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Childbirth in Traditional Edda Society

Excerpts from “Edda Heritage” by Egbebu Liberal Movement

December 30, 2009

The ultimate goal of marriage is procreation. When this is not forthcoming, the couple naturally feels worried and dejected. They may resort to consulting native doctors, herbalists and the goddess of fertility for assistance. Today Christian families would consult modern doctors, spiritualists and the like.

When a woman becomes pregnant, she has to observe a number of antenatal regulations and the “Dos and Donts” vary from village to village. The woman is expected to avoid snails (ikolo or ejula) so the child does not have “running eyes and nose” as well as monkey meats so the child does not “resemble a monkey.” There should be less pepper in her food and she must not be burdened with strenuous work, heavy load or walk around too much during the heat of the day.

In the same vein, hot water baths may induce miscarriage due to over heating of the body, tight cloths round her waist or belly will “keep the child in captivity” and she should be restrained from fighting because that expresses contempt for the life in her womb. She is encouraged to eat clay (uro) in the belief that it is an antidote against heart-burn and nausea.

Basically, there is no penalty for infractions of these rules, but they are for the safety of the woman and her child. There is always a more experienced woman around to remind her of these “Dos and donts”

Childbirth has to take place outside; that is, at the backyard (Ezoforo) of the woman’s home, and a local midwife (Onye Iho Nwa) is invited where delivery is prolonged. On delivery, dry latetite, rather than water, is used to “cleanse” the baby. Every new-born baby is expected to cry, but where hhis does not happen it is forced to by raising it upside down and gently massaging or patting its back. If this does not elicit a cry, it is regarded as a sign that the baby may not survive.

When the baby cries, the women around begin to jubilate (Okokoroko Uma); attracting others to join them, welcome the new baby, congratulate the new mother (Nne Omughu) for a safe delivery and thank the goddess of fertility and God Almighty (Obasi di n’Elu)for their help.

Some of the early gifts to the woman and her baby are yams, dried fish and “uda” with which to prepare pepper soup for the new mother. Particularly for a first baby, the woman’s mother or any other close female relative is invited to take care of her and can stay for as long as she and the couple wish.

The new mother has to stay indoors for eight days (Izu Eto) when a special native doctor is invited to mollify the house (Igbaha Ulo). Four days after the birth of the baby, its umbilical cord is cut. It is technically and neatly done by applying a rope round it until it falls off. The placenta is buried at the foot of a fruit tree (such as orange or coconut) which automatically becomes the property of the child (Osisi Alo).

The baby is routinely circumcised and both male and female children have to submit to the rites. Women usually perform the operation on female children. This done and healed, the woman is free to carry her baby around and out.

In the meantime, the child’s hair (Isi Elo) must be shaved off because there are people for whom it is taboo to see such hair (known as Isi Mbia). If the baby is born on the mother’s way to the farm, stream or market, its head is covered and the woman carrying it will announce the fact so that people who are allergic to “Isi Mbia” might stay out of the way.

When the mother and her child are free to be seen by all, she can then prepare to attend to and mollify the goddess and god of the compound in thanksgiving (Imesi Nri). Imesi Nri is extended to the relevant gods and goddesses of the village and the town. Common features of Imesi Nri, no matter the village or town, are that (a) the priests of the gods/goddesses administer the rituals and (b) the pounded cassava/foofoo and soup (Ofe Oso) are served to children. This is the first communion between the baby and other children.

When the baby is a year old, the mother further extends the thanksgiving to the town’s god of wealth (such as Ezeiyiaku for Ekoli and Ifuaja &Ndem for Libolo). In Ekoli, this is done by every woman whose child is up to six before the new yam festival (Ike Ji). Only male children go to eat the food and the containers (“Oba” and “Njo”) are left at Ezeiyiaku. The mother however, takes home some “holy water” in a calabash – for her baby’s bath, drinking and to “treat” it when it has fever or even a headache.

Imesi Nri also affords mothers the opportunity to know other children born in the same year or period with theirs.

First Teeth

Any person, other than its mother or siblings, who first notices the child’s first teeth has to give it some presents such as maize, yams and fruits (in the olden days) or money, beads or necklace (today). The child is not expected to wear anything round its neck until it develops its first teeth.

It is considered a good omen if the teeth first appears on the lower ridge and the converse (Aru – bad omen) if the teeth appears on the upper ridge. For the later, the Edda would say “O ruru ali pua eze elu” (It has committed an abomination in developing its [first] teeth on the upper ridge).

The period up to its first birthday when the mother undertakes her outing ceremony, is known as “Ino Omughu.” During that period, she neither goes to the farm nor is involved in any strenuous work (although she may perform some chores like fetching firewood and water). Around to help the mother are her husband, mother, mother-in-law, relatives and friends. Everyone is welcome to visit the baby. Childbirth is a joyous event and neglecting to visit a mother and her baby is viewed negatively. To visit as often as possible is a sign of good neighborliness – each visitor coming with one form of gift or the other, or offering some assistance and advice.

Nursing mothers in Edda are known by their attire. They rub white clay (Nzu) on their necks and cam wood dye on their wrists as well as tie cloth dyed with cam wood. In fact, she is not expected to co-habit with her husband for up to two years to enable the new-born baby have her undivided attention.

In the old days, the birth of twins was viewed as an abomination and such mothers were not qualified to undertake the “Omughu” ceremony. Twins were killed and their mother banished to a special compound (Ezi Nso) where thery will no longer mix freely with other members of the community. As a matter of fact, one of Nigeria’s most respected elder statesmen, Ezeogo (Dr.) Akanu Ibiam, is said to be a twin originally from Ebunwana Edda before being taken to Unwana for safety.

The outing ceremony (Igbapu Omughu) marks the end of the nursing period. On a pre-market day, the woman first goes to the farm to get some vegetables and other light produce. The three major markets for “Igbapu Omughu” are Orie for Nguzu and Ebunwana, Afor for Owutu and Eke for Oso and Ekoli.

On the market day, the woman appears in her best attire – a basket on her head – to exhibit herself in the market place (Ipu Afia Omughu). She receives presents from family, friends and well-wishers as well as makes some purchases to return home.

Uchendu, V.C. (1965:61) observes that the Igbo are fond of children, especially an only child (Nwa Olu) and the youngest (Odu Nwa). Infants and toddlers are over-indulged, but such deep affection may ease with the birth of another baby.

Chile-naming (Igu Nwa Efa) in Edda does not particularly go with an elaborate ceremony. It is the prerogative of the father to give his child a name. According to Wieschoff (1941:212). “Names are not merely considered as tags by means of which individuals may be distinguished, but are intimately associated with various events in the life of the individual as well as those of the family and larger social group.”

The father’s choice of a name may be dictated by the character of its birth-marks and by the influence of his friends or in-laws. His first son could be named after his best friend or the go-between during his marriage process. Subsequent children could be named after the parents’ father or mother or even a co-wife if the family is polygamous.

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