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World traditions: Myths and taboos – should we believe them?

Posted by African Press International on October 1, 2007

By Mangoa Mosota and Nicholas Asego

childbirth.jpg<Significant events: Being born and dying.

The two most significant events in life are considered to be the day you are born and the day you die. But while death is a sad event that most people dread, the birth of a child in most communities is a sure way of stirring excitement.

And from conception to birth, a long list of traditions and rituals have to be adhered to lest misfortune strikes and cuts short the life of the little one. Indeed, you probably owe your life to some of these practices your parents had to follow.

Medical experts today tell us that a pregnant woman should not smoke, drink alcohol or eat certain foods. However, for hundreds of years, before the white mans knowledge, our forefathers had dos and donts for expectant women, all for the safety of the unborn baby. These rules continue to be followed by parents because of the fear of the unknown.

“One interesting taboo meal for a pregnant woman among the Luo includes hippo meat because of the belief that when such a woman eats the meat the child will grow up as one who snores like a hippo,” says Richard Onyango, 74. He adds that some people believe that a pregnant woman is also not supposed to look at a leopard, lest she gives birth to a child with spots.

Elizabeth Ndunda says that among the Akamba an expectant woman is not allowed to view a dead body.

“The dead spirits might interfere with the pregnancy. Besides, during pregnancy a woman is prohibited from having sex with her husband, as it may cause her unborn child to have disabilities,” said Ndunda.

Men with high libidos often find themselves under pressure since they are not allowed to be intimate with their partners who are expectant or have just given birth. This gives some of them a convenient excuse to perfect their philandering ways. However in many traditions, a father who engages in such illicit unions is a danger to the child.

Among the Luhya, Kisii and Luo communities, such a man must take a shower first before holding the baby or going home to his expectant wife. Gilbert Ochieng, 49, told Crazy Monday that failure to do this will cause a Chira (curse) and might lead to a miscarriage.

Women have used this to tame their husbands, says Julius Juma, a designer in Kisumu. “Most of these women will confront you with an infant at the door, and watch your reaction. If the man declines to take the child, then his wife knows that the man had slept with another woman,” explains Juma, a father of one.

But trust the man to come up with a solution to the hurdle: “On the day I visit my other woman, I ensure I come home when everybody is asleep,” reveals a man from the Kisii community, who only identified himself as Robert. To him the risks involved are real and cannot be downplayed.

Duncan Masinde, a father of three, told Crazy Monday that he recently witnessed chishila (curse) which caused a child to get unwell due to the unfaithfulness of one parent.

“I saw my neighbours child collapse while playing after the mother had started cheating on her husband. The child had foam coming out of the mouth,” said Masinde.

The situation was apparently saved by a prescription of manyasi, a concoction of herbs. Amos Wekesa, 65, says the concoction is taken by the cheating partner and some of it is sprinkled on the matrimonial bed.

Traditional paternity testBut men from the Kalenjin community will thank their forefathers for lack of this stringent belief on childbirth and philandering as a whole.

“Nothing will happen to the child even if a man cheats on his wife right at the doorstep,” says Evans Kipkoech.

Kipkoech told Crazy Monday that among the Kipsigis sub-tribe, a man is separated from his wife during the advanced period of the womans pregnancy. After delivery they sleep in different rooms for two months.

And even before Western scientists came up with the DNA test to determine paternity, many Kenyan communities had recognised the altruism that it is only the mother who knows the father of the child, and came up with traditional DNA tests to catch up with women who strayed.

Although some communities have elaborate rituals to determine this, the physical appearance continues to be one a key traditional paternity test. Although it is considered a difficult undertaking bearing in mind that newborns might look alike, there are experts for the job.

“Among the Luo, grandmothers and midwives have a way of knowing whether the child belongs to a womans husband or not,” reveals Felix Odundo. They keenly look at the physical appearance of the child including the ears, fingers and nose. What exactly they look for remains a mystery. This is why statements like, this child has taken after his fathers head or ears are common back in the village,” notes Odundo.

“There has to be at least one physical feature that resembles the fathers,” he adds.

