A majority of African communities have specific rituals for celebrating pregnancy and birth. All these are inspired by long-standing traditions held dear by the community.
One of the fascinating rituals is by South Africa’s Xhosa community called Sifudu, a purification and cleansing ceremony for newborn babies.
This elaborate ritual takes place three days after the birth of the child. Traditionally, a woman in labour is attended to by the older women who have had experience with midwifery. These ‘grandmothers’ will also take care of the mother and the baby until the umbilical cord falls off before the baby is introduced to the female family members.
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To hasten the falling off of the umbilical cord, the women prepare a concoction made up of ash, sugar and a poisonous plant called Umtuma. The mixture is then applied to the newly cut cord to dry it up.
At the point of introduction to the women in the family, the sifudu ritual is performed. The ritual gets its name from a sacred pungent tree, whose leaves are burnt in a fire surrounded by the women. The leaves produce an even pungent smoke, through which the baby, held upside down, is passed three times.
The baby is then handed over to the seated mother who passes him or her under her legs, starting with the right. Afterwards, the baby is washed and smeared with white ochre called ingceke, which is made of the ground powder of mthomboti wood (Spirostachys africana).
This ritual is of great importance to the Xhosa community for it protects the child against fright and gives him or her courage and a strong spirit so that he or she does not “suffer ridicule” and stands strong. The Ingceke has a pleasant smell and by smearing it on the baby, he or she is protected from all evil spirits.
What follows is the ritual of burying the cord and the placenta referred to as Inkaba, which is carried out to affirm the baby’s connection to the ancestral land. The burial site signifies the intersection between the individual, the clan, the ancestors and the spirit world, and thus is held in high esteem by the community.
Once these rituals are completed, the baby is then introduced to the society and a celebration is held. Called the Imbeleko, the ceremony involves the slaughtering of a goat, whose hide becomes an important part of the baby’s future. He or she will sleep on the hide when seeking a connection to the ancestors and when in trouble.
Finally, the baby is named in accordance with Xhosa culture, which involves naming him or her after an event or as per the wishes of the family. At this ceremony, a singer is invited to praise the ancestors, elaborating on their prowess and qualities in a bid to instil in the baby a sense of belonging and responsibility in the clan and community.
This ritual is rarely performed today as more women are encouraged to have their babies in the hospital. Besides, most of the women who give birth in hospitals do not get the placenta for the inkaba. However, due to the significance of the rituals and their connection to the ancestors, adults who did not go through these rituals as babies can have the ritual performed as adults.