Friday, January 24, 2014

BELLIES AND BABIES: Procreation in Botswana

I am on the outside now like my childless aunt/ the one we all hated because my uncle doted on her// she didn’t like children you could tell/ and wore silk dresses that had to be dry-cleaned/ how extravagant said my mother she’s spoiled said the other aunts/ who were busy in their polyester blends busy with their kids//…when I stole two of her chocolates/ and poked holes into the rest left in the box/ she knew enough not to complain/ and kept her squashed candies to herself 
                                                      - Play, Denise Duhamel

My nephew X.L. – yes those are his initials and although he is still a tiny little mite all signs point to his growing into his name – had a sleep over with aunty a couple of weeks ago. He does not poke holes in my candies, he is my borrowed candy. Other than randomly waking up at 2am to ask where his dad is (and then with a pragmatism far beyond his three years promptly returning to sleep when it became apparent that he was not in his regular home) he is an absolute joy. Of course all day long he demands this, and yanks me that way, and we have to practice our pleases and thank yous but I take it that’s par for the course. Aren't children wonderful? Of course. Are they are a gift? Without a doubt. Do children bring joy to all around them? How can they not. Is pregnancy a truly joyous experience? I hope so. Can labour be utterly traumatizing? Oh yes. Are you a bad mother for feeling overwhelmed and demanding your fair share of social support? For feeling taken over by something that demands you give all of yourself even when you don’t feel able to? Somewhere between mastitis and a small dimpled face lies a plethora of answers.

Pregnant 300x300cm, charcoal, acrylic, gauche on canvas
© Ngozi Chukura (Botswana)
Children are a big deal here. One hopes everywhere. Older parents want to be grandparents and fleet wildly between emotional blackmail and gentle persuasion to ensure their continued lineage. In Botswana it is not uncommon for someone who hasn’t seen you since you were both ten to say, “What? you have no kids! You are running out of time, better make a plan”. Often loudly and in company.
Culture should be a springboard but it can also be a cage, personally I feel the appropriate response to agenda pushing strangers, who aren't at all sensitive to infertility or choice, is to firmly place then forcefully push the base of your palm against their nosey-noses but I doubt irritation would be an acceptable legal defense, so its probably best to write something down instead. Except that just as I began to blog about strangers and random drama I got sucked into the beautiful world of babies and tradition. So I’ll moan another day.

Seeing as I think no one has to be told how to make babies we’ll skip that stage and move on to how Batswana traditionally handle all the bits post conception.

1. Pregnancy: For local young women the question was hardly ever the TV-like, “Have you started having sex?’ Rather, it was the statement, “she’s sharing her blankets that one”. Old women seemed to be able to take one look at the way a female they had raised was now walking, her complexion and her nose (yes apparently it grows bigger/changes) and ‘guess’ with eerie accuracy that she was expecting, often before/just as she knew it herself. Then of course theres all that gender-guessing; white frogs suddenly appearing in the yard mean a girl and reptiles, snakes, lizards crossing your path mean a boy.

2. Delivery: Home delivery with a traditional mid wife would obviously have been the only choice for most women many, many years ago.The country's first referral hospital began operating in 1967 doubling as the maternity clinic, however there were mission hospitals as far back as the 1920s. These days hospitals with their bright lights and loud-sometimes-aggressive nurses are around every other corner.  

3. Confinement/ maternal seclusion: as a general traditional rule Batswana new borns are seen by as few people as possible. This confinement period is known as botsetsi. Some tribes keep the community and the father away from his child for anything from as long as it takes the umbilical stump to fall off to a three month period. The mother would keep herself from the father of her child and certainly other men, with no intimate contact from just prior to delivery to until their agreed upon culture allows intimacy. 