For a young unmarried woman who gets pregnant and refuses to reveal the father of the unborn child traditional society has a way out too. “When the woman is in labour, the midwives somehow prolong the birth process. They then ask her to name the father of the child, arguing that it is only after this is done that the child will be delivered without any complications. Any woman who gives false information is asking for trouble,” says Odundo. In this case the accuracy level of the DNA test is usually 99 per cent.

An elder from the Maragoli community, who did not wish to be named, says there is a ritual to determine paternity that involves taking the child near the cattle shed and a sweet potato tube broken over the childs head.

“The mother is first asked to declare her stand because the consequence is that the child will die,” he says.

Among the Luo, an illegitimate child who somehow passes the traditional paternity test and grows to adulthood, has to be careful not to be involved in certain rituals in the homestead lest a curse catches up with him or her.

Naming the child is also a process that is handled with care. Among the Luo a child can be named depending on the season, time of birth or after a relative. Sometimes the dead appear in dreams and ask that the child be named after them. In other cases a child might be born with a scar or a mark that resembles a departed person in the village. Such a child is named after that person.

Traditionally among some Luhya sub-tribes, a trial and error method is sometimes applied: “If an unnamed child cries incessantly, the people will call out different names and when the child stops crying when a certain name is mentioned, that particular name will be chosen for the child,” says Mercy Vitula.

Continuous crying will mean a wrong name has been chosen. In such cases, the debate is settled through a cockfight.

“Two cocks are given the names in questions and the name of the winning cock is adopted,” says Vitula.

If you have always wondered about the existence of what might be regarded as funny names among some communities around Mt Kenya, this can be traced to their crazy naming process.

Among the Meru for example, a child is sometimes given the name of the first animal that the mother or father comes across. “This is why you can meet a Mr Mbogo (buffalo) or Mr Mbiti (hyena) among others, reveals Adams Munya. The Gikuyu have an elaborate naming system.

All this is of course in addition to a Christian or Western name. But some so-called modern Kenyans today go a step further by not giving indigenous names to their children. Thus there will be names like Millennium Anthony or Firestone Hummer.

Children are also supposed to be shielded from evil eyes. The gazing is known as Obusala, among the Luhyas Abanyore sub-tribe and Vusura, among the Maragoli.

“The tongue of the affected child turns white, leading to serious ailment and ultimately death,” says Beverly Nekesa.

Some women in Maragoli can pass Vusura to infants, thus children usually have their bodies completely covered. However, the vusura, also known as ebibiriri among the Kisii, can also be passed through a mothers breast milk. The Kisii at times resort to dressing the child in a red cloth to ward off the effects of the evil eyes. It is for the same reason that breasts are covered during breastfeeding especially in public. Otherwise, a newborn is kept indoors.

Celebrating birthThe celebrations accompanying the birth of child are marked with a lot of excitement, and a bit of comedy, in Kenyan communities. Lillian Achieng gave birth six months ago, but when a colleague refused to enter his house, she was surprised.

“He said he was not prepared to pass greetings to my newborn child, but could do so at an appropriate time,” said Achieng with a grin. Apparently the man refused to greet the child because he had come without anything for the baby. This is referred to ogwasimori omwana among the Kisii and is translated literally as sneezing a child.

The Maragoli have a celebration for the visit of a newborn child known as uvuruti. “A womans mother and her close friends visit the newborn. They bring with them chickens, firewood, bananas and some clothing for the child. At the end of the one-day visit, they are given flour in two baskets, known as vimwero,” said Grace Kaluli.

Kaluli explains that once the flour is finished, the mother-in-law chooses a respected elderly woman from the neighbourhood to return the Vimwero and receive a token of cash.

Among other communities, there are also celebrations involving feasting and buying of gifts.

For the Mijikenda community at the Coast, a male child is circumcised within the first month after birth, and parents are not allowed to have sex until the initiate heals.

Other areas that are carefully considered include bathing and shaving the child.

But given the creeping in of modernity, many of the traditions are today largely ignored by urban dwellers. The question still remains whether the child-related traditions are effective or not.

Lifted and published by Korir, API*APN

One Response to “World traditions: Myths and taboos – should we believe them?”

  1. insomnia…

    […]World traditions: Myths and taboos – should we believe them? « African Press International (API)[…]…


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