Long ago, before hospitals smelled like disinfectant and doctors wore white coats, the birth of a child took place in the company of women experienced in birthing. There were no forceps, fetal heart monitors or incubators. Before modern medicine came along, childbirth in Jamaica meant carrying out centuries old rituals according to traditions brought over from West Africa with the slaves. Even Spanish, French and British colonialists in Jamaica had their own customs when a child was born - and unlike today, they didn't include a stranger peering down the business end of a dilated uterus.
According to oral histories handed down through multiple generations, a midwife or 'nana' oversaw labour, delivery and post-partum activities. However, the main purpose of the nana was not only to assist in birth, but also protect the infant from spiritual and physical harm. The nana was usually past her childbearing years, rather eccentric and steadily smoked her old clay pipe. The birthing room was prepared, combining African traditions and Christian beliefs, when a child was due to be born. The mother's belly was rubbed with castor oil, as it was believed to promote a healthy birth. A bible was placed in the birthing room, opened to a favourite psalm; the purpose was to ward off "dubby's" or evil ghosts. Two items were then prepared: ceremonial knife or scissors and a broom.
Tobacco blown into the eyes of a newborn was believed to feed good spirits. After cutting the umbilical cord with the ceremonial scissors or knife, the nana dressed the navel with a nutmeg paste. She bathed the child in cold water mixed with rum, and in which the father had placed a silver coin. Next, the baby was marked with blue and a charm was placed on his/her body as protection. Horrible smelling herbs were used to keep evil at bay. Caster oil was given, as a final measure, to both mother and child to encourage strength.
When mother and babe were comfortable and settled, the nana washed her face with rum (apparently to regain strength and wash the eyes) and perhaps had a quick swig. Using the aforementioned ceremonial broom, the nana swept the birthing room, collected the sweepings and kept them for a later use. Tradition dictated mother and babe stay confined for a period of eight days, during which the nana took control of the home.
When the confinement was at an end, mother and child left the home to receive blessings and gifts from family and friends. This was also the naming day for the child, as West African custom says it takes eight days for an infant to form its soul. If a child dies within those eight days, it was either from another spiritual world or inflicted with an evil spirit. The planting of a Birth Tree is the last ritual for the birth of a child. The afterbirth, umbilical cord, ceremonial knife, broom, sweepings, infant bathing water and silver coin were all buried deep in the earth. A tree was then planted over the spot, and considered the infant's Birth Tree.
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