“They both (parents) let me do what I thought was right. When I had my first child I came home to my mom’s where I stayed for three months. No entering the kitchen, no visitors allowed – which is what I wanted too. I basically sat around and did nothing but feed, bathe and play with my baby. I got fed (lots of soft sorghum porridge). Bathed myself, was taught to put sea salt in the bath to tighten stretched muscles (I think). I didn’t take the baby out, except to go to the doctor…uneventful. I knew that my son would be named for his grandpa. Fortunately I like the name.  I chose the daughter’s name”. WM, 50

4. Naming rights: This seems to be up in the air. Some parents have chosen the children's names together, other couples have had to manage (grand)parental interference. If the child is of one of the royal families and male, or the family has a culture of repeating names there is likely to be much more interference with the naming. The Botswana Children's Act of 2009 states that every child has a right to an identity and name, from birth, which neither stigmatizes nor demeans the dignity of that child, unfortunately for you it doesn't care who gets to name the child. Also in all likelihood the younger the mother is or if she was unmarried the more likely it was that things would be done according to maternal-parental preference. At the end of the confinement period a child was normally 'brought out' and his/her name announced. It was not unusual that this would be in the form of a ceremony with members of the community present, some offering gifts to the new born, others there simply to eat.

5. Breastfeeding:  The belief was that if a new father lay with the mother of his child she was likely to conceive too soon and terminate the baby’s food supply,  that breast milk dries up or diminishes once a woman conceives as it begins to turn into colostrum in preparation for the pea still in its pod. Remember the context, this was mostly pre-contraceptives and the mother would have been the only food source J for her infant for those crucial first months, not all mothers would have been able to afford bottle feeding. And even if their milk supply didn’t diminish drastically they might suffer from breastfeeding aversion. Either way the idea was to look out for the baby until it could at least eat some solids. Of course, Botswana struggled with HIV/AIDS as of the late 80s and given how one falls pregnant quite a number of women were infected. They would receive free milk from the clinic and be encouraged to avoid breastfeeding their offspring. The country now has one of the most effective Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programs and a high majority of new borns are born HIV free even though their mothers are infected. The elders with their age old insistence on breastfeeding have had to learn to factor in some new variables.

6. Babies out of wedlock: Not unlike most cultures, either now or at some point in their evolution, having a child out of wedlock was frowned upon or … rather it was an opportunity for some members of the community to gossip about one. Traditionally a pregnant, unwed mother was asked/expected to declare to her family who the father was. Not surprisingly we were/are? a male-dominated culture and every child takes on not only the name of his/her father (or for a few the father's first name as the child's last name) but also his totem. This was important as you do not eat the meat/flesh of your totem. This was taboo and to not eat it you must know what it is. My mother's totem is kgabo which depending on your clan is either the hottest part of a flame or a baboon, but my father's, and therefore my own, is sebata (a predator) - which is unusually vague as often its  a very specific animal but there you have it. Back to the unweds, if said father was smart he would inform his own family that he was expecting a child and they would immediately and, for want of a better phrase, turn themselves in. Not the 'boy' but his uncles would approach the girl's family (her maternal uncles as representatives of her family) and declare themselves the culprits. A series of meetings would ensue, a question of whether the boy intended to marry would arise, at the end of the negotiations often the boy's family would offer a cow to the girl's family as atonement. Only then could the paternal relations declare the child as one of their own. By extension I assume you'd hardly be consulted in naming the child if you weren't yet acknowledged as the father and perhaps most importantly even after confinement it would be either impossible or awkward to visit with your child. Basically, we didn't (officially) date or take lovers and it would be impossible to explain to the community who 'the strange boy' visiting your compound was even though by then everyone would know he was the father. In short the society used all of its might, falling just short of shunning, to encourage marriage and contain pregnancy within that context.

Infertility: If one assumes language develops around what is most important to its speakers, in an attempt to become more efficient as a communication tool, then you should know that there is in Setswana a word for a woman who cannot conceive a child, it is in the feminine and I have yet to hear a masculine equivalent. There is this as well, a children's folktale (not as scary as it sounds) whose title loosely translates to 'The barren woman'. It involves manifesting a daughter out of cow caul and naming the child after it, I think. Don't quote me on this last bit, I'll ask around. In reality, a woman -read couple- who could not conceive would often be given a child i.e. a relative would have a child and hand it over for informal adoption, which could believe it or not be open or closed.

