In the vast catalogue of African spiritual and religious concepts, birth is one of the most profound ideas connected to the major epochs in the journey of life, death, and reincarnation. Birth is a sacred mystery to African people, but not entirely unknowable. Birth reflects the activities of God's work. It is generally regarded as an important event in the endless passage taken by human beings, a continuum within the human experience. Birth is a central family episode that is met with a tremendous amount of joy and sense of fulfillment because the expectation of a child is considered the highest gift from God. Thus, birth is also a significantly revered experience for the entire community.
According to John Mbiti, a noted expert on African religion, several key features are associated with the birth of an African child. First, a pregnant woman is expected to engage in specific activities that will keep her and the child safe until it is born. Second, communities often carry out expansive rituals to thank God for the gift of the child to come and to pray for the safety of the mother and child. In addition, some women will wear talismans for the purpose of protection during pregnancy. It is also a common practice for an African woman to return to her own family until the birth of the child.
Many African societies participate in extended ceremonies and activities to mark the birth of a child. Furthermore, some societies have developed complex rituals regarding the disposition of the placenta because it is the physical manifestation of the sacred link between mother and child. In some African cultures, especially among African Americans, at one time attention was given to the birth membrane covering the amniotic fluid known as a caul: When found intact after birth, it was believed to portend special powers. Typically, African ceremonies and rituals are dedicated to praising God and to asking for the continued protection of the newborn and mother.
A wide range of transformation rites are carried out that involve the entire community. These rites include naming the child as an initiation into society/world and the continuation of rituals throughout adult and elder hood (marriage, passage of youth, unity, education, death, etc.). Another important feature in the study of birth in African societies has to do with the transmigration of ancestral souls through children, as reflected in naming practices: In Yoruba, for example, names like Babatunde, “the father comes again,” or Yetunde, “the mother comes again,” are common.
The sacred rituals of indigenous African societies that mark the birth of a human being are derived from the highly reflective beliefs about God, the ancestors, and the whole of creation. In general, African people embrace the ideas surrounding the reentry of the child into the world through the female body. Their cultural history and mythology sustain focus on birth as associated with creation, reincarnation, womanhood, regeneration, and promise. Most significantly, birth is directly connected to common African thinking about the Supreme Being.
There are perhaps thousands of names for God within the African context. Among the Amazulu in Zimbabwe, the god Unkulunkulu exists to organize the lives of humans. In doing so, she or he gave men and women the ability to birth children. Nyame, the God of the Twi nation in West Africa, washes preborn children in a bath of gold and gives the child's soul its destiny in life. Nyame also administers “the water of life” and infuses her or his own essence. Therefore, this preparation allows the child to be born into the world. Other gods, such as Ngai of the Masai in Kenya, give each spirit at the time of birth a protector who keeps the person safe throughout their life and who, at the time of their death, takes their soul back to God.
Hundreds of African gods are dedicated to the process of birth. In ancient Egypt (Kmt), Heket served as the goddess of creation and is noted for birthing the gods. Also in ancient Egypt (Kmt), as elsewhere in Africa, birth symbols become dominant features of daily life. For example, the God Khepra (the scarab beetle) symbolizes birth and rebirth largely because its activities appeared to be self-creating, thus signifying eternal life.
Although birth is the theme of many ceremonies, African people have also produced divine statuary, such as the wooden Akuaba/Akuabanini doll, traditionally made by males. Other images herald the birth of a child, such as male/female ancestral figures, mother and child, and the Bambara Chiwara (Mali) symbolizing fertility of land and family. There are also a multitude of images that signify the divinity of women for their childbearing capabilities and phallic symbols marking the primacy of masculine virility.
Other important topics with respect to birth in the African religious context include the order of births, the meaning of multiple births (twins), supernatural births, virgin births, fertility, and hero birth narratives. The history, actuality, mythology, and symbolism of birth provide critical insight into African life, cosmology, spirituality, and philosophy, especially in the discussion of human beings' relationship to God.
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- Ford, C. W. (2000). The Hero With an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. New York: Bantam Books.
- Mbiti, J. S. (1975). Introduction to African Religion. London: Heinemann Educational Books.
- Some, M. P. (1997). Ritual: Rower, Healing, and Community. New York: Penguin Putnam.