Cultural norms versus modernity in childbirth

… a doctor says there is perfect medical sense behind the myths and beliefs


Childbirth heralds the beginning of a new life that continues the existence of humankind. As such, in different cultures the period of pregnancy through to childbirth is marked by a myriad of beliefs and practices that are meant to preserve both the expectant mother and the child.

And even though we live in an ever-changing world marked by interracial and multinational relationships, the argument is always that the dominance of Western knowledge systems has created a situation where African beliefs and practices surrounding childbirth take the back seat in what is both a universal and a unique experience.

Botswana has its own cultural practices to ensure the safe delivery of the child as the pregnant woman is believed to be oscillating between life and death during childbirth. Traditionally it is/was a taboo for the father or any other male presence in the delivery room during the birthing process. After the baby is born, the mother and her baby go into confinement for a period of time ranging from three to six months, which is time called botsetsi. Botsetsi was respected and strict rules and regulations were in place to “protect” the new life and to introduce the new mother to the world of motherhood.

“Although some Batswana have ditched this tradition, there are still those who firmly believed in it. When a woman was getting ready for delivery, she would move back to her own mother’s house for the delivery and botsetsi. This was an old woman’s affair as men and other community members were not allowed near motsetsi (the new mother) during this period,” says elderly Kewagamang Serero of Mogoditshane in the Kweneng District.

According to the 76-year old grandmother who still upholds Setswana traditions surrounding childbirth, botsetsi was necessary to protect both mother and child from external spirits and so keep them pure for the proper development of the child. Back in the days, a log called mopako was placed in front of the confinement hut to alert visitors that there was a motsetsi and therefore they must keep their distance because “ba maoto a bolelo,” literally meaning that they had hot feet that could negatively affect the newborn.

It was also unheard of for a motsetsi to mix and dine with other family members during the confinement period. She had her own utensils, especially pots and basins and spoons used only by her. It was believed that if a motsetsi shared her food with other people, the baby would become ill with its growth and development affected. After the successful period of confinement, a celebratory ritual called mantsho would be held to introduce the child to the outside world.

Serero explains: “Some people carry bad spirits that could be easily passed on to the baby, causing inexplicable illnesses to the child. We also have to keep the mother away from external influences that may interfere with the child’s care as she learns the ropes of motherhood and self-care. The father of the newborn had to wait for the duration of the confinement before he could see his child.”

While some fathers prefer to see their child after botsetsi because it has always been tradition, most fathers are now flipping the script and want to be a part of their child’s life right from the birthing process. Although women have been doing it since the dawn of humanity, the process, politics and social norms around childbirth have evolved as medical science advanced.

Hospitals nowadays are also giving women the freedom of choice regarding the method of birth, who receives the baby and whether to stay in confinement after the childbirth, among other things. The argument is always that the child’s parents have different cultural backgrounds and that some beliefs and practices are outdated myths and superstitions that could put the child at risk.

Thirty-year old Boago Makwati of Mahalapye is one of a growing number of fathers who chose to walk down the pregnancy road with their partner up to the finishing line. He was present during his son’s birth and left the hospital with his partner and their new baby for two weeks of house confinement. “I handled everything myself with my partner because we also live together,” Makwati says. “I honestly feel that gone are the days where men are told to stay away because we also need to bond with our children. I grew up with my foreign stepfather who was also there for my mother throughout my younger siblings’ births.

“Our lifestyles are different nowadays and we cannot afford to practise what is deemed tradition and miss out on the special occasion of hearing your baby’s first cry. My child was taken to church for prayers after birth and we did not have to perform any traditional rituals and he is perfectly healthy and happy. One of the greatest gifts God has given us is to become co-creators with him and we cannot be sitting back while it all happens.”

From a medical doctor’s point of view who speaks anonymously, it is healthier for the father of the child to be present from the onset because it helps with father-and-child bonding. “You have to look beyond what was given as the reason because there is often another reason that makes perfect medical sense,” says the doctor. “Back in the day, the child and mother were vulnerable to infections and the natural immunity would be low just after birth. The father in the olden days would be looking after the cattle and goats and spending time in the fields, which could be a source of bacteria and if he came into contact with the mother and child he could easily pass on the bacteria. That was the main reason for confinement and other beliefs.”