When a Child Is Born In Esanland

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A man having married, he and his wife then thought of settling down to life. They might remain in the man’s Ijiogbe or move to a new site. If the latter, then they were making a home on fresh grounds, which meant the wife must plant an UKHINMIN TREE (Botanical name: Neubodia Leavis) in the space between her house (at the back) and the husband’s, in front. This plant in this case is called IHIANLOTO - remember the same plant to mark inter-village boundary constitute the Okoven. When planted in a new farm it goes by the name of UTUN. When planted in front of the street to a compound it goes by the name of UGBIODINQ

First it was considered an act against the departed spirits and a fouling of the fresh grounds to have marital relationship in a new compound before the growth of the Ihianloto. Secondly every Esan wife knew she was one of a series and therefore had to make her position secure by doing all that would give her full claim as the First Wife. She who planted the Ihianloto of the compound owns that compound and is the first wife. The first reason obviously made her all the more anxious to fulfil her duty of laying claim to her first position.

Most wives lived in the back house with the husband in front. The wife went into her husband’s house to greet him first thing in the morning, to spend some time in the night, to sweep and rub the house or to pass his meals. The only occasion custom forbade her entering this house was when she was having her monthly period. As far as possible, during this period, she was forbidden to touch any food the husband would eat and entering his apartment. The reason for this was that Esan custom considered a woman unclean at this period. It was a law difficult for an only wife to obey. In that case she cooked the food but got somebody to take it to Odugha - the husband’s apartment. She never broke the law of not entering his apartment until she was again clean, usually after SEVEN DAYS.

It was a law every man had to obey under the pains of causing annoyance to his departed spirits, to forget any quarrel he might have got with his wife on the day she ‘WASHED’, that is, the day following end of her menstruation. Having taken her bath and made up her hair, she came to Odugha, knelt down and greeted her husband after the evening meal. That was a very discrete way of letting the husband knows that, that day was the proper day to think of getting an heir.

It was a big crime viewed seriously not only by the dead but by the living, to deny a woman that day, irrespective of whether she and the husband had not been on speaking terms for days.

No matter how anxious a couple might be about raising a family, it was a sin all over Esan to have marital relationship during day time, and for this purpose, DAY meant from cockcrow to sunset! It is true that many people had extra respect for this law as a result of some juju like OBIENMEN of Irrua, OREINMENUN of Ekpoma, defensive medicines for war etc, but the real aim of the taboo was to discourage laziness (a newly married man for the next three months would not see the road to his farm, otherwise), and to prevent slackers who stayed at home during the day from committing adultery. This law was particularly strong in Igueben with its Industrious famers.

Now having understood the rules of life should the woman becomes pregnant, she was treated with great care. No severe beating and she herself had to avoid unsightly and shocking things like dead babies, ugly and mutilated people, leopards etc. The reasons are obvious - to avoid shocks which might be followed by abortions, and also it was believed that the child in the womb took semblance to what the pregnant woman saw or ate. Thus, if she ate the flesh of the ever-sleeping Puff Adder, the child would be fat, sleepy and sluggish; if she ate the flesh of a monkey, the baby would turn out to be cunning and ugly etc. So the pregnant woman had to see only good things, thought no evil, in fact the idea was to build up a happy and contented mental outlook.

At about the third month of her pregnancy she went to a native doctor who made an anti-abortion string which she wore round her waist more rarely round her neck. Whatever happened, this string was never allowed to fall to the ground, for the day she did that, the foetus would drop before the woman was ready to go into normal labour. This string was called EDAI (A Prop).

Then came the child: as soon as the woman went into labour, the oid women of the family were called. They took the woman to the back of the house, where squatting on the ground she gave birth to the child, if she did not die of exhaustion or effects of mis-management. No greeting was allowed the woman until the delivery of the after-birth, and then she was showered with AMONGHON! (Congratulations). Unlike the Yorubas, the child was separated as soon as it was born: it was not left on the cold ground waiting for the placenta. But old Esan women had something they insisted upon: the child must cry before they treated it as one Sometimes they left it on a cold surface until it cried, simply because of the discomfort and cold. Then it was picked up with joy and drummed in with the old women beating some music out of old calabashes and wooden flat mortars.

