blown with herbs, and a ceremony is done at home to welcome the baby- a goat is slaughtered; and the baby is worn the goat skin around the hand (ugatjiswa sphandla) and all relatives are called to come and welcome the baby. The mother is gifted with a cow.
The mother is prohibited from having sex (u tila ku ya ecansini) for the first 3 months in order to allow her to heal post delivery.
Many of the activities done are to support the mother before and after delivery as well as to promote hygiene practices for the new born baby.
Venda Mother & Child Practices:
The Vhavenda are largely concentrated in the far northern part of South Africa, in the Limpopo Province, bordering Zimbabwe. Like all the South African groups, seclusion of both mother and baby is strictly adhered to. Only close family members are allowed access, including the husband. The mother in law is the one who is in charge of the care of mother and child. Household duties of the woman are also held at bay whilst both mother and child recuperate from labour and the birthing process.
Care of the woman includes attending to her hygienic needs as well as that of the baby. Special attention is given to the umbilical cord, ensuring that it is kept dry in order to facilitate healing and falling off, a milestone which is acknowledged and revered. Thereafter the mother in law disposes of the stump of the umbilical cord and is given the honour of naming the child .During the period of confinement, nutritious food is given to the lying in woman, in order to build her strength and to encourage the production of breast milk. Soft nourishing food like ‘mokapo’ makes up most of the mother’s diet. Part of the hygiene ritual of the baby is to allow the mother to squirt breast milk next to the eyes of the baby in order to cleanse any discharges from the eyes. The mother is encouraged to take the child outside at sunrise every morning to familiarize the baby with the world and to acclimatize the eyes of the baby to the natural light outside. This is done when there not many people outside.
The seclusion period may last for three to four months depending on the family values.
During this time no intimate relations between the woman and her husband are allowed.
Pedi Mother & Child Practices:
Many of the customs or traditions are very similar among the Sotho groups. The BaPedi, do recognize western medicine and allow the pregnant woman to undergo antenatal care at the clinic and to deliver from the health care institutions, while they continue to observe the cultural or folk practices. The practices may vary from families but they are common.
They view pregnancy, delivery and post-delivery as an integrated process. During pregnancy, the woman is encouraged to bind a towel lightly around the waist, reason being to support the back, especially when walking around. The pregnant woman delivers their first child in their parents’ home. For those married, they are sent home some two weeks before delivery. This is through negotiation from the families. The in-laws will bring the pregnant woman back home and ask the mother to help care for the daughter till after delivery. This is to allow the pregnant woman to rest and have the support of their parents or direct family members. This is referred to as ‘go beiwa setswetši’. Similar to Basotho, the period is called “botswetši”; the mother is called “motswetši” and the newborn baby is “lesea”
Subsequent babies can then be delivered at the woman’s place of preference. Following delivery, the mother and newborn baby are placed in a special room, where only the carer is allowed. This is a form of seclusion, to protect the baby from contracting illnesses, for the mother to get enough rest, and privacy whilst being taught breastfeeding practices and general baby care such as the care of the umbilical area (mokhubo or khubjana).
The baby is given a name; which may be named after any of the family members, particularly one of the grand or great grandparents; and it is done as way to preserve the name throughout the lineage.
For those allowed to come and see the baby, which is usually from 3 – 7 days after delivery or when the umbilical cord has fallen, they are only shown the face. The baby is covered adequately from head to toe. To ensure adequate warmth and prevent exposure to harsh temperatures.
The baby is announced to all family members. In some instances, the baby is announced to the neighbours; and reported at the Chief ‘s kraal as a way to inform the community of an additional member in the community.
The woman is confined to the room for a month, without doing any house chores until when she is strong enough to walk about and the baby is also resistant enough. She is provided with nutritious food to ensure she becomes strong and able to produce enough breastmilk.
The mother is prohibited from having sex to allow her to heal; and this the elderly woman caring for the mother will advise based on the size of the abdomen post-delivery. The woman is again advised to bind a towel around the abdomen to assist the uterus to return to its normal stage. The abdomen will then reduce in size.
Once the umbilical cord has fallen off, the baby is regarded as having grown. This is announced and there is a celebration which is done called - ‘go kuruetša ngwana’. This is done as they do traditional caring of the fallen cord, and the practice is different with families, as others will burn it whilst others bury it.
Ndebele Mother & Child Practices:
Note: Before we publish our findings on the Ndebele, we are awaiting several sources to confirm the findings so that we present an outlook that is well cited. Our findings will be uploaded on the 19th of June and a newsletter will go out as well. Please make sure you subscribe on our site to get our newsletter.