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Chapter One: The Afrocentric Baby Shower
Motherhood is Supreme.
-- Ashanti proverb
In African societies, as in American and all other cultures, pregnancy is considered a very serious and special circumstance. However, African culture considers it more spiritual because many African societies believe birth and death are transitions between the earth and the spirit world. Thus many Africans believe a baby is a gift from the spirit world. In America, baby showers are usually associated with fun and games. Afrocentric baby showers offer an added dimension. This chapter will explore and focus on the African-centered, spiritual baby shower.
A BABY SHOWER WITH HERITAGE
In many African countries (because of the high mortality rate), it is forbidden to celebrate the baby before it is born, hence the Tanzanian proverb "Do not make a dress for the baby before the child is born." Often African women will wait until the baby is born to host a baby shower. In some African countries, such as Somalia, women don't have this taboo and will host a party for the mother and new baby before the birth. This type of baby shower is more serious than the typical American baby shower. An Afrocentric baby shower, called a Mamatoto (Kiswahili for "mother and child"), focuses on spiritual oneness of mother and child with their family and with their community. During this ceremony, the guests give the mother many blessings. In South Africa, the Zulus come together with friends and relatives before the birth of a child to decorate the birthing room in beads and artwork. It is believed that the baby will capture andinternalize the beauty of the room.
The ceremony begins with the host announcing that the guests should remove their shoes and remain barefoot throughout the ceremony. This also marks the commencement of the celebration. The removal of one's shoes, in African as well as many other countries, is a practice of respect. It also is believed to bring the person closer to the earth, therefore closer to her ancestors.
The host plays an important role in the Afrocentric baby shower. Since every baby shower is different and individualized, the host must plan which events she will utilize and learn the procedures beforehand. The host will act as a guide at the shower by announcing transitions from one activity to the next.
AFROCENTRIC PARTY THEMES
Whatever theme you choose for your shower, make sure that it is uplifting and inspiring. You want to welcome the new baby into the world with positive energy from all of the family and friends in attendance. Themes based on other African-American events can be included in the shower theme. Family themes, such as a Kwanzaa-based party or Umoja Karamu (an African-American family celebration of unity held on the fourth Sunday of November), work well with baby showers. Here are some ideas to include in your very own Afrocentric baby shower.
Kwanzaa is a family celebration that usually takes place after Christmas and into the New Year. This holiday is an African-American tradition that celebrates the family. The principles and symbolism of Kwanzaa can easily be incorporated into a baby shower. Here are a few examples:
A great centerpiece for a party table would be a Kwanzaa bush, which is an evergreen bush decorated in the colors of Kwanzaa -- red, black, and green. Other centerpieces could include red, black, and green candles in a candelabra or in a kinara, a candleholder that holds the seven candles of Kwanzaa, referred to as mishumaa saba. Whatever type of centerpiece you decide on, part of the Kwanzaa tradition includes the centerpiece being displayed on a straw mat called a mkeka.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are symbols of fertility and should always be present at an African-American celebration. During Kwanzaa, these fruits and vegetables are called mazao. These fruits and vegetables are then placed on the mkeka. Ears of corn, which symbolize offspring, are also placed on the mat. The kikombe cha umoja, or communal unity cup, symbolizes unity and is passed around to those in attendance. Homemade gifts called zawadi are customary for this type of theme. Baked homemade cookies wrapped in bright cellophane and ribbons make excellent party favors for guests.
Kwanzaa reinforces the commitment to the family and to the community, and a baby shower is the recognition of the parents' commitment to their newly established family. The parents can recite "A Kwanzaa Promise" to set an example and to teach the seven principles of Kwanzaa to their children every day of the year.
UMOJA KARAMU SHOWER
Umoja Karamu is a holiday that is celebrated on the last Sunday of November and that symbolizes unity within the family, community, nation, and race. Umoja Karamu is celebrated through the presentation of food with narratives of African-American historical periods. This tradition can be instituted into a shower theme by displaying hors d'oeuvres in traditional colors that represent each period. The host can then read narratives from each of those periods to the guests in attendance.
1st Period . The Black family in Africa before slavery. Represented by food that is black; for example, black olives, black beans, and blackberries.
2nd Period . The Black family in slavery. Represented by food that is white; for example, white cheddar cheese, potatoes, and yucca.
3rd Period . The Black family after emancipation. Represented by food that is red; for example, tomatoes, apples, and peppers.
4th Period . The Black family in struggle for liberation. Represented by the color green; for example, celery, lettuce, and grapes.
5th Period . The Black family and hopes for the future. Represented by the color orange or gold; for example, crackers, yam, squash, cheese.
As in many African ceremonies, the Afrocentric baby shower should begin with a libation. A libation is a ritual act that was once outlawed by Christians and Muslims, who associated them with pagan or non-Semitic deities. Libations consist of the pouring of a drink as a sacrifice, offering, or prayer. The traditional method for libation is quite basic and simple, which is part of its beauty and significance in African societies.
To perform a ritual libation, place a liquid in any type of vessel or goblet, preferably one that has or can be assigned some lasting spiritual significance. It may be simple or exotic. Then the liquid is poured onto the earth, onto some event-meaningful object, or into another vessel or bowl. While pouring, recite a prayer.
In the Yoruban tradition, libations are poured to various gods. The Yoruba pour libations onto fires, stones, statues of the gods, individuals, or simply onto the ground, depending on the purpose. By making a libation, African women reaffirm their spiritual nature and place in the cosmos.
For Africans and many other peoples, wine traditionally represents the blood of the earth. Wine is considered a suitable offering for virtually any purpose. White wines as well as red wines share the same symbolism. Even beer has meaning. To Africans, a libation of beer represents an oath to your family and community. Beer libations can be performed to strengthen friendship, when giving or receiving an oath, and to cement an agreement or to form a compact.