A big piece of mud or earth was then put into the fire and when it was red-hot, it was taken out, allowed to cool before it was pulverized. The sticky substance covering the body of the new-born. (Vernix Caseosa) was removed thoroughly by rubbing the skin with this fine earth, before the baby was given it’s ¬†first bath. It is a belief in Esan that unless this was properly removed the child would stink for the rest of its life. Every morning, using warm oil in a pad, the cord was massaged until it withered away on about seventh to the ninth day of birth. The idea of using red hot earth was commendable but it was all defeated by grinding it on the ground through which new bacteria organisms were introduced to cause the frequent cord infection that is responsible for death of an alarming number of babies within the first two months of birth.

On the day of delivery the husband took a small she goat (greed is, making people demand big ones in modern times), and one yam to the parents-in-law to report the good tidings. The goat referred to as EBHJKPESE, was paid only on the first issue by one’s wife. If she remarried, the new husband had to pay Ebhikpese when she had her first baby in her new home. Ebhikpese had its important legal value. It came very useful as strong evidence in disputed paternity. The man who paid the Ebhikpese was obviously the father or guardian of the child. Since the goat was paid on the very first day the child was born, the answer to, ‘who paid the Ebhikpese was a quick way of knowing who the real father was To ensure that no father out of austerity, or frivolity failed to pay this Ebhikpese, custom ruled that without sending the goat and yam to the father-in-law, no man could see his first born child.

On the seventh day, particularly if she was the only wife, and not with her own parents, the woman had to begin to fend for herself: she could then go to the pond for water or farm for wood - early ambulation modern doctors preach to quicken involution.

Esan people, happily, had no taboos about MULTIPLE Pregnancy. They dreaded twins, because right from pregnancy to nursing such pregnancies were followed with more dangers and hard work, than obtained with single births. Apart from this, a woman who had twins and was able to look after them was a respected woman in Esan Community and she ranked with those who had done EMIONKHAE (Acts of Valour). A mother of triplets, of course, was an individual highly esteemed and if the babies lived, she received rewards not only from her husband, but from the Onojie to whom such births are reported and he had to send three maids to help her during the nursing period.

The only type of baby not liked in Esan was the ALBINO (AYAIN) No mother prayed for one, but if she gave birth to one it was God sent, but no particular attention was paid to it and if it died, mourning was a minimum. In Ugboha, there was a special pond where such babies were drowned as evidenced by the Esan proverb - Akha gbe Ayain Ne Uwolo, o kien ede (when an Albino is slaughtered for a pond, it becomes a stream).

After three months the ceremony of hair-washing was performed. In the olden days this was the ceremony at which the ETO OMON, plaited fourteen days after delivery, was loosened and washed. The men and the women at the place where the child was born and where the mother was still living gathered on the appointed day. They were feasted with much dancing and rejoicing. An animal like a sheep, a pig or a whole carcass of an antelope, was used for the cooking. The mother’s hair which had been done up in EKASA - yellow native soap - was ceremoniously washed. The child was allowed its first adornment. The mother gorgeously dressed and with all the people gathered, was ready for the naming ceremony.

In Esan it was unusual for a man to think of a name before the child was born except in cases where the native doctor had already warned the parents that the name of the person the baby was reincarnating must be given to it. Esan people, being firm believers in reincarnation, often went to consult the oracle before the actual naming ceremony, either to receive the name of the person being reincarnated or for the child to take up the profession of the man when he was alive. However where this consultation was already made the name was only known to the family and the child still had to go through the naming ceremony. At the ceremony the baby was taken to the most-senior man in the gathering, who throwing it up said, “I name you UGHULU (Vulture), which was neither killed nor harmed” Nobody said anything so that he knew that though this reason for giving the name was good, the gathering did not like the name. Then he made another try: I name you ITIKU (Rubbish Dunghill), which is noted for its ability to take insults which only added to its size!” still no comments. Then he threw the child up for the third time and gave its proposed real name. Then he is greeted with blessings for the baby, O RETO (He will live long with it). All Esan names have meaning and so this day was the appropriate day for relatives and friends or enemies to tell the parents what they thought of them. Anybody wishing to give a name carried the baby and did so. It was lot Esan custom to give monetary presents by those wishing to give names; this obviously is a borrowed custom probably from the Yorubas.

If the woman was still living where she delivered, outside her home, it was on this day she returned home. That night custom decreed that she went to ‘greet her husband with the baby’ and she slept at Odugha.

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