Monday, November 4, 2013

18. The New Baby

When it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, there are several long-standing traditions that are followed by every family in Mozambique.

First:  Pregnant women say very little about their pregnancy.  It's considered bad luck to talk about it, and isn't very polite to mention a growing and rounded belly.  Only the women in the mother-to-be's absolute inner circle (her mother, sisters, and very close friends) will discuss the pregnancy and upcoming birth.

Second:  Birthing mothers are incredibly stoic.  They simply have to be.  Pain medication is not always available in the poorly-stocked hospitals and, because some villages are so rural and distant, it's not uncommon for some women to not make it to the hospital at all.  Those that do make it to the hospital often leave again in less than twenty-four hours, bundling up their newborn and walking home all by themselves.

Third:  Babies are not "named" until their second or third week.  The name is often pre-determined by the mother's sister or best friend, but kept secret until the baby's "coming out." 

Fourth:  Newborn babies aren't immediately introduced to the community.  Newborns will stay inside the house with their mother until their umbilical cord falls off naturally.  This is both a healing time for the mother, and a time for mother-child bonding.  When the cord falls off after one or two weeks, the baby is considered to be healthy and strong enough to be introduced to the outside world.  The community greets the new baby with a jubilant "coming out" ceremony, and celebrates the announcement of the newborn baby's name.  

This weekend, Dan and I went to the "coming out" (Chikuta) ceremony for Leme's newborn daughter, who was born on October 17.  The little girl slept peacefully through the events of the afternoon, unaware of the prayers and blessings heaped upon her by the women of the town.  All while sleeping soundly, the baby was sung to, danced with, and prayed for, passed lovingly from woman to woman to woman.    

Newborn Baby Leme, sleeping soundly before the ceremony

The ceremony started with singing and praying.  Women from all over the neighborhood sat together on straw mats on the ground, singing and smiling and fussing with their children. They waited patiently for everyone else to arrive, and watched as the yard slowly filled to capacity.  When the yard was finally full, and the influx of women had slowed to a trickle, the officiant-- the wife of the family pastor-- stood up to say a prayer.  All of the women bowed their heads and echoed the words hopefully, tightly securing their own little babies. Then, the officiant announced that the ceremony would open with the procession of the gifts.

"You have to dance, for this part here," whispered Leme, nudging us in the back.  "You dance up to the straw mat and you leave your gift for the baby in the center."

Each of the women danced forward, one by one, and presented different offerings, from coins and bills to capulanas and soap.  I joined a long line of dancers and left a small cloth purse on the pile. The gifts were collected and admired by a friend of the mother, who was acting as a speaker for the mother and child.  

Once the gifts had been properly exclaimed-over, they were sorted and set aside, and the guests were invited to sit for a sermon.  The officiant gave a few readings from a Chewa-language Bible, and prayed for good health and happiness for the newborn baby girl.  She asked for good luck, and for blessings upon the family.  Then, she asked for input from the mother's sister.

"What is the name of the baby?"  She asked.

The sister stood up to look at the crowd.

"The little girl's name is Suneila," she said.  

"Suneila," the women repeated, echoing the name amongst them.  "Suneila, Suneila, Suneila," they whispered, passing it carefully around the tongue.

Then, satisfied and ready to celebrate, all of the women stood up to dance.  They cleared aside their straw mats and started to clap, shaking their hips and stomping their feet.  One woman poured water on the ground to prepare the dirt and settle the dust.   Then, forming a large and shaking, shifting circle, the baby passed from arm to arm, dancing and cradled by every woman in turn.  Even Dan and I were invited to dance with the baby, which embarrassed us and pleased us both at the same time.

The night ended, as most parties do, with a simple xima dinner.  Dan and I sat inside with Leme, his 2-year-old daughter Marnela, and the pastor of their family church.  We ate and talked and held the baby, looking at pictures from Leme's simple photo album.  As we sat and made conversation, the guests filtered home in jovial waves through the dusk.  

And, just like that, the ceremony was finished and quietly over.  Baby Suneila was announced to the world, and celebrated, loved, and accepted.  She was now a part of the community, and a person with a name.  

It was beautiful way to welcome a baby, and lovely, intimate, meaningful ceremony.

Opening the ceremony with singing and praying
A close friend of the mother (seated) cradles the baby and accepts offerings for the infant.
In all "coming out" ceremonies, the baby's mother plays little to no role in the event itself,
and is excempt from cooking, dancing, and cleaning up afterwards.
Marcos Leme's older daughter (2-year-old Marnela) watches the ceremony from the lap of Tio Daniel
The wife of the church pastor leads a group prayer for the good health of the newborn
All of the women (relatives and neighbors) sing, clap, and dance with the newborn baby
One woman at a time enters the circle, dancing and singing and rocking the baby
The crowd of women become a blur of joyous motion
Even Tio Dan is asked to dance!
Introducing:  Suneila Marcos Essaias Leme
Born October 17, 2013

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