Birth by culture: Traditional and cultural birth practices in the Caribbean part 1

When starting this piece I must admit I approached the topic with some naivety. Somehow I thought that the reclaiming of West Indian birth arts would help revive what I suppose- I assumed were original and authentic Caribbean history or traditions that would aid in modern postpartum recovery. However, the reality is that as a people our history is entangled in brutal colonialism and what I found was a means of female reproductive survival. Of course there are elements of culture that may be authentic to African, Asian and indigenous practices but what I found was that many things were a means of survival; and reproduction under colonialism was and still is wrapped up in the politics and economics of reproduction.

It wouldn’t be right for me to write this blog without first touching on the past legacy and current impact of colonialism before discussing what we know today as some traditional practices. We know that the world is a mixing pot and there is evidence of Africans in different parts of the world. However, when we look at the large population of Afro-caribbean peoples we understand that they are there due to the large scale trans-atlantic slave trade.

My family is a fusion of African and Indian Caribbean people. I believe this to be true on both sides. My in-laws are what the West considers bi-racial or mixed race- a mixture of European, Indian, and African. My wider social circle consists of this same heritage across the different islands. When I discuss birth cultures and traditions, please be mindful that this will vary across different families and groups. In my family and my in-laws breastfeeding was the norm. My mother’s side are Vincentian and my father’s side are St. Lucian, however I refer mostly to my Vincentian side. The food in each culture is very different. In Jamaica (my in-laws) jerk is a popular seasoning and method used to prepare food and in St.Vincent green seasoning is a popular choice of seasoning to flavour food. Even if both islands use both, they will have local variations. Lemongrass and cerrasie are popular beverages and aloe Vera is common on both islands. Nutmeg, cacoa and cinnamon are also popular on many islands too including St. Vincent. However, many of these things were brought to the island along with the enslaved people. It is this that we must bare in mind when we consider foods and practices  for people of the Caribbean employed during pregnancy and after childbirth.

We also should remember the backdrop against what women were birthing. Many women were poor- they were slaves, they were malnourished, and they still laboured heavily on plantations, and they still received whippings. Many women had to make do. As is tradition in some African cultures men got the first hand in food. This was maintained largely even on plantations. The people were given provision and many times food was used to control slaves. If we fast forward to today, we see that there are foods and flavours that are reminiscent of grandmothers and family.

 

Traditional birth in the Caribbean will now consist of a fusion of African, (some Indian) and indigenous people’s practices. For the most part a large population of the indigenous tribes died out due to colonialism and to a large extent Africans who were brought to the islands carried with them their own birth practices. In her book, Contested Bodies Sasha Turner, states that the women were observed bathing in the sea water after birth, this was something that observers noted when women were on coastal areas in some African countries. Whilst speaking to women I know and garnering information from their parents and grandparents, one friend mentioned that molasses was a food for the postpartum mum. They already knew it had vitalising benefits for the breastfeeding mother and it was known to be offered to infants. This was again affirmed by another friend whose mother was a midwife.  Despite breastfeeding being common amongst African women the influence of western culture diminished the innate known benefits of breastfeeding and breastmilk over the centuries; now we see breastfeeding being astonishingly low in the Caribbean which has a strong negative economical impact. The use of molasses was common amongst African descendants across the African diaspora. It’s mentioned in several abolitionist and biographical narratives. Booker T Washington mentions it in his book ‘Up from Slavery’.

 

When discussing nutrition in the west indies and America, it is a sombre and solemn affair as often (in the past) those who were slaves were deprived of food and suffered with malnutrition.

 

Going back to the topic of lactation, it was at one point common to breastfeed infants up to two years. One paper on reproduction in the Caribbean quotes,

 

“planters were concerned over the lengthy lactation of their female slaves. In 1811 Dr David Collins, author of a well-known handbook on the management of slaves, wrote that: ‘Negroes are universally fond of suckling their children for a long time. If you permit them, they will extend it to the third year.’63 The merchant and planter William Shand, who had interests in various Jamaican properties, reported in 1832 that ‘long weaning . . . is very much against their breeding’. 64”

 

In some communities, breastfeeding has negative connotations whilst in other Caribbean groups it is seen as the norm. In my sphere of women it is common to be encouraged to breastfeed and I have predominantly only seen infants breastfed up to two years old, whilst I have heard from fellow West Indians they had never seen anyone breastfeed around them at all.