A libation of milk can be extremely meaningful. To Africans, milk represents family, kindness, and acceptance. Milk libations are given as thanks for anything associated with the family or relatives, such as in a libation of thanks for the pregnancy of a woman in the family. Milk can be used as a peace offering as well. Libations of milk are also poured when someone is seeking forgiveness, as an act of humility, or as acknowledgment of one's own shortcomings.
Cider or strawberry wine is appropriate for libations associated with matters of community, fun, or enjoyment. Thus, a cider or strawberry wine libation may be offered for the success of the pregnancy or for the baby shower.
Hard liquor and spirits, such as whiskey, vodka, gin, or rice wine, are associated with libations poured for strong reasons. For example, a person might use a libation of spirits in supplication for the things he wants most in the world, to fulfill his personal destiny, or for the purposes of casting or avoiding curses. Thus, if the birth of a healthy child is one of the mother's greatest desires, she may wish to make a libation with spirits. Always remember that the mother-of-honor should not consume alcohol when she is pregnant. Nor should she consume alcohol if she has recently given birth or is nursing. Guests may want to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages out of respect for the mother-of-honor.
These libations can be poured from any vessel, whether a cup, a bowl, or a dish. However, Africans often use ceremonial or special vessels that they have carved or made specifically for libations. Many of them have the shape of an animal.
A libation can be poured for any specific purpose or for general purposes. As a ritual act, the libation is a demonstration of our deep respect, concern, and desire for the fulfillment of our wishes and prayers. As an overt act, libations also illustrate our faith in deeds. Thus, a libation is a prayer of deeds as much as a prayer of words.
Many contemporary African baby showers begin with a libation of water poured from a wooden cup into a plant and a prayer offering in honor of our ancestors. It is asked aloud that your ancestors or the living-dead be with you as official guests of the occasion and for them to add their blessing from every direction (meaning from North, South, East, and West) to all ritual libations.
THE TRUST WALK
Another activity based on traditional African rituals is the trust walk. The trust walk is enacted to symbolize the support of all the women present for the new mother. To begin the trust walk, blindfold the mother-of-honor and form two lines. As the mother walks between the two lines, each of the guests should gently touch her shoulder and forehead. They should then take turns rubbing her back and hugging her. This gesture of kindness and solidarity is designed to remind the new mother that she may not now see where she is going, but she is going to get there, even though she may not know or see who will help her along the way. She will come to realize that those whom she can see and those whom she can't see will always be there for her.
After the trust walk, the furniture in the room should be set in a circle around an Afrocentric chair or stool. In African societies, the circle is symbolic and serves as a protective ring around the mother to keep evil and harm from her and the unborn infant. The mother-of-honor should be in the middle of the sister-circle under a Kente cloth umbrella decorated especially for the baby shower.
Starting with the elders in attendance, all the mothers in the sister-circle should take turns sharing their experiences of childbirth with the new mother while holding her hand. Keeping the circle intact, the guests should stand and circle around the mother-of-honor; then each guest takes a turn at giving the new mom words of wisdom or advice. This should be done while attaching gifts of money, instead of bows, to her headdress, as Ghanaian women do. This ritual is believed to protect and help the family in raising the new baby.
When this part of the celebration is finished, the mother-of-honor meditates while sitting in the sister-circle, allowing each guest's positive energy to flow to her. Each guest should bring to the circle a poem or song to share.
THE COMMUNITY QUILT
The African-American quilting tradition is old, strong, and ongoing. Quilts and blankets have been used for many years to celebrate births, weddings, and graduations. They have also served as a historical album that tells the story of the relationships of certain groups and families. You can easily involve your guests in an activity designed to produce an heirloom quilt, which can serve either as a functional blanket for the baby or as a wall hanging to commemorate the occasion.
To make an heirloom quilt at your Afrocentric baby shower, begin a few days before the event. Purchase or prepare two different types of fabric squares that complement each other. These should be approximately four square inches in size. Be sure to purchase or cut out enough for all of your guests. Provide your shower guests with the proper equipment and different types of embellishments, such as various fabric textures, fabric glue, scissors, fabric paint, and pens, which the guests can use to design and personalize their own square or squares.
If you decide to use decorations or embellishments, like cowry shells, buttons, or anything that may come off, then the quilt should be used only as a wall hanging, because the small pieces could be a choking hazard for the new baby.
Textured fabrics, such as felt, corduroy, velvet, silk, cotton, tapestry, and natural fibers, make excellent materials for a functional baby quilt.
Have each of the guests design her own personal square for the baby. If none of the guests has the time or expertise, the hostess of the event may want to hire a quilter to put the pieces together during or after the event. Another method is to mail the fabric square in a padded envelope with the shower invitation, along with an explanation and directions for the guest to make her square ahead of time. This way, the guests can include the sentimental fabric pieces or memorabilia that they may have at home. At the event, the guests can tell the story of their contributions to the quilt. Provide extra quilt squares and embellishments for guests who may have forgotten to prepare a square in advance. The community quilt can become a valuable family heirloom, and it is a fine way for your guests to add a personal part of themselves to the baby's life.
THE RITUAL CLOSING
Toward the end of the ceremony, ask all of the guests to sit in the sister-circle once again. Taking turns, this is the time for each guest to go to the expectant mother and whisper a blessing while touching the new mother on the shoulder or the stomach. There is an adage in Nigeria about the importance of giving inspiration through touch. It states: "Can the drum talk without being touched?"
Copyright © 2001 by Janice Robinson