Indigenous Traditional Knowledge 
Traditional midwives served in place of neo natal check ups and lamaze classes. They massaged the expectant mother regularly and spoke to her about her diet. A pregnant woman would be told not to eat certain foods such as liver as it would cause too much bleeding, in reality liver contains high amounts of vitamin A which can build up in the body and cause harm to the unborn baby. I remember over hearing elder women speak when I was a child and one was saying while looking at her pregnant granddaughter, “If she keeps eating eggs she’s going to regret that during labour”. I'm told the worry was two fold, to avoid eating eggs at all rather than specifying soft/raw eggs and concerns that high amounts of protein would make for a big baby and that would have, I suspect, been a bona fide cause for worry before the introduction of caesarian sections and other hospital care. There were rumors of an old woman who lived in Bontleng, a kind of working class neighborhood in the capital city, who was legendary for being able to massage a breech baby into the cephalic (which is fancy talk for the ideal head down) position.

After giving birth the new mother had a strong support system mainly centered around an elder female relative. She taught the new mother how to care for the new born, ensured no one, especially not males got anywhere near the baby, that the new mother did not engage in any form of intimacy with any men including her husband/baby daddy and stayed up with the baby to relieve the mother where necessary. They also quietly kept an eye on her to make sure she did not suffer from any post partum depression especially to any degree that might invite her to harm the child or herself. Basically for three months you were never ever left alone. (Yes lots of women still undergo this three month seclusion. By law you get the 3 months off work, how you spend it is between you and your man/culture etc)

From the doctor's mouth
Not quite but Dr Alfred Merriweather’s Medicine and evangelism in the Kalahari was published in 1969, a few years after Botswana gained independence. As an aside the much loved Merriweather was also elected as Botswana’s first speaker of the National Assembly. In his book he speaks about an incident involving a young woman that took place a few days after he arrived in Molepolole, the village he was based in in Botswana. A young woman is brought to him, having traveled all day over rough roads, sand and stones actually, in an ox wagon. She is uncomfortable, not only pregnant but has been in labour for more than two days. Her abdomen is swollen, she is ‘cold, clammy and foul smelling’. He writes ‘protruding out of her was a baby’s arm, swollen and blue, with decaying skin peeling off, over gas filled blisters…The baby had long since died in the womb.’ He realized immediately the need for an ante-natal clinic. We know that some women died in child birth, he writes of being summoned far too late to save a 20 year old and her baby. Not all he recounts is horror and death, having somewhat won over the community he speaks of a young mother who tries but does not make it to the hospital but goes into labour enroute, while walking with her mother. Her mother rushes to fetch Merriweather who finds mother and new born a little cold but well. He notes that Batswana used to only cut the cord after the placenta had been delivered ‘the cord is then left untied, the baby wrapped in a blanket and, traditionally, the placenta is buried in the hut beneath the place where the mother will lie’. Even here in the bush, the new grandmother gathered the placenta as best she could, covered the ground to leave no sign of it and took it home with her.  This book is a wonderful little document of how far we’ve come – I refer here to access to correct healthcare not the placenta cutting as later rather than sooner is the safer option- though I would suggest that maternal health is an area the government needs to devote more concerted effort to.

To my amusement lots of women who were pregnant in the 90s seemed to be unable to stop themselves from eating anthills (geophagy). Yes, ant hills you read that right. The soft and crumbly sand seemed to be every where in the city and pregnant women would stop under the shade of some tree and pick at the soil and eat it. I’m sure there’s some crucial nutrient that can be found in there, and these women instinctively sensed that, if not well no ones ever died of it as far as I know. These days the antenatal care is fairly strong and free and any deficiencies are often addressed by the doctors early on. The upwardly mobile urban mommies-to-be also take over-the-counter vitamins in the lead up to and during pregnancy.