The use of okra was recommended to me by my Jamaican mother in law, who wasn’t sure why but just told me to eat it. When visiting a familiar church, a dear midwife friend or I should say aunty, insisted I eat okra. She said it was known to help with labour.

 

When reading the literature around Caribbean history and slavery okra along with aloe were suspectedly used as abortives. The narrators were unsure if they were used intentionally or unknowingly. It would be difficult for anyone to truly garner accurate information on the way in which slaves used foods and herbs as one, they were never asked and two, if they were it would not necessarily be honest. If you imagine the conditions of slavery and understand the history around reproduction, you’d see that heavy penalties were often given to women who repeatedly experienced loss or who was suspected of infanticide. This cruel and harsh premise underestimated the actual conditions that the women were forced to labour under despite being pregnant. Barely were slave holders and overseers roles’ seen as an integral part for the loss of maternal and/or infant life- they would not own up to being a possible catalyst for miscarriage. Few owned up to the fact that harsh living and working conditions, poor nutrition, physical abuse, stress and attitudes towards slaves were directly linked to miscarriage and infant death… Similar to the systems and structures that exists today in which black women have to navigate.

 

I digress.

Some of the food that has become a staple in Caribbean cuisine are foods like maize/corn, yams, sweet potato, plantain, okra, greens/calaloo, guava, mangoes and green banana.

 

A herb called cerrasie has been popular on mum and baby forums for women seeking advice as to whether it is safe during pregnancy. Cerrasie also known as bitter melon is a regular craving. It is also known as a blood cleanser.

Similar to okra it is associated with the promotion of menstruation. Aside from this, however it is known to help intestinal problems, help to regulate diabetes, blood pressure and is also anti-inflammatory. In fact a client who hired me as a doula craved it right before she went into labour.

 

According to NDTV,

“Bitter gourd juice contains a train of important nutrients ranging from iron, magnesium and vitamin to potassium and vitamin C.  An excellent source of dietary fiber, it also contains twice the calcium of spinach, beta-carotene of broccoli, and the potassium of a banana.”

No wonder this food becomes a popular craving for women of Caribbean descent. Look at the range of minerals in it. When I was pregnant with all my children I craved cerrasie or bitter gourd. You can buy it in the UK from most Indian or African grocers.

 

What I like about my culture is the village created about you when having a baby. At my baby shower there was some handing down of knowledge and with each child I was taught something new from a dear aunty or sister. As time progresses in my reproductive years what I am noticing is a decline or absence of support. Fortunately this gap can be filled if women and their partners take time to plan and budget for it. My husband takes additional leave to support me, my mother also comes, I have had a dear neighbour cook for me in the latter weeks of pregnancy, I had a doula who supported me in my last pregnancy  remotely and next time I’d consider having some additional postpartum support.

 

I think it is so important especially for black women to seek additional support for their pregnancy, birth and postpartum life. We research, read, ask questions about and invest in all other areas of life, but at our most vulnerable period and our child’s most vulnerable period we make little effort. The legacy of colonial rule still impacts us today. Black women are at a fivefold increased risk for maternal death and I continually hear of instances of mistreatment, miseducation, mis- and undiagnosed, the ignoring of concerns and complaints as well as straight neglect for women of colour. I also know that treatment and it’s forms are withheld from black women as well as information, options and services.

 

More than ever we must be diligent to improve our own experience. I believe in empowering through education and at the least self-efficacy and self-help solutions should be employed.

Stay tuned for part two.

References:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271908601_WOMEN_AND_SLAVERY

https://food.ndtv.com/food-drinks/7-health-benefits-of-bitter-gourd-karela-juice-1423896

Turner, Sasha Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica 23 May 2017 University of Pennsylvania Press 

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