One would have expected the “Enkatoyioni” (traditional midwife) to be rejoicing now that Maasai women were giving birth more often and to many children but the Enkatoyioni I found wore a sad face. Her source of unhappiness was a trend she had lately noted in her IIdamat Maasai community.
She said that of late, whenever she was called to deliver a baby, she usually found in the same homestead toddlers who were no more than one to three years who appeared neglected.
“They are usually half naked with mucous flowing from their noses like sheep,” she said with disgust adding that in the past a woman who gave birth to another baby before the older one attained 3-4 years was unheard of.
A long time ago, she narrated, a Maasai woman used to give birth to an average of three children spaced with about four years. This was to give the mother adequate time to nurture her baby well and regain her health as well. A woman generally abstained from sexual relations with her husband for the entire period the baby was breast-feeding which was 3-4 years.
From the Enkatoyioni, I learnt that immediately after birth upto about ten days, a new mother was given room to heal from the birth ordeal and did not perform any household duties. She was always taken care of by her co-wives and family members until she felt fit to resume chores such as cooking and milking.
To symbolize this, she had a V-shaped cut on both sides of her head and at the back of her head. From this day on, her husband could eat her food.
As long as the woman kept the hairstyle, her husband kept away from her as this meant she was still nursing her baby and this continued until the child was old enough to look after the young of small stock around the homestead, she narrated.
For all this period, the mother neither shaved her head nor that of her baby and was referred to and treated as a “Ntomononi” (one who has given birth). This means that she was very well taken care of by her husband who would often slaughter an animal for her and in the initial days prepare “Olpurda” (mixture of fat and fried lean meat) and later get soup while her child was fed on fat from the animal.
When a child attained the age of 3-4 years and the woman felt ready to get another one, the mother and her family organised a big ceremony when she and her baby were shaved clean.
“This was done by a selected woman amidst a lot of feasting and drinking of traditional brew,” the enkatoyioni narrated, adding that after the woman and her husband were now free to resume sexual relations. At this time, her child is old enough to survive without close attention from the mother.
This is unlike today when it’s common to see a woman with a few months-old baby pregnant. She complains of high incidents of mal-nutrition which are now common in many house-holds while many mothers are growing weaker by the day as a result of frequent births.
The Enkatoyioni scorn-fully responses to sentiments that abstinence from sex for 3-4 years was difficult saying it was only difficult for women who did not appreciate the benefits of spacing children.
Unlike a woman, a man is always a philanderer and nobody ever expected him to abstain from sex, she said, adding this is the reason behind the polygamous nature of the Maasai.
“But even with ten wives, a man would still stray sexually and that was the reason the burden of birth control traditionally lay on the woman using symbols like the hairstyle,” she said.
She criticises those who have discarded traditional values of the community and demand sex with their wives before the baby is weaned.
She says that in the past a father took great interest in the growth of his children and a wife could get a beating if her child was found with a running nose.
Remember a mother had no excuse for having a dirty child when she was given adequate time to nurse and tend to one child before another one came along and the husband made no demands on her as long as she had a young child.
Among the Maasai few children also made it easy for a family to immigrate whenever there was need to look for pasture away from home.
Though she is not really against modern education, the Enkatoyioni says it was partly to blame for the loss of useful aspects of the Maasai culture such as the ability to space children.
“Our educated men and women are not able to keep off each other after childbirth,” she said with disgust, “yet many are unable to fend for the many children they give birth to and often take them to their parents”.
She gave the example of a certain chief who “has children like chicken”. He is relatively well-educated and has many wives but cannot control the growth of his family. She wonders how such an administrator can be a role model to the youth.
The Enkatoyioni’s opinion on modern family planning methods are equally controversial.
“These are the gadgets that have made prostitutes out of our children especially in towns,” she says. “Due to these methods to control fertility, many of our people have no self-control and are in danger of contracting AIDS.”
She also blames other aspects of birth control saying they are the cause deformities in children.
She however, supports efforts by some organisations to promote natural family planning where the large number of illiterate mothers are given what looks like a necklace but are actually beads with different colours to indicate the different phases of a woman’s monthly cycle.
The fertility necklace like its called has 28 beads like the days in a woman’s cycle. Most of the beads are red indicating the infertile period while eight green beads indicate the fertile phase when a woman can conceive.
A woman is advised to hang the necklace on a wall and move over one bead daily. As long as the top bead is red, she can engage in sex but abstain when the top bead is of green colour. Since the method does not involve use of chemical substances, it has gained a lot of support from local women but its major disadvantage is that it requires cooperation between a woman and her husband and cannot succeed if the latter, is unwilling to cooperate.
As we part ways, the revered Enkatoyioni declares that lack of planned parenthood among the Maasai was today a major cause of high poverty levels in the community as parents give birth to children they cannot adequately cater for. Many of these children cannot get health care or quality education, she notes.