Birth and Childhood rituals

Traditions Regarding Pregnancy

As the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are mainly of the Christian religion there are fewer ceremonies and traditions relating to childbirth and childhood, however these are prevalent in may African tribes. For example, within the Samburu tribe of Kenya, a bride lives with her husband until her pregnancy. Then she returns to her mother’s home, where she will remain for the next three to four years. With the birth of a baby the woman becomes a boofeydo or “someone who has made an error.” Being a boofeydo means that she cannot see or speak with her husband. The husband cannot express any interest in her or the baby. After two to three years, the woman will be able to visit her husband, but not live with him. Finally, when the woman’s mother buys everything that is needed for bride’s home, she and the baby return to the husband.


In many African countries it is common to see women carrying their babies on their backs as they work in the field, care for other children, carry water, cook, gather firewood, and clean their clothes and homes. Young girls learn from a very young age to take care of their younger siblings. Babies are seen on the backs of girls as young as five years of age. From the time babies are able to walk, they are thrust into the realm of adult responsibilities. Youth learn from their parents and elders how to manage the homestead. Young girls, especially, are expected to do lots of work for the family and are usually the ones found endlessly pounding cassava roots with a large mortar and pestle. Good children treat their elders with utmost respect and perform chores without complaint. Traditionally in the DRC, male children go to an initiation camp away from their villages for one year. Culminating in a festival and circumcision, this rite of passage into adulthood provides an opportunity for boys to learn to hunt, make handicrafts, and perfect their singing and dancing. The festival usually culminates in a dance ceremony where one dancer gets to wear an elaborate secret mask the village-maskmaker has worked all year to create. After this induction into adulthood, the boys travel back to their communities as men.

Birth Ceremonies

The people of Umtata in the south Eastern Cape of Africa have a Ceremony After Birth of a Baby called Sifudu, it similar to the ceremony performed by many other tribes across Africa to cleanse the baby following birth.

Realizing birth is near,  women attendants prepare ingredients for application to the child’s umbilical cord. These consist of ash and sugar, plus an egg-shaped poisonous fruit “UMTUMA”.

The large object is a flat stone. Top left hand corner on grass is the spoon which collected the ash. Left bottom corner, pile of ash, then sugar, then fruit cut in half. The ash, sugar and contents of fruit are mixed together resulting in the mixture seen in the centre of the stone, which is then place inside the scraped out shell of the fruit.

After birth, a length of dry grass taken from the roof of the hut, is split in half, its edge is razor sharp, and with this the umbilical cord is severed leaving a length of 7 to 10 cm of cord on baby. Approximately and hour later, this length is reduced to approximately 5 cm by again severing with the grass as seen, maintaining that the second cut release all unnecessary blood from the cord. It took years to obtain this picture, what with false alarms, wrong information, un co-operative mothers and their fantastic superstition.

Two or three hours later, the mixture explained above, is applied ensuring, they say, the rotting of the remainder of cord within three days without any ill effects.

Sure enough, on the third day, the short length comes away from the baby.

Between the third and fourteenth day, begins the strange ceremony of “SIFUDU” (passing child through smoke), accomplished by picking leaves from the Sifudu tree. The leaves have an exceptionally pungent aroma. A small fire is made in the centre of the hut, upon which leaves are placed, creating a thin pall of smoke, most irritating to mouth, nostrils and eyes. A woman holds baby head downwards into the smoke, which gives it such a shock it can hardly cry.

After turning baby around several times in the smoke it is handed back to its seated mother who swiftly passes the child under one of her legs, then under the other. All this, plus the smoke shock, assures beyond doubt, they say, that when the child grows up it will never be subject to fright, nor be timid, shy or easily ridiculed by minor or adult, as it will stand it’s ground.

Above complete, child is thoroughly washed after it’s ordeal.

Baby is painted with white substance INGCEKE from river bank. Substance is prepared on a flat stone into which a small quantity of ground MTOMBOTI wood is mixed. This wood has a strong pleasant odour, which they maintain clings to the baby holding off all evil spirits from attacking the child.

Baby feeding after its ordeal. Note how white it’s face has become now that the paint has dried.


