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Child Birth and Child Rearing

Child Birth and Child Rearing


The Birth of a Child. In premodern African culture the birth of a child was greeted with jubilation. Indeed, childbirth was considered the most important event in family life. Older female family members were usually responsible for delivering babies, and the procedure was often less cumbersome and uncomfortable than modern birthing methods. Hardly any medication was used during pregnancy, and most pregnant women continued their usual day-to-day work. When a pregnant woman went into labor, she was secluded in a room with her husband’s mother, his aunt, and the senior wife of her husband. By tradition these women were required to witness the labor. When the delivery time came, an experienced midwife was called to take over the birthing process. Through experience, the midwife could determine when the baby would arrive and if there might be complications in the delivery. Few difficult births are recorded in historical sources. Experienced female family members helped the midwife deliver the baby. By tradition men were generally not allowed to witness the delivery of a child, nor were they permitted to view the woman’s naked body while she was in labor. Women suspected of practicing witchcraft were also not allowed near a woman in labor for fear that they might use their powers to complicate the delivery process or bewitch the unborn baby. After the delivery the child was immediately handed to the husband’s mother, who performed a ceremony before the child was shown outside the household. Because evil spirits were believed to be ever present during labor, she appeased them with a libation once the child was successfully delivered. By custom, men were also included in the ceremony that followed the birth of a baby, and the child’s father was expected to give a feast for all members of the clan in recognition of the powers of womanhood. In some African cultures, especially the Yoruba, the new mother had to remain secluded from the rest of the family until the final naming rites for her baby were performed, usually seven to nine days after its birth. Until then she was also forbidden to eat foods that contained salt, pepper, or palm oil; she was given only foods that were supposed to purify her body. These foods were cooked without salt or palm oil and might include a soup made with white cornmeal and special herbs. According to historical sources, death from complications in labor was quite rare, perhaps because of the expertise of the older women responsible for delivery. In situations where the pregnancy was complicated, these women sometimes sought the help of medicine men, who performed rituals aimed at easing the birth process.

Delivery Complications. If the birth of the child involved complications, the mother was not allowed to see the baby until the older women had ascertained the reasons for the problems. This investigation could be a reason for postponing the naming ceremony until such time that the elders decided that it was safe to hold it. Among the Ijaw people of southeast Nigeria, children born to mothers who had severe labor pains were generally thrown into a river or pond in the hope of ensuring that no misfortune was brought upon the village. If the child surfaced, it was retrieved and brought back to the village. If it did not, it was left to drown. These practices were abolished with increasing modernization. A child whose mother died at birth was likely to be adopted by her sister, if the husband’s family agreed. Otherwise, the baby might be kept by the husband’s mother or, in a polygamous marriage, by one of his senior wives.

Breast Feeding. In most cases lactating biological mothers breast-fed their children. In cases where the mother was physically or mentally unable to do so, any lactating adult woman in the family, or in a nearby compound could be asked to nurse the baby. Breast feeding usually lasted for a period of three years or more.

Child Rearing. It was the duty of all members of the extended family to participate in the rearing of children. The communal approach was the norm in West Africa during 500-1590, and it is still common in most parts of West Africa. Older male members of the family, including the biological father and the child’s paternal uncles, usually played the paternal role. However, crucial decisions regarding proper upbringing and the transmission of values were made by older members of the family, especially older women, whose authority was based on their knowledge of the history and the tradition of the clan. Examples of this practice were found among the Ewe people of Ghana and the Idoo ethnic group in western Ivory Coast. Among the Bambara group in Mali, and the Susu and Malinke people of the Senegambian region, child rearing was a responsibility of all adult clan members, including the older men.


Twins (Ibeji) were sometimes considered harbingers of future events. Before colonial contact, cases of infanticide involving twins were recorded, especially among the Kalabari in southeast Nigeria. In that culture, twins were treated as omens of evil that would soon befall the village. To prevent this fate, one of the twins was killed in sacrifice to the gods or ancestors of the village. With modernization and increasing contact with other cultures, this practice stopped long ago. Indeed, among the modern Yoruba, families take pride in having twins. Men were once encouraged to eat yarns in the belief that they increased the libido and the ability to father twins, and women who wanted to have twins were told to carry wooden effigies of twins on their backs. Women who repeatedly gave birth to twins were accorded the greatest respect within the family.

source : J. D. George, “Historical Notes on the Yoruba Country and Its Tribes,” Colonial papers, National Archives, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Child’s Play and Role Socialization. In ancient West Africa, children as young as three or four engaged in the work of clearing fields and picking fruit for the family. It is difficult to classify the child’s day-to-day activities as either work or play because the two were not mutually exclusive. In general, boys followed their fathers and uncles on hunting

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trips, carrying dummy weapons, and in the process picked up hunting skills. After returning from such trips, they imitated the adults in front of others in their age group. While this activity could be classified as play, it was also training for necessary adult work. Toys as modern peo ple know them were not common then. Available boys’ toys were generally carved of wood and included slingshots for chasing birds away from the farm or bows and arrows made for purposes of play and training for future combat. Girls played with clay pots, with which they assisted their mothers in fetching water. Smaller versions of household utensils were also made as toys for young girls to play with when their mothers or older sisters were using the full-sized implements. It was also a common practice for young girls to carry wooden baby dolls on their backs all day long as a preparation for motherhood.

Boys’ Initiation Rituals. Initiation practices were extremely important to the traditional family. In most parts of West Africa the transition to adulthood required elaborate ceremonies and rite-of-passage rituals. The exact nature of the initiation rituals differed from region to region. Among some ethnic groups, such as the Malinke and Bambara, boys who were coming of age were usually housed together in the forest, near the main compound, for two to three weeks. During this period, they slept in the forest and were visited by older male clan members, who prepared them mentally and spiritually for the ordeal they were about to undergo, which in some cases included genital mutilation or circumcision. (Among the Yoruba, circumcision was performed just after an infant’s ninth day.) During this time in the forest the boys bonded with each other, creating a mutual support group to face their upcoming transition to adulthood. Once the ceremony was performed, the young men were permitted to set up their own huts in preparation for a new transition to married life.

Girls’ Initiation Rituals. Initiation ceremonies for girls were similar to those for boys and generally took place when girls were about to marry. The most difficult part of the ritual for girls was circumcision, which varied by region. It might be restricted to clitoral excision, but in extreme cases the labia were sewn together, leaving only an opening entry for sexual intercourse. Among the Yoruba, clitoral excision was normally performed when the child was only seven days old. Other tribes of the region delayed circumcision to a later time in the child’s life. In only a few instances was circumcision performed after the boy had reached adulthood or the female had reached puberty.


William Fagg, Divine Kingship in Africa (London: British Museum, 1970).

Jack Goody, “Bridewealth and Dowry in Africa and Eurasia,” in Bridewealth and Dowry, by Goody and S. J. Tambiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 1-58.

Goody, Comparative Studies in Kinship (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969).

Goody, ed., The Character of Kinship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

Hugo Huber, “Initiation to Womanhood Among the Se (Ghana),” Nigerian Field, 23 (July 1958): 99-119.

Huber, “Kinship terms and traditional form of marriage among the Se (West Africa),” Anthropos, 53, no. 5/6 (1958): 925-944.

Derrick J. Stenning, Savannah Nomads: A Study of the Wodaabe Pastoral Fulani of Western Bornu Province, Northern Region, Nigeria (London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1959).

Victor Uchendu, “Concubinage among Ngwa-Ibo of Southern Nigeria,” Africa (London), 35, no. 2 (1965): 187-197.

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