Uganda: Acholi – The Rite Of The Birth Of A Child

Acholi is a Luo Nilotic ethnic group from Northern Uganda, with a population of approximately 1.2 million in the country. Among the Acholi people, the birth of a child is regarded as a miraculous work of the supreme God, Nyarubanga. The spirits of the dead ancestors known in Acholi as Abila, also play an important part in the birth of a child.

When a newly married girl has become pregnant, she is given a hen by her husband to take back to her father and offer it to the Abila, the ancestors of her lineage. This is done because the Acholi believe that the first-born is brought by the Abila of the girl’s lineage and not from the lineage of her new husband. Therefore, a hen from the Abila of her husband’s lineage ought to be given to the Abila of the woman’s lineage, to thank the spirits of her dead ancestors for the good work they did in making her pregnant. Such a rite is believed to harmonize the two Abilas, that is, the Abila of the female lineage and the Abila of the male lineage. After the harmonization rite, the pregnant woman will return to her husband’s house for the rite of Tweno Ceno which means ‘the rite of initiation of a spinster into motherhood’.

Her sister-in-law is the one who makes the Cone for her to wear for the first time. In order to wear it for the first time, she removes her maiden waist dress, the Tiko worn by females, and sits naked before the Abila or ancestral Shrine. An old woman then smears her shaven head with shea nut oil and ceremoniously ties the Cone around her waist amid tumultuous ovation from the women onlookers. Henceforth she will become a married woman and not a girl any more, though she will remain one-step short of the status of a housewife. The Cone is a tassel waist dress worn by married women in Acholi, covering the back and front only. The rite of Tweno Ceno is concluded with a big dance.

During the period between the initiation and delivery of the child, the mother-in-law makes a new clay bowl with a suitable lid for it and keeps it ready for the coming of the expected child. This clay bowl is known as Tabo Pen which means ‘the bowl for the umbilical cord’. This bowl is considered to be the symbol of the blood relationship between the child and its mother, and is cared for as if it has fragile health. In fact, the Tabo Pen is regarded by every family as the most sacred item in the house after the umbilical cord has been ceremoniously cut and placed within it.

As soon as the pregnant woman begins her pre-delivery labour, a traditional midwife known in Acholi as Lacele stays by her side, to help deliver the baby when the time has come. The midwife knows many medicines, which will help the mother to reduce the pain. After the emergence of the baby the midwife cuts the umbilical cord and solemnly places it in the clay bowl. After that the midwife hands the task of the child’s initiation to another woman chosen to perform the initiation ritual of the baby.

The woman chosen to take charge of the initiation ceremony prepares porridge, without mixing it with any one of the common ingredients such as honey, groundnuts or butter, and feeds it to the mother of the new baby. On the following day, the mother will be fed on cooked leaves of pea. She can not touch salt at all. During this period the mother stays inside of the hut. The baby will not be exposed to people and is not allowed to see the sun. This situation will continue thus for three nights in the case of a baby boy and for four nights for a baby girl.

On the morning of the last day accordingly, the child is ceremoniously brought out of the hut with its mother to see the sun for the first time. Then the mother receives food, which consists of pigeon peas. Now is the time to show the food to the baby. The woman in charge plucks a small amount of Kwon or baked millet and makes it into the shape of a little bowl and scoops some sauce with it, raises it up to be blessed by God and then touches the lips of the baby with it, raises it up again for the mother to bite a little from it and spit it down on her side.

If it is a baby boy the first bite is spat on the right, the second to the left and the last on the right again. In the case of a baby girl the first bite is spat on the left, the second to the right, the third to the left again and the fourth to the right. Then, the baby’s head is shaved and the hair kept to then be made into a string afterwards. They have to shave off the baby’s head because the name can not be given with the hair from the womb still on it.

The woman in charge leaves the new mother outside for a short time, to go and report to the head of the family that the child is ready to be given its names. The head of the family then tells her the names he wants to give the child and these are communicated to the mother of the child. After giving the names, the woman in charge of the rite solemnly opens the door and one of the children emerges from the hut with the child for everyone present at the name-giving rite to see it the first time. After the name-giving ceremony, when the child has been brought out with its mother to meet the members of the extended family, then members of other distant families can then also be allowed to see the child. The ceremony then ends and the mother enters the hut to continue caring for the baby.

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