Saturday, March 12, 2011


The Birth of A Ngoni Child

  • Saturday, March 12, 2011
  • Samuel Albert
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  • Author: H. F. Barnes
    Source: Man, Vol. 49 (Aug., 1949), pp. 87-89,
    Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

    The following is an account, almost as I wrote it down at the time, of the birth of a baby amongst the Fort Jameson Ngoni living in the Eastern Province of Northern Rhodesia. I have added some notes on the relationships of the people concerned and some comparisons with other births which I attended among the same people.

    The mother, Mwanijinga,1 was a young primipara living in the village of her husband's mother's father. Puberty had occurred twenty-three months previously in June, 1945, and shortly afterwards she had married. Her husband worked at a tobacco factory about ten miles away and visited the village only at weekends.

    I had previously asked the husband's mother's mother, Kupiwe, an important woman of the village, whether I could be-present at the birth. She had said I could come if it took place in the village, but that Mwanijinga might go away to the village of her own mother's father, where his widow, Mwanijinga's mother's mother, the woman who had brought her up, was living. I also asked if they knew when the birth would take place, but was told only that it would be soon.

    On Sunday, 4 May, 1947, about midday, Jes, a daughter of Kupiwe, came to ask me if I would visit Mwanijinga, who was ill. During the walk of a mile to her village I could get no direct statement from my companion that the baby was coming; she merely repeated that Mwanijinga was ill. We found Mwanijinga lying on a mat in Kupiwe's hut. With her were Kupiwe and Esnat, Kupiwe's husband's sister. An abdominal examination showed the baby to be lying in the left occipito-anterior position with the uterus contracting well. Kupiwe told me that the pains had begun early in the morning. After this examination I took no active part in the proceedings, but sat on a small stool against the wall of the hut.

    Mwanijinga lay on her right side and waved her foot during pains. At intervals she got up and walked about. Kupiwe and Esnat went out, taking with them a brush, and Jes came in accompanied by her five-year-old son. Little notice was taken of Mwanijinga.

    At one o'clock Kupiwe came and told us to move to her kitchen hut, a smaller building a few yards away. It had been freshly swept and contained only a mat, the charred remains of a fire, a bottle and a saucepan lid. Mwanijinga lay down on the mat for ten minutes, and was then made to sit with her back against the wall, which she did un- willingly as she wished to doze between pains. She asked for water to drink and this was fetched for her. Later she was given a small pad about eight inches square, made from bits of old cloth, to sit on. Jes and her son had not accompanied us to the kitchen hut and only the two old women were now present. During the pains Kupiwe sometimes pressed Mwanijinga's knees together.

    At 1.30 p.m. a younger woman, Titamenje, sister of Mwanijinga's husband, came into the hut with a baby about six months old on her back. I was subsequently told by Jes, when I enquired why this young woman had been called in, that Kupiwe had sent for her. At 1.45 p.m. Titamenje was told by Kupiwe to sit behind Mwanijinga, put her knees against Mwanijinga's buttocks and her hands on her iliac crests. Kupiwe meanwhile held Titamenje's child. Esnat now put a cloth round Mwanijinga in the small of her back and herself sat down on one of the charred logs just in front of Mwanijinga, holding the ends of the cloth. From now on Esnat pulled on this cloth during pains and, to prevent Mwanijinga slipping forward, she put her feet over Mwanijinga's feet while Titamenje, from behind, reached round and held Mwanijinga's knees.

    At 1.50 p.m. there was a small show. At two o'clock Mwanijinga was given some porridge to eat of the thin kind given to babies and ill people. I was told that it did not contain any medicine, but was just to make the stomach warm.

    At 2.10 p.m. Mwanijinga was holding her breath during contractions and I thought she was in the second stage, while at 2.20 the vulva was beginning to stretch and the second stage was well under way. There was no change in the behaviour of her attendants. Esnat massaged the top of the uterus. Sweat was wiped from Mwanijinga's face and back and Kupiwe and Esnat changed places, while Mwanijinga was replaced on the pad from which she had slipped. She did not cry or groan, but merely grunted. With each pain Mwanijinga said 'Come on', and if Esnat was taking snuff at the time and did not pull quickly enough on the cloth she would repeat this appeal more urgently.

