A recent tiring experience helping out a friend who’d become a new father got me wondering: Had we become ‘soft’? Sitting from where they sit seeing us haggling with mama mboga for the best prices on kienyeji vegetables, would our grandfathers be proud? How was it like for them in their days? Was there male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth in traditional Luhya society?
The other day, a friend became a father for the first time. At the end of the congratulatory call from his father, the proud new granddad issued explicit instructions. My boy was to visit a good butchery and order for ox liver, kilos of the best steak, oxtail and “magoti na kiuno ya kutengeneza supu”; That’s knee joint and hip joint for making bone soup.
He was to repeat this every week until at least the 40th day. In Luhya culture, the 40th day (about six weeks) after delivery marks the end of puerperium. It’s only after then that the new mother is customarily be allowed to reintegrate into society. The 40 days are to allow a mwibo (a nursing woman in particular one in puerperium in Lubukusu) to regain her strength. Taking care of mwibo was customarily the new father’s responsibility, said my boy’s father. Thus the Bukusu saying: “Sio omwimani osilia nali mwibo (You can take advantage of a mean woman and eat her portion when she is nursing a baby),” he added.
Meanwhile his mother, the new grandmother, was travelling over with special wimbi (sorghum) for uji (porridge). The specificity and emphasis of these instructions on his role as a new father got me wondering: Was this a modern thing? Was there male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth in traditional Luhya society?
Stereotypes on masculinity among the Luhya
Males from mulembe are oft stereotyped as omundu strong. Literary Strong men. Or alpha male, if you like. This generalized labeling may be taken to mean that the typical Luhya man is the embodiment of “traditional masculine ideology“.
Thus, going by these assumptions, it is nigh improbable that male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth among traditional Luhya societies was a thing of common occurrence. However, a look at traditions surrounding childbirth and pregnancy from the largest house of mulembe, Babukusu, informs this was not the case.
Childbirth among the Bukusu
Childbirth was a much celebrated event in traditional Luhya societies. Among the Bukusu, depending on the situation, a woman could either: inter among her in-laws; or could ‘head back’ to her people to give birth. The latter scenario was more common in modern and postmodern societies. It followed instances where a pregnant woman couldn’t receive optimal care during and after childbirth. For reasons given below, sometimes new mothers couldn’t get the best care in her matrimony or among her in laws.
In traditional Luhya society new mothers were taken care of by their sisters in law and co-wives (women married into the home). Traditionally going back home to give birth mostly happened during times of war, famine and disease outbreaks. However, if a woman had a history of difficult births, she could also be sent to her people to inter. Moreover, with the impact of modern lifestyles on the traditional close knit society, today it is often the case that a woman might get better post delivery better care from her ‘people’. Think modern realities like unemployment, inhumane living conditions ever getting common in cities and healthcare disparities.
That said, irrespective of where a woman gave birth, certain expectations that guaranteed good outcomes are the responsibility of child’s father. The following insights from Bukusu proverbs and culture provide examples of male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth among traditional, modern and postmodern Luhya societies.
Khurunga kumurwe, literally paying for the head, was a fine levied to the man responsible for the pregnancy in the event that a woman died during childbirth. It was a shameful happening that served to deter love birds from eloping; or at the very least, encourage them to legitimize their love according to Bukusu marriage customs before getting in the family way.
In Mbukusu’s worldview, bad omens during pregnancy and childbirth could arise as a result of the dishonor of disrespecting community marriage customs. One had to be particularly careful with ubukhwe. Ubukhwe is the relationship between in laws that begins with match marking and includes enganana (dowry negotiations, Lubukusu) and in contemporary times, the show up. Therefore male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth among the Bukusu begun with a man demonstrating responsibility by observing the stipulations of ubukwi.
One could not count himself among men of honor if he put a girl in the family way without first ‘making things right’ with her people. This meant that they could not lead nor have a say in community affairs. Among the Bukusu, a male child born out of such a union faced a difficult period during initiation into adulthood through lukembe (facing the knife). Further, children being of importance to the Luhya had inviolable rights. Of these rights, the right to an identity gotten by being brought up in the clan they were born into was cardinal.
A Bukusu proverb and male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth
Omukhasi omukara anania khukwhibusia. This Bukusu proverb featured first on our list of Bukusu proverbs on health. Why did it feature prominently? First because Mbukusu believed that pregnant women who sat about idly would cause problems and experience much pain during delivery. Further, a pregnant woman who occupied herself with productive activity during her early pregnancy saved the father of her child from shame later on.
This was because she could contribute in advance to increased needs that would come with her interment. I picture men boring their expectant wives to death throwing this proverb about. As much as it was well intended, we are reminded that the intentions of such men were probably not entirely innocent.
A woman who worked in the farm during her early pregnancy insured against starvation for herself and family latter on when she became too heavy to work. This must have been a welcome boon to lazy husbands. Moreover, by reducing the chances of a difficult pregnancy, she reduced the possibility of maternal death.
This fact is appreciated by modern science which encourages pregnant women to exercise for better health outcomes. In similar fashion, her working (in regulation) saved her community from loss. More importantly, no maternal death saved a man who had eloped with someones daughter from paying khurunga kumurwe
Names, food, trips, gifts and male involvement in pregnancy and childbirth in traditional, modern and post modern Luhya society
Back to our story. I accompanied my friend to countless trips (as we always seemed to forget something) between the supermarket, the butchery and the grocery store. After a particularly long trip hunting for bones for soup, I sought to know more about this supu thing. Was it a Babukusu thing to believe that soup helped mwibo regain strength? My boy first laughed as hard and long as he could. Then he explained that in truth his father had been indeed soft of him. The way the old man used to do it would make our efforts appear as child’s play.
As the first born he’d witnessed his father slaughter the biggest ram they had whenever his mum brought forth any of his siblings. It was also upon his father to notify his grandmother of the arrival of a new grandchild. Notifying her meant that he had to cater for the transportation costs of his grandmother and her entourage. Grandma’s entourage included paternal aunts. Often, it would also include the new daddy’s other mothers – women married to his paternal uncles.
Further, taking care of the transport needs of this entourage of women ‘carrying’ the name of the baby and also on a mission to ‘receive’ the newborn included: the cost of their care package which invariably had to have a special blend of uji flour; cost of party’s stay including food and in the modern sense, sightseeing trips to the city; cost of boarding for the aunts who will remain behind to offer postnatal care to the mwibo; return fare for grandma and whoever will accompany her; and appreciation gifts to the caregivers.
Baby bump photos
After his detailed passionate explanation, I had only one question for him. “What would your father and our grandfathers make of those airbrushed studio photos that our generation is so fond of; where we get pictured in various posses planting kisses on the baby bump?”