Seeing as there were no lamaze classes (actually even in 2013 I'm not sure theres a single class in town) expectant and new mommies were always encouraged to walk daily within the compound but to avoid stepping on other folk's footprints - don't ask, something to do with bad karma or some such superstition.

Some of the superstitions around bellies and birth are:
-    A local habit is/was to walk guests half way back home after a visit. A pregnant woman never walked (saw) friends/visitors out because she then had to walk back home and the belief was that on the delivery day the baby would make progress and then regress mimicking this walking out and back of the mother. I suspect the idea was to never have the pregnant woman out walking (back) unaccompanied.
-     Women who had miscarried or lost babies through other means were not to be allowed near the new born
-        Women on their monthly cycle were encouraged to visit at a different time
-      Only pre pubescent children were allowed to touch the cutlery of or eat the food left over by a new mother, and it was often kept apart from everyone else's silverware
-  Sexually active/mature teenagers were to keep their distance. There is an illness that sometimes befalls new borns quite early on, I have no idea what its called in English. It makes them heavy headed, weak necked and causes them to hold their bodies stiffly or in an otherwise unnatural manner. It was believed that this was due to having lots of promiscuous/sexually active men around the baby. These men were said to have maoto a molele which translates to hot feet, this was believed to be the cause/point of transmission for the illness to the baby. There were elderly women who were known to cure this condition using herbs and smoke, sometimes secretly recommended by trained nurses if a young mother came to the hospital with a child showing these symptoms. Not for money, but because they believed the child would otherwise die if left to the medical system. Your call. These days we have pediatricians, antibiotics and all sorts of professional specialists.
-      A new mother who is still breastfeeding does not cook food especially not for other people to eat. There are still lots of people who observe this taboo. Whether this was a clever way to ensure that the new mother could focus on her young and not be called upon to perform home keeping duties or whether they honestly found her somehow unclean I couldn’t say.
-     When using reusable cloth diapers, which was certainly exclusively the case during the time I was born, new mothers were taught to never leave diapers on the line/out at night. Depending who you speak to either someone would bewitch the child or the child would get diarrhea.
-    We buried the placenta as we believed witch doctors would salvage it and use it for the dark arts
 -   The reasons for seclusion vary but popularly it is a spiritual one: ‘adults carry around with them a variety of energies, all of which are extremely potent for newborn babies. They haven't built up their 'spiritual immunity' at that age.’ Think (also) bacteria in the time of no antibiotics.
 -   Post delivery, once the new mother was in confinement a log was often placed at the door of her hut/ at the entrance of the compound, this was a symbol that indicated the presence of a new born and to indicate that no one (except her female caretakers – grandmother/mother etc) should enter that space.
 -   Not too long after all this pomp and fair (usually 2 years) the elders begin to demand a younger sibling for the child. Seeing signs everywhere – if, as children are wont to do, your child should bend over and look between their legs at something behind them the elders will be up in arms, “Look, he/she is calling his/her sibling. Its time you made another one”. Of course traditionally the more children you had the larger a workforce for the farm or homestead, also children didn't always survive to adulthood and its not to say children can stand-in for each other but ideally you'd have a large enough number to help you sleep at night, and so this encouragement was likely as emotional as it was practical.
Rumours abound that I too once was someone's baby.

Of course the city now is a different space - as far as some elders are concerned a foreign country entirely - pregnant women go clubbing, baby showers are hosted in the 7th/8th month and as such the expectant mother is out somewhere, women deliver with their partners in the room and they go back to their own homes not their mothers/mother-in-laws for confinement. Often there is no confinement, friends are allowed to visit and touch the new born as soon as it draws it's first breath. The baby’s father lives in-house so as soon as the woman feels recovered, or the man insists (power imbalances exist everywhere), or the doctor says she is/should be recovered from labour the couple resumes intimacy. There are also the daddy showers (still a very, very small number of men hosting these, possibly a passing fad) that are now happening in the city. I was in Sweden last year and saw male loos with baby changing facility signs on the door and in Denmark I've seen a fair number of fathers pushing their babies in prams around the city - alone and not looking freaked out or shy about it. Of course that might've been a particularly progressive neighborhood, still 2 points to Scandanavia.

