Hey Mama!

Allow me to profile you. Considering that this blog is actually never going to make it online, you belong to one of the following two categories: A- you’re part of BU’s Science Writing Programme, or B- you know someone who is. You’re white, brown, ebony or freckled. You have basic high school education to your credibility, own more than two pairs of shoes and like to smell nice. You were probably born in a hospital, bath tub or car seat and were raised in sterile and healthy conditions. And my assumption is that even if you did have an interesting birth story, it had nothing to do with elephant dung.

Upon trudging half way across Boston in search of a public health researcher who could give me a radio story, I happened to learn that half way across the world there are people whose lives are the story itself.

Zambia, a land locked country in Sub-Saharan Africa has, like every African culture, a unique set of birth rituals. A project by Boston University’s School of Public Health, to reduce infant mortality, stumbled upon some of these. After a baby is born, communities in Zambia believe that it’s better for the baby to lose his umbilical cord at the earliest. To accelerate its drying they apply various drying agents to it. These vary from breast milk, alcohol and baby powder, to charcoal from fires, ash derived from burnt pumpkin, house dust, dried wasp nests ground to a fine powder, cow dung, elephant dung and even marijuana. At times they would use chicken dung but not the dark centre, only the white powdery circumference.

That’s not all, the limp phallic-looking cord is also considered a sign of ‘bad things to come’ especially if it falls on the baby’s pubis. Hence, in an effort to ward of future infertility, Zambian babies are often found draped in super-sized diapers to prevent contact with the evil cord.

Considering all the superstition attached to the cord, you would imagine that the act of cutting it off would be a rather celebrated one. You imagine right! The traditional birth attendant would hand the mother one end of the cord (keep in mind most babies are born at home with aid from a midwife), while holding the baby or placenta at the other end. And then she would ask the mother “what are we cutting?” and the mother would say “we’re cutting the elephant” and the chant would go back and forth. “What are we cutting? We’re cutting the elephant. What are we cutting? We’re cutting the elephant,” while the cord was being cut. Apparently, this is a sign of respect for the birth attendant. My heart at this point goes out to the mother who just been through a painful, vaginal-ripping delivery without an epidural and is then expected to sing along with someone who obviously has her wits about her.

I think I’m going to get my naval pierced. Ring or barbell?

The infant mortality rate in Zambia is ten times higher than in the US with an average of 37 deaths for every 1000 live births.


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