Contraception and Family Planning

Contraception, although available and known about, is not widely practiced in Congolese communities due to religious beliefs that stress that children are a gift from God. Children are highly valued in Congo. When family planning is used natural methods are usually preferred over modern methods. The infant mortality rate in Congo is high (94.69/1,000 live births).

Abortion is illegal and is also forbidden by cultural laws. However, premarital sex is common and abortions do frequently take place as families consider it shameful for unmarried daughters to have sex or to be pregnant. Abortions will usually be carried out by taking herbal medication or by attending an illegal abortionist. Having an abortion is punishable by prison sentence. In some cases the families will instead bring the daughter to the baby’s father’s home, demand a fine and leave her with his family to take responsibility for.


Despite having inadequate health facilities Congolese women will usually opt to give birth in hospital. Caesarean births, however, are frequently viewed by the community as a failure on the part of the mother and this level of medical intervention will be avoided.

After birth in Congo the new mother is given extensive support from her own family for up to 3 months and she is expected to take lots of rest. Congolese mothers in Ireland find this period very difficult because these traditional supports are usually absent. At three months of age Congolese children are usually brought to church to undergo a celebration.

All male Congolese babies are circumcised, usually at 0-3 weeks of age. The requests for circumcisions at this age can cause much upset for Congolese mothers in Ireland as hospitals usually operate a waiting list of several months. This leads many mothers to seek to have circumcisions done by traditional doctors. Only 5% of females in Congo are circumcised but those that are usually have Type II which involves the removal of prepuce and clitoris together with the partial or complete excision of the labia minora.


Naming for babies is extremely important for Congolese and in one ethnic group (Kongo) a baby will not be considered to be truly a person until they are named. During Mobutu’s rule Congolese were ordered to abandon Christian or foreign names and change to Congolese names. Many Congolese have reverted back to using Christian names while many retain the use of Congolese names. The present structure of naming involves having a first name – often Christian – followed by two traditional names. Names will often be chosen to reflect an event surrounding the birth or to evoke a family story. A child’s name will usually be chosen by a maternal uncle (male) or by the mother or mother’s sister (female). The person can choose which of these names they will ordinarily use so it is important to ask Congolese how they would like to be addressed.


Babies are usually breastfed in Congo. They will grow up to have a staple diet that includes cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts, fish and rice.



Community solidarity is important throughout Congo and instilling respect for elders is practiced within all ethnic groups. Children will learn not to make direct eye contact with elders or to initiate handshakes. Instead they will learn to bow or kneel down to greet elders and they will often prostrate themselves. Children will usually be seen as the responsibility of the whole community and all adults in the community are expected to discipline children. Discipline is usually strict and corporal punishment in the form of slapping is the norm, as is the use of a raised voice. However, communication through eye contact is also used frequently as disciplinary tool. Non-verbal communication can also convey many other messages throughout Congo and what seem like simple gestures can easily be mis-understood between the Irish and Congolese.

If a Congo child need to go into care it is important that they be placed with a person that the family trusts. It is more likely that they will distrust a member of the African community – unless they have been vetted through their church – as they have no assurance that the person is not a witch. White families are free from such suspicion.


Female Genital Mutilation

Of the many forms of violence that ravage the country, sexual violence is one of the most prevalent in the DRC. In fact, it has been so steadfast that the country is infamously known as the “rape capital of the world” (BBC News, 2010). As young as infants, some women of the DRC experience extreme violence from the moment they were born as the practice of female genital cutting inflicts long lasting physical and psychological damages.

Female genital cutting or FGC is any procedure that involves removing partial or all external female genitalia such as the clitoris, labia and the vulva. This procedure is most commonly carried out when the female is young and because of this, consent is only taken from the parents and not the girl herself. The practice is often associated with cultural or religious reasons and is widespread in Africa but has been documented in other countries as well. Those who condone female genital cutting insist that such practice is not only beneficial for the well-being of the woman’s future husband and children, but also necessary in curbing her promiscuity and maintaining her “pureness”. Conversely, those who do not undergo genital cutting are often times condemned for being “unclean” and “nymphomaniacal” (Akintunde, 2010). The consequences of these procedures can often lead to life-long health issues such as menstrual disorders, serious infections, hepatitis and HIV. Furthermore, these women will also suffer from psychological trauma and disorder, sexual dysfunction, and have a higher chance of having complications during child-birth.

Video on FGM


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