Ghanaian Customs & Traditions Around Birth
Countries all around the globe have customs and traditions surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and the welcoming of newborns into the world. In Japan, the majority of Japanese women choose to give birth without painkillers. The thinking behind this is based on the Buddhist perception of suffering, and that labor pains act as a test that women must endure to prepare for the challenges of motherhood. In Turkey when the baby is born, flour is rubbed onto the baby’s eyebrows and hairline. This is supposed to grant the baby long life.
Ghana is no different when it comes to customs and traditions surrounding a special event such as childbirth, with many Ghanaians seeing children as direct gifts from God. These customs, traditions and superstitions vary amongst the different tribes and communities, but here are a few:
Pregnant women from the Akan tribe are urged to steer clear from looking at ugly animals such as pigs or monkeys, deformed people or scary looking carvings. The thinking behind this is that mothers to be who are viewing unpleasant things will increase the chances of her baby looking this way.
Traditionally, many tribes including Ewe and Akan would arrange for facial/bodily marks to be carved into the skin (usually the cheeks) of an infant. Reasons for the facial marks range from spiritual and religious purposes to medicinal and identification purposes. By marking a child’s face and causing an imperfection it is believed to make the child less desirable to evil spirits.
When it is believed that a child has been re-incarnated and has visited the earth several times before (believe it or not!), these marks are given to take away their spiritual powers and to identify them.
Aside from spiritual purposes, tribal marks are used on infants in order to treat them for particular illnesses, allowing future traditional healers to know what medicines to provide when the child is older. During the slave trade and still to this day, tribal marks prove a very effective way of identifying a person with a particular, tribe or family.
Outdooring refers to a Ghanaian ceremony where by a new born child experiences the outside world for the first time, is officially given his/her name, and meets their wider family and community. Traditionally, this ceremony was to be carried out on the 3rd or 4th day for those from Northern/Upper region tribes and the 8th day for those from the Akan tribe. The Akans deliberately wait 7 days after the birth of a child in order to ensure that he or she has come to stay on earth (Asase Yaa) and is not just passing by from the spiritual world and returning to Asamando (“abode of the ancestors”). Until a child has undergone their ‘Outdooring,’ Ghanaians will regard this child as a stranger or a visitor from the spiritual world. The Akans will refer to the child as ‘Ohoho’, the Ewes, ‘Amedzro’, the Dagombas will say ‘Saando’ for a boy and ‘Saanpaga’ for a girl.
In this day and age, most children are born in hospitals and are not always home within the first week so these ceremonies now happen at a later date. Also, the first time they experience the outside world is when they leave the hospital…but that hasn’t reduced the significance of this event and the great excuse for a big party and social gathering!
The ceremony itself will typically take place very early in the morning in the presence of family and friends. These days, religious ceremonies are carried out in addition to traditional ceremony. E.g Christening. A well respected or elder person with good character will be carefully chosen by the parents to lead the ceremony for the child and perform the Outdooring Rite.(Usually the same gender as child). For many, the ceremony will open with a libation for the ancestors of both parents, at which point the chosen elder will announce the purpose of the occasion and the request the blessing for the child.
The specific procedures that takes place in the ceremony will vary from tribe to tribe, however the mutual objective amongst tribes is to reveal the name of the child to the family and community and teach the child some key values and morals of which they should go on to live their life with, such as honesty, respect, hard work, unity and protection of your family.
Outdoorings done by the Akans will include a process where the person performing the Rite, pours into two separate glasses water and a bitter alcoholic drink such as Akpeteshie (distilled palm wine) or Schnapps (a Dutch gin popular in West Africa). With the child placed their lap this person will announce the childs name, dip their right forefinger into the water and then onto the child’s lips saying “when you say it is water, it must be water.” The same will be done using the Akpeteshie or Schnapps (when you say it is Akpeteshie, it must be Akpeteshie) and will be repeated three times. This is to demonstrate the importance of honesty in life and being able to identify good (water) and bad (alcohol). Some will carry out the same process using something sweet such as honey and something unpleasant such as salt to teach the child that life can be both sweet and unpleasant.
The Akans will also place a cutlass in the hand of the child or let them choose between the cutlass and a book. The purpose is to symbolise the importance for hard work and need to protect your family in life. For girls they will be given a broom or cooking utensil to symbolise the need to not be lazy and look after the household when married, (sorry ladies, times have changed I know!).
Those from Ga tribes have a few variations to the process, which include libation outside of the home entrance, the pouring of water over the child, laying the child on the floor while prodding them with the feet. The videos below demonstrates a Ga Outdooring taking place.
VIDEO – 1 Ga Outdooring
VIDEO 2 – Ga Outdooring
The presentation of gifts for the child and parents will usually follow this, along with the enjoyment of plenty of food, drink, music and dancing!
To learn more about the factors (day of the week, sibling order, circumstances etc) and thought that goes into the naming of Ghanaian children, check out our previous post called Ghanaian Baby Naming Methods.