"Horas": A Child is Born--Midwife Experiences in Indonesia and America
by Hedy Bruyns-Tripp
She was hoeing the onion field when she felt a little uncomfortable and decided to go home. In an hour the contractions began, and the little neighbor girl dashed up the craggy path, past the scurrying chickens, snorting pigs, and yapping dogs to Nai Mala's house. The midwife gathered a few herbs and roots and quickly followed her niece to the home where a new life was being born.
It was a tiny, rather ugly baby. The midwife wrapped her in clean cotton sarong cloth and then chewed some ginger root and forced it into the baby's mouth. This was for strength, but I remember thinking that this was pretty early for the baby's first solid food. When the afterbirth or placenta came, the midwife carefully wrapped it in fresh banana leaves and placed it in a balbahul bag, made of the leaves of the Pandan plant. The placenta was the anggi--the little brother/sister. The husband was then instructed to bury the bundle in a deep hole, inaccessible to the animals. It was very important to do this because, if the animals were to dig it up and eat it, the baby would continuously cry with discomfort as the anggi was being hurt.
When the husband returned, he was told by his sister-in-law to pay the midwife a thousand rupiahs (US $4). He placed this in another bag and gave it to the midwife. Nai Mala looked in it and demanded 500 rupiah more. After some argument, this was given her. The midwife had been chewing betel--a mixture of pepper leaves, chalk, and a certain nut which produces a red fluid when masticated--and before she left, she took the baby and spat some of the red juice on the baby's forehead and rubbed it over the baby's soft fontanelle. This would protect the child from physical and spiritual harm.
The next seven nights, including the night of the birth, would be an occasion for the young people of the village to visit and sing and gamble. Anybody and everybody was welcome to visit straight through the night so that the thoughts of the new mother would not wander. The people believed that the soul, or life force, of the child must be protected during this crucial time as it was only lightly attached to the child. The husband's duty was to keep the hearth fire going for these seven days and nights. Relatives and friends brought food so the family was provided for.
The seventh day was the naming ceremony. Relatives and their family gathered at the home, and rice, fish, and meat were served. A small pig had been slaughtered and curried for the occasion. The midwife was presented with the sacred parts of the pig, which included the head, and after she prayed over it, she gave it out to be distributed amongst the main family members. She then spoke of the different customs of their people and the vital importance children had in their lives. If this was the first child, it was living proof that the new parents would be able to carry on their traditions. Having no children was a curse--not only could they not carry on the clan name, but they would not have anyone to take care of them in their old age. The first child's name would also be the parents' name: they would now be officially called Ama and Nai Hedy, father and mother of Hedy. Before this they were just called by their clan name. Other relatives then spoke, and then after some bargaining, the midwife was again paid for her services. Nai Mala closed the ceremony with a prayer and took a handful of rice grains, clapped it in her hands, and threw it in blessing. She then called for the baby and gave it her parting blessing of betel juice on its forehead.
It was flattering to have the child called after me; she would now be 14 years old. These are some of the experiences I had living in a mountain village called Huta Ginjang amongst the Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia (in Southeast Asia), and I brought these memories with me when I came to America and had my first child.
It seemed very natural to have a midwife during my first pregnancy. Why should I go to a hospital if I was not sick? But I found that it was illegal for a lay midwife to practice in Massachusetts when I was there in 1982. The doctor that I visited was more than negative about lay midwives. Fortunately, I had American friends who had had good experiences and were very supportive. However, I had to have a midwife from the next state, Vermont, about an hour's drive away. But this was better than at the mountain village where the closest doctor was a day's journey away, down the slippery mountain, across one of the world's largest crater lakes in a wooden motor boat, and a very bumpy, crowded bus ride to the capital town.
In my last weeks of pregnancy, I left my administrative job and started "nesting." I was living on a small organic truck-farm in Massachusetts and couldn't help comparing it to Indonesia. When one is subsistence living, chemical fertilizers and large farm machines are beyond one's means. I even had fantasies of buffalo pulling the plow over the rocky New England ground and planting wet rice next to the clear stream. As I weeded the onion beds, I thought of the stories of the Batak women going into labor and delivering their babies in the fields as it was too far to get back to the village. Fortunately this did not happen to me.
The contractions started early morning, and the midwife was called. I had had the Bradley technique training and found that it really helped when I started losing control of my body to those involuntary muscle contractions. I could not call it pain because it was not an external affliction, but it shook my whole being. In between contractions, I marvelled at how support for the new mother from the Batak midwives was gathered from the experience and knowledge passed down from generations of midwifery. I remember asking these women about the herbal uses of certain plants and getting a very guarded response. Much of the use of natural medicines was woven into magical formulas and kept a secret.
My perfect baby was born as I grasped my midwife by the shoulders and pushed in a squatting position. She nursed readily and strongly and finally dropped, like a ripe fruit, into a long exhausted sleep. It was hard work getting out into this world! I had been ready to go to the hospital if I had to but was thankful that all went well. The midwife was relieved too.
The medical systems in certain American states are not at all encouraging to midwives. When I was in Southern Illinois, there was a tragic case where the midwife was assisting at a birth in a Malaysian family, and the child died from meconium in the lungs. Because of cultural reasons that no men should be present at the birth, the family had not wanted a hospital birth. However, when the child was rushed to the hospital after birth and not revived, the nurses of the hospital charged the midwife with manslaughter, and she was convicted and not allowed to practice.
Minnesota is more sympathetic to lay midwives, but, because of medical reasons, I found that the hospital provided life-saving help for the birth of my second baby. She would not have survived in the mountain village and maybe not even in Massachusetts in 1982.
Even though I may never have a lay midwife again assisting in the birth of my children, the experiences I have had are irreplaceable. I have great respect for midwives, who in many cultures are regarded in awe as having potent magical powers.
Horas is a word of greeting in the Batak language. The Batak live in the northern area of Sumatra, Indonesia.
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