In Africa, pre-natal massage and compassionate touch during the childbearing years have been around for centuries and has always been much more than just a pampering session.
In this month when we celebrate African Traditional Medicine Week (26-31 August) I thought it fit to look at the integral part of massage in maternity care as both a touch therapy and a ritualistic tradition .
Both Western medically-trained midwives and traditional healers on our continent, skillfully integrate the ancient and healing arts of massage and midwifery, as they have for thousands of years.
According to modern day midwife, Kara Maja Spencer, being touched or massaged by a midwife or birth attendant was the central component of prenatal care around the world since times forgotten. That is until Western medical practices displaced traditional midwifery (1).
In the absence of obstetrical tools and tech gadgets the woman supporting a birthing mother, had her eyes, ears, and hands to diagnose and assist pregnant women. Honed by continual practice, the midwife’s senses of observation and intuition through touch were finely tuned.
THE ROLE OF MIDWIVES
A study conducted in Botswana (2) describes the typical midwife as a woman who:
Importantly, they note, the midwife is aware of the limitations of her own knowledge and skills and when necessary refers the mother to the local hospital.
She also advises the mother-to-be on wellness topics like nutrition, takes her through process of delivery, assesses the newborn, performs cord care and cultural rituals.
After delivery the traditional midwife makes home visits to follow up on vulnerable babies.
She also encourage the use of family planning to space births.
MASSAGE IN PREGNANCY
Massage also plays an important role in preparing Nigerian mothers for childbirth as well as supporting them afterwards.
Both traditional birth attendants (TBAs) and trained midwives carry out regular abdominal massage and palpation. This technique is said to loosen the nerves and relax the muscles, facilitating an easy pregnancy and delivery as well as correcting malpresentations.
The mother-to-be will also make a paste with kola nuts and rub the paste on her abdomen every day to prevent thrush and other skin infections in the newborn baby.
After birth, the mother is given a warm bath and a specially prepared oil is applied over her body. The abdomen is bound tightly with a cloth believing it will help the abdominal muscles regain their tone and maintain the pre-pregnancy figure.
But not everyone is equally enthusiastic about this practice of abdomen massage for a few reasons:
MASSAGE MEDIATES SOCIAL BIRTH
Massage as a ritual for newborns is often more that just a physical experience. It is is more like a social birth. (5). Bodily practices such as massage for newborns act as a form of communication between the baby and her surroundings. Touching the baby is a way of introducing her into a specific group.
The relation between the identity and the culture is illustrated by the practice of massage on newborns by their grandmothers in the Bambara region in Mali.
The grandmothers massage and stretch the newborns to let them experience the limits of their bodies and in the process to embody the Bambara identity.
According to Mannoni the psychic structuring and the culture are tightly connected and the body is the first mediator of that representation.
Touch and love, nurturing and caring have always gone hand in hand.
Can you think of a better way to introduce a new member of a group to the people and environment she has just joined?
This post is based on an article written for InTouch, a magazine published by the Massage Therapy Association of South Africa.
Body-mind or mind-body? If you are struggling with physical and mental pain and feel that the dominant health paradigm’s dualistic approach to mind and body seems inadequate to explain anything, I want to talk to you. Join me under the tree in my garden for a cup of rooibos tea and let’s talk massage and SomaSense!