It is interesting for me how the rainbow nation of South Africa is fusing and changing cultures. Now a Xhosa woman may give birth in water, cut her own baby’s cord and give birth in a hospital or birth centre. The midwife is not likely to be a member of her family, and Bathabile, whose pictures I include here, travelled from Cape Town home to her mother soon after the birth. There is a need to bring back the sacredness to our country’s birth rituals, perhaps not identical to the old ways, but a fusion of essential elements that will connect us to our ancestry and each other.
In Xhosa culture, cattle and goats are sacred because they provide meat, milk, hides for clothes and symbolise the unity between the human material world and the spiritual world of universal gods and the ancestors. When a baby is born, she slips through the two worlds as it were into the present social community, bringing gifts of character and recent connections with the spirit world and even ancestors that will, over time, differentiate her from any other human being.
Birth in the Xhosa culture, is an important rite of passage and is therefore treated with due respect, honour and celebration. Traditionally, the birthing mother is attended to by ‘grand-mothers’ in her ‘rondavel’, who have experience in birthing babies. The rondavel is made with mud or a cob-like mixture, and the roof is usually thatched, so the room is dark and circular. After the birth the mother and new baby are secluded until the cord falls off and the grandmother aids this process by mixing ash, sugar and a poisonous plant called ‘Umtuma’ together and rubbing the paste onto the newly severed cord, which is believed to aid the drying out process.
Once the cord has fallen off, the new baby is introduced to close female family members as well as to women of the wider community. The ritual of “Sifudu” is then performed. Pungent leaves of the Sifudu tree are burnt in a fire, around which the women gather, to produce a very pungent smoke. The baby is then floated over the smoke (upside-down) three times, which causes a severe reaction of coughing and sometimes screaming. Then the baby is given to the mother who passes the baby under her left knee then her right knee. This ceremony is believed to make the baby stronger in spirit and protect her from future evil. The baby is then washed and smeared with a white chalk called “Ingceke” mixed with ground “Mtomboti” wood, a sweet smelling substance that lasts for many weeks.
The baby is then breastfed by the “Umdlezana”, the mother.
“Inkaba” is the ritual of burying the cord and the placenta and this has great significance to the clan and seals the attachment of the baby to her ancestral lands. “Inkaba” then comes to mean one’s ancestral home and symbolises the relationship between the individual, his/her clan, the land and the spiritual world. The burial place of an ‘Inkaba’ is a place where one must go and dream and communicate with ancestors.
The ritual of “Imbeleko” is the ceremony welcoming the child into the greater community, when a goat is slaughtered and the clan is invited to attend the feast. The skin of the goat then becomes a sacred item for the new clan member, the baby, who will sleep on it in the future in times of trouble, signifying a desire for connection with the ancestors.
The baby will be named with a family prefix, or suffix and may be named to signify events, like a thunderstorm or lightening, or wishes the family may have like “Hope” or “Themba”. A clan “Praise-Singer”, who is comparative to a Bard in celtic culture, will call upon the ancestors and vocally elaborate on all the ancestors’ feats of excellence and praiseworthy qualities, so as to imbue the new member of the clan with a sense of her responsibility to the group at an early age. In my culture the term may be “I am because you are”!
It is always a privilege for me to assist at the births of my African sisters, as I try to imbue the experience with more humanity than they are used to. There is very little data about traditional rituals around the birth of the peoples of Southern Africa. Women nowadays, are encouraged to give birth in hospital and very few women take their placentas home. This is to me perhaps symbolic of many people being displaced from their ancestral homes, which indeed they have been, since the first western European settlers arrived in Cape Town from Holland in 1652.
I do have access, though, to a collection of remarkable art photographs by a man called Lister Hunter. I include the link below: