Women sit quietly during labor and do not make noises in response to any discomfort they may feel. Fear of childbirth is thought to be extremely dangerous for both mother and child. The Ju/'Hoan believe that a woman's fear of labor might lead God to decide that the baby is unwanted and thus, He might take the newborn back to the spirit world. Women who are thought to have behaved with cowardice during childbirth are ridiculed by the entire community, while women who face the experience calmly and bravely are held up as an example to other young girls. Postpartum care by the community is also more attentive and loving toward those new mothers who gave birth full of stoic joy and without complaint.

The Ju/'Hoan women have, on average, four or five births during their lifetime. Extended breastfeeding promotes natural child spacing. With each new birth, a woman attempts to move closer to the ideal of giving birth completely alone and without assistance of any kind.

When the woman is ready to give birth to her second or later child, she walks a few hundred yards away from her village without telling anyone and prepares a cushion of leaves under a tree. She may lean on the tree during labor for support. Births occur close enough to the village so that other villagers are able to hear the baby's first cries. This is often the community's first indication that their partner/sister/daughter/friend has just delivered a baby. At this point, assistance is often welcomed and other women may go to the new mother and help her with cutting the cord, delivering the placenta, and cleaning the baby. The afterbirth is known as "the older sister." Women who take care of even their own postpartum cleanup without any assistance and then return to the village carrying their new baby achieve the highest status of all.

Complicated birth is rare among the Ju/'Hoansi. When a birth is exceptionally difficult, a traditional medicine man may assist or a woman may walk several miles or more to a local clinic or hospital. One of the greatest hazards to birthing Ju/'Hoan women are the lions and other predators who may attack when they leave the village alone at night to give birth.

Written with assistance from the chapter, "Hunting, Healing, and Transformation among the Kalahari Ju/'Hoansi", by Megan Biesele, and included in the anthology, Childbirth and Authoritative Knowledge: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Robbie E. Davis-Floyd and Carolyn Sargent, editors (University of California Press, 1997).

 

Katie Allison Granju is a contributing editor of Minnesota Parent. Her book, Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child (Pocket Books) will be available in bookstores in August, 1999.

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