    At 2.30 p.m. the membranes were visible at the vulva. Kupiwe rubbed Mwanijinga's back and pummelled it while Titamenje left the hut with her baby, returning in about twenty minutes. By three o'clock the membranes no longer retracted between pains. Esnat again pummelled the top of the uterus-repeating this manceuvre five minutes later-and continued to pull on the cloth at each pain. Kupiwe and Titamenje again changed places at 3.20 and Titamenje's baby was left lying on the mat by itself Kupiwe came to the front, stood astride Mwanijinga, clasped her hands behind the small of Mwanijinga's back and so lifted her up during pains. After about ten minutes Kupiwe returned to her place behind Mwanijinga and Titamenje went back to her child to suckle it. At 3.38 a baby girl was born; the membranes did not rupture until the birth. No one assisted the actual birth of the baby, who cried well and was left lying on the floor. Kupiwe held the top of the uterus and Mwanijinga was made to kneel and straddle the baby with her hands on the floor on either side of it. A grindstone was put on her back, a wooden spoon pushed down her mouth to make her retch and a cloth tied tight round her upper abdomen. I was later told that a grindstone was used as it was heavy and would help to expel the placenta. Jes brought some medicine for Mwanijinga to drink, also to assist the birth of the placenta. She said afterwards that this medicine, made by soaking bark from a wild tree in hot water, had been taught her by her grandmother; it was one that many women knew. The baby was by this time rather blue. Esnat wiped some froth from her mouth, but otherwise no attention was paid to her. Kupiwe fetched some sand and scattered it on the wet patches on the floor; then she thumped Mwanijinga's back and at 3.50 p.m. the placenta and membranes were born. However, the membranes did not leave the vagina completely and Mwanijinga was made to remain kneeling astride her baby. The cord was still not cut. Her back was again pummelled and a spoon pushed down her throat.

    At 4.05 p.m. Jes brought in some porridge, which Mwanijinga ate still kneeling on the floor. This did not contain any medicine and Mwanijinga was given it just because she was hungry. Again her back was pummelled. At 4.I5 p.m. Kupiwe brought in a tin containing water with some leaves floating in it, with which she washed Mwanijinga's buttocks. Unfortunately I did not enquire the specific properties of these leaves. Mwanijinga was made to kneel on one knee, but as none of these methods resulted in the membranes leaving the vagina Jes suggested that they should tighten the cloth round her abdomen. This was done, and Esnat lit a small fire. At last at 4.30 p.m. Esnat very hesitantly pulled out the membranes, forty minutes after the arrival of the placenta. A piece of cloth from the pad was now rolled into a belt and tied round Mwanijinga's waist while she knelt with her hands on Esnat's shoulders. Another piece of cloth was passed between her legs and tucked under the belt in front and behind. Only now was she allowed to go over to the mat and lie down.

    Attention was turned to the baby. Small bits of cloth were rolled into strings and tied round the cord in three places about one inch, three inches and five inches from the umbilicus. Kupiwe wandered out of the hut and came back with some more sand and a hoe. She went out again and this time returned with a pot and a safety razor blade. She cut the cord with the blade beyond the third ligature and anointed the baby on her knees, chest, forehead and back with blood from the placental end of the cord. Jes later told me that the baby had been anointed in order to make her strong, but that there was no particular significance in the places chosen. In the other two births I attended the same custom was followed.

    Esnat now made a hole with the hoe just behind the door, which opened inwards, and buried the placenta and membranes and the rest of the pad of cloth. All this time the baby was left lying on the wet, cold mud floor, although a damp rag had been pushed under part of her body. Kupiwe scraped and cleaned the floor and pressed down the earth over the hole where the placenta was buried. Several other women who had come into the hut began to yell, shout and dance. Warm water was fetched and poured into the pot brought in earlier. Kupiwe sat over the place where the placenta was and washed the baby with the water. At five o'clock, nearly an hour and a half after she had been born, the baby was wrapped in a dry cloth and was fondled by Kupiwe, while Mwanijinga was lying on the mat almost unnoticed.

    As the baby was born on a Sunday, Mwanijinga's husband was in the village. He waited in Kupiwe's dwelling hut and Jes went to tell him the news. He said he had been afraid that Mwanijinga would die and that her people would take legal proceedings against him. However, he was not asked to confess his adulteries as is still the custom should a birth prove difficult.2

    I visited the hut again the next evening and was told rather sorrowfully that the baby already had a cold. Kupiwe had slept in the kitchen hut with Mwanijinga and the baby. While I was there Kupiwe gave the baby some water to drink. She scooped it up in her hand and poured it down the baby's throat by putting her whole hand over the baby's mouth. Jes was away from the village as she had gone to Mwanijinga's people to tell them the baby had been born. On returning she said they would be coming the next day to see the child. By the following day Mwanijinga's milk had come in and the baby was sucking.

    Some time before the birth Jes had told me that it is the custom to bury the placenta in an old pot, but this was done neither at this birth nor at the other two I saw. At one of these other births the membranes also failed to leave the vagina, and with this method of unassisted delivery of the placenta this complication can hardly be uncommon. Although this was in another village with different old women officiating, again the situation seemed to baffle them. In this case I had been called in to help at what was thought to be a difficult birth and I pulled the membranes clear of the vagina as soon as I saw there was a danger of the baby being left on the floor for a long time. This manceuvre called forth various com- ments such as 'She is a European doctor,' while the incident was told afresh to all the women who came into the hut.

    1. All proper names in this account are fictitious.

    2 Cf Rattray, Folk-Lore Stories, p. 105, and Read, Moral Code, p. 18.


    R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-Lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja, London (S.P.C.K.), 1907. Margaret Read, 'The Moral Code of the Ngoni and their former Military State', Africa, Vol. XI (I938), pp. 1-24.

    1 Responses to “The Birth of A Ngoni Child”

    Anonymous said...
    March 13, 2011 at 12:04 AM

    Very nice, we enjoyed reading this in Malawi. Added.

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