Middle East & Africa

Meeting the Mama of all mamas

by Amy Towle

By the door of a grey mud hut with a straw thatched roof tilting slightly to the right, stood the oldest woman of the Pokot tribe. A worn, hairless cow hide, tied in at the waist, covered her from knee to chest. Her chest and neck were hidden by thousands of coloured beads woven into a collar, a mass of red, blue, yellow and orange, some so worn they no longer held a colour – the mark of a married woman. Her ear lobes stretched to meet her shoulders, a mark of beauty. Her face held a toothless smile, pushing her dark wrinkled cheeks to the side, like the folds of a sheet. Her eyes were white with cataracts, matching the white tufts of hair that remained on her head. She stood, arms outstretched to us, her wrists decorated with beads to match her collar. She was the traditional birth attendant of the nomadic tribe, currently settled in the vast nothingness of central Kenya, an overland drive 50 kilometres from Lake Beringo.

The few mud huts stood, each solitary from the others, some just shells, so slanted they may collapse at any moment. All were carefully positioned to act as a boundary around a large mud pit fenced by branches from the surrounding acacia trees, with thorns so long and sturdy they would pierce directly through one’s shoe and foot! This mud pit was the resting place for the Pokot people’s cows and goats, their most prized possessions. At our feet lay a blanket of prickles which stretched to cover the entire village, scattered with scavenging chickens and children running barefoot. The prickles lead us to the old woman who welcomed us, a group of midwives from New Zealand and Australia, into her mud hut to discuss the women’s business of her people. She called herself Mama, and had no recollection of how old she was. Mama was one of the many traditional birth attendants and midwives I met along my journey through Africa on a midwifery safari run by a New Zealand-owned and -run company, African Touch, a Kenyan-husband-and-Kiwi-wife team who lead safaris across all of east Africa.

The Pokot tribe lives in small villages made up of one family per village. This particular family consisted of 17 children, and as many African tribes do, had one husband and four wives. The children swarmed around us inspecting every Western detail, fascinated with watches, tattoos, curly hair and of course, white skin. The boys dressed in coloured checked wraps, resembling skirts, from waist to knee. Older boys had rungu – traditional carved ‘killing sticks’ used to strike the skull of an animal – and machetes tucked in at the waist. One boy towered to an easy seven feet (213 centimetres). The young children stood seemingly unaware of the masses of flies crawling from eye to nose to mouth and back again – a sight to make the Western stomach churn.

The women shyly approached us, all dressed as Mama was, some with collars that were brighter and hung in multiple layers, some hiding their breasts with worn-out Western clothing, some clasping their hands over small pregnant bellies bulging beneath the cow hide. The only man in sight was an elder, perched on a traditional wooden stool, observing our arrival. We were told the men were off herding the cows, taking care of business.

Looking at the landscape, one would wonder where such cows would graze, for it did not lend itself to green pastures. Instead, it was filled with green fences grown from prickly cactus off cuts, stretching in straight lines in every direction. In the distance a cliff face peered over us, offering a backdrop to the vast plains below. These people knew their land well, even though they settled in one place no longer than two years. The men had the life time occupation of cowherd. From the age of two, the boys sleep outside with the men, curled up on a hide under a tree, to protect and comfort the animals. In line with the same tradition the girls sleep with their grandmothers, as this is where they are taught the ways of their people. One role of the women in this village is to build the huts. It takes a skilled wife just one week to construct a home, which once complete is transferred into the possession of the husband. Each wife occupies a hut, as well as Mama, whose hut we were now being invited into.

Each of us attempted slight contortionism to fit through the small doorway, taking a moment for our eyes to adjust to the dark, sun-streaked room, no bigger than a small car. Shuffling across the dirt floor, around the few ash-covered rocks and a central support pole, we gingerly seated ourselves on one of the two twig ‘beds’, each covered with a hide resembling that worn by the women. A sun-heated smell of animal, sour milk and body odour filled our nostrils. Hanging on the walls were three gourds, all different curved shapes, but all the colour of butternut pumpkin. Opposite me sat Mama grinning at our presence, and beside her, one of the four wives, her apprentice.

Through a male translator, who in the next half hour learnt more about the women of his tribe than I think he ever wished to know in his lifetime, Mama began to answer our questions. Mama’s hut is the place where each woman in this village gives birth. They labour on these cow hides for as long as it takes. She told us that when a woman is experiencing a prolonged labour, she has a selection of animal skins which are used to slap the woman on her front and back above the heart, then the same is done using the husband’s right shoe. And then the baby is born – as opposed to the Western approach of hydration and augmentation. When the baby is born, the cord is cut with a razor blade and tied with thin strips of hide. The baby is then wrapped warmly and set aside until the mother is comfortable and capable of feeding her baby. If the placenta does not come, they use one of the gourds. The woman takes a deep breath and blows into the gourd, forcing pressure into the pelvic floor and expelling the placenta. They then bury the placenta in the animals’ mud pit and place a stone over the top as a blessing.

Africa has the highest rate of maternal mortality in pregnancy and childbirth, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – one in 13 women compared to industrialised countries where it is one in 4100 women. Mama very simply stated that in the instance of a postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) they call the men to immediately slaughter a goat, take segments of the backbone and cook a broth with special herbs, and get the woman to drink it. This would usually stop the bleeding, and if not, the woman was to drink the goat’s blood. The bleeding would then stop. Our eyes wide, the questions continued. What did Mama do when a baby needed resuscitation? She picked up two of the smaller, ash-covered rocks and banged them together. The translator then explained that she takes the rocks and bangs them in front of the baby’s face, this startles the baby and makes her breathe.

In disbelief, my Western-trained mind challenged everything. Desperate to ask how many women and babies died when these practices failed, I bit my tongue, knowing such a question would be disrespectful and make Mama uncomfortable. Having previously been told that the Kenyan government is pushing for all women to birth in hospital with trained birthing attendants, I listened when Mama explained the importance of their culture and traditions, and that the women don’t want to leave their village to have their babies, as they trust and know Mama.

Both Mama and the translator, maybe detecting our disbelief, told us these practices work. They just work. The reason for this is the Pokot people believe. “We believe in our ways, and that is why they work for us.” Mama smiled. 

Amy Towle is a midwife from Australia who currently works in New Zealand. She wrote this story as part of Moonpeak’s travel writing course, while on a volunteering trip to McLeodganj with Ekno Experience.


About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.


2 thoughts on “Meeting the Mama of all mamas

  1. hey letting you know what a Awesome site you have!

    Posted by daniel kendall | 28 December, 2011, 9:15 pm
  2. You are extremely well written. Thank you for sharing your experiences, brilliant!

    Posted by jamie | 22 February, 2014, 3:19 pm

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