Meanwhile back home the father still chooses the degree of involvement in terms of early child care and some men match the care a woman would have received from the traditional system, still others come home demanding dinner and are ‘too tired’ to help with the baby, after all the mother’s been home all day ‘doing nothing’ or ‘babies are women’s business’. Best choose your mate carefully, I suppose. Dare I say some Batswana men have never been anywhere near a small baby and may even have been told that they were…o kgaetse… i.e. you are effeminate/emasculated if you hung around small babies/girls too much while growing up. So perhaps the women should buy an idiot's guide to daddyhood or hold their own daddy classes at home prior to the birth and talk about what to expect as a new father. I doubt all the men would be open to this but I do think some are waiting for an invitation to participate in the experience beyond conception and school fee paying. Common sense is often not as common as culture.

Speaking of common or not cultures, my Zimbabwean friend (SC, 32) who is married to a Motswana has had to observe confinement thrice. This meant moving out of her marital home into her in-laws so her Mother-in-law (M-I-L) could take care of her. Of course in this day and age, your M-I-L is probably not around the corner ploughing, she’s gone off to work so in some cases it’s a tricky balance of trading your comfort for the illusion of honouring culture.  SC's M-I-L does not have satellite TV, works 8 hour days and doesn’t have a housekeeper. In addition confinement is particularly difficult for SC as her own culture does not observe this seclusion period beyond the first 10 days of waiting for the umbilical cord stump to fall off, at which point the child may be exposed to the world via visitors.

Sometimes the compromise is to observe seclusion for the first born child only, to allow the older woman to teach the younger one how to care for her baby, perhaps take the load off her while she physically recovers from labour and delivery and take turns watching the baby at night - and not going into strict confinement for the second or later children.

“I think that it was the most precious time I spent with the boys. They were still young and we had just been 'introduced' to one another, so it was a very important bonding experience for both/ all of us. 
It also gave me time to recuperate from the pregnancy and birth, which take their toll on a woman's body.” NC, age 30

While NC observed the three months of maternal seclusion for both her pregnancies which meant the father of her children was not allowed to see her during this botsetsi, by her own admission “it wasn't super strict; I was allowed to take my driving test when my eldest was about two weeks old”. The rest of that time she was expected to be home all the time. If you are wondering how not being allowed to be with the father of your children is not ‘super strict’ consider this, part of the culture often dictates that the mother has her head shaved and that she be fed an uninspiring but healthy diet of motogo (soft porridge) which is believed to encourage milk production and I’m sure is unlikely to cause constipation. Although NC found she gravitated to motogo anyway she could eat what she pleased and did not have to shave her head. By the way, our (majority of Batswana) women’s hair does not grow the x number of inches a year that you read about on the net or if it does, given its crumpled-helix-like structure, it doesn’t show so it takes us years to get any length on it so cutting it can be mildly traumatic. NC also had a non Motswana friend who came to visit but mostly only family, mainly her mother and maternal aunts, co-handled her young.

Flashback to 2012: "Congratulations! you're an aunt", text message from one of my friends along with the usual name, time and weight details except it ends with, "Don't worry you don't have to see the baby until you are absolutely comfortable doing that. Kisses". Just about all of my friends have children and all are well aware that I'd rather visit once the baby is a big baby and not while its … so fresh. Superstitions aside, unless you were raised by wolves, no wait even then, you don't exist in a cultural vacuum. Somewhere between walking down the French Quarter in New Orleans and visiting my great grandmother, tradition can seem a familiar and soothing beast and I like to pick and choose what to carry forward and what to scrap. I'm also just really wary of holding anything sentient that can't land on its feet should the need arise :-).

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