By Patience Lunda:
The birth of a new baby is always a cause to celebrate but if you travel around the world, you will discover that different cultures have unique ways of welcoming a new life into the world.
Every social grouping in the world has specific cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all while others are harmful to a specific group.
At Mphompha, East of Rumphi District, women who give birth to twins or breech babies [those born feet first] are sent to a forest for a month as a way of cleansing them because such babies symbolise bad luck.
Lizzie Ngwira, 43, a mother of four from Mwachilinda Village in the area of Senior Chief Mwankhunikira was in 2000 sent to a shack, which was constructed in the middle of the forest, for giving birth to twins, Golden and Raiden.
She was told to be sleeping on a sack while wearing rags, together with her husband and the twins. They were not allowed to receive visitors — apart from one person who was assigned to be giving them food without salt on broken clay pot.
After the babies umbilical chords dropped off, Ngwira was instructed to be sleeping in a kitchen for a fortnight. She was then sold some itchy herbs by a herbalist to bath, as a way of cleansing her before she returned to her house.
“I was told that I should also not receive visitors for another month and they had instructed me to burn all my clothes and when time came to return home, I was sold some herbs that were used for cleansing me,” she said.
Her husband, Edwin Mhango, said he could not refuse going through the ritual because it is a cultural practice that had been ongoing for years.
Violet Harawa, now 83, went through the cultural practice when one of her children was born breech. She was banished to the forest alone because her husband was by then in Zambia for work.
After staying for a week in the cold forest, the baby died and she suspects that it might have been due to pneumonia because she used one wrapper to protect the baby from the cold.
Harawa has no kind words for the cultural practice and said she has since then been an advocate for its abolishment.
“I was 21 years old by then and my husband was in Zambia so I was sent out alone with my baby who died when we had stayed there for a week and some days and it really pained me,” she said.
Apart from affecting the newly born babies, women are also affected. Daina Chavula, 36, was told to put up in a kitchen when she had given birth to twins through Caesarean section in 2004.
Chavula said she was also battling cold weather as she had no beddings and was told to wear the same dress for the whole month she was staying in the kitchen.
Some would argue that the cultural practice has become extinct, but recently in 2017, Penjani Msiska, 30 was instructed to go straight to the bush after being discharged from the hospital after giving birth to twins. But she refused.
Msiska told the community she would rather end her marriage and go back to her parent’s village than go to the forest with her newly-born twins.
She was spared and left to go to her husband’s house freely.
This cultural practice is said to be happening up to now, but in secret because of awareness messages that are being spread on its dangers and implications.
Senior Chief Mwankhunikira of Rumphi District admitted knowing about the cultural practice. He however said it has declined over the years.
He said anyone found sending someone to the forest now faces the law as that is a violation of human rights.
“We have set up community structures that are championing the abolishment of such cultural practices and I won’t hesitate to take action if anyone is found doing these,” he said.
However, the cultural practice is said to have taken some time to be abolished because Mphompha is hard to reach due to its hilly topography and a bad road. Because of these, many organisations that should have been raising awareness against the practice have been shunning the area.
This far, only two organisations namely Centre for Civil Society Strengthening (CCSS) and God Cares Rights Foundation (GCRF), are working with the 10 Village Development Committees in the area on issues surrounding Gender-Based Violence (GBV).
CCSS Executive Director, Viwemi Chavula observed that women are the most affected because people view GBV as a culture and the lack of messages has perpetuated the problem.
On his part, Rumphi District Gender Officer, Vincent Luhanga decried the absence of many non-governmental organisations in the district, saying that is fueling most cultural practices which should have long been abolished.
But Luhanga said his office has set up a number of measures to address such cultural practices. The interventions include the formulation of workable bylaws and setting up of community structures which are helping in raising awareness against such cultural practices.
“We have set up the gender technical group, area gender networks and village gender networks that are helping in raising awareness because Rumphi is a patrilineal district where many cultural practices happen and they favour men more than women hence increased cases of GBV,” he said.
According to Rumphi District Socio and Economic Profile (2017 – 2022), the main ethnic group in the district is the Tumbuka who comprise 86 percent of the population and they are patrilineal with many cultural practices.
The district has a population of 229, 161 and about 51 percent are female and the remaining 49 percent are males.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) Executive Director, Michael Kaiyatsa, described the cultural practice as strange, suggesting that a lot needs to be done to end it as it has many negative implications.
“Government and non-governmental organisations need to work together because this shows that there is lack of coordination amongst the crucial stakeholders because this cultural practice puts the lives of women and children at various risks,” he said.
Legend has it that if a woman who has given birth to twins or breech babies refuses to get banished in the forest, her body will get swollen when she is about to die.
The question is whether this is worth spending a month in the cold forests for without beddings and proper food.