CAMEROON - As I try by all means to suppress my thoughts on the maternal health issues plaguing my ethnic group, I received a call from a fellow friend in one of the villages that make up my ethnic group, re-echoing the fact that one of my tribe’s inhuman cultural practice is still very alive and that if it is not arrested, it will keep shaping our social, economic and political life.
“It happened again Nakinti,” my friend shouted on phone. “I need you to come over here, investigate this story, and write about it. You need to keep writing about this issue so that our women can escape this dehumanizing treatment.”
“What happened again my dear,” I asked in anticipation.
“One young girl in her early 30s just died in pregnancy and her corpse was badly maltreated—where are you?” he shouted. “She wasn’t laid like a normal corpse, she was laid on the ground, behind the house for a few hours, naked, only covered with a loin cloth, and later on a rope was tied around her neck and a traditional masquerade dragged her corpse for burial into an evil forest, Nakinti please come, I am dying to have you here,” he shouted even more.
“What?” I shouted.
“It is no time for ‘W.H’ questions my dear, it is time to take action,” he shouted.
At the hearing of these words, my hands were shaking. Anger suddenly captured my thoughts. I picked one my son’s shirts that I was ironing and cleaned a fast tear that ran down my cheek and an uncontrolled line of watery snot that made its way out of my right nostril. I stood up, unplugged the iron, and grabbed a bottle of beer from my fridge which I gulped in two installments. Finally I told myself “The fight is on!”
“It could have been me,” I thought. “It-could-have-been-me.”
This day-spoiler call took me down memory lane, to a sad story of how my culture tried to influence my social life. I come from an ethnic group called the Oroko ethnic group. This ethnic group is one of the over 150 ethnic groups that make up the Republic of Cameroon. With the 20,000,000 inhabitants that Cameroon has, Oroko has a population of 200,000 inhabitants. They have 10 tribes, about 233 villages. The Orokos are found in the South West Region of Cameroon.
Amongst the Orokos in Ndian Division, it is believed that physical beauty for women is a relevant attraction needed to secure a good man. Tradition holds it that it is for this reason that women of yesteryears came to attach themselves to the swine totem. Edmond Motule, a cultural researcher and a medical laboratory technician says his research on this issue revealed that women chose swine because it was believed that plumpish women are more beautiful. So because the swine is a fluffy animal, the women decided to choose it as their totem. Culture holds it that the advantages of belonging in the swine cult is that it makes women so beautiful physically. So whenever an Oroko girl is strikingly beautiful, it is believed, without doubt that she has swine witchcraft. But the issue now surpasses just being beautiful. Tradition also holds that women who decide to take up swine witchcraft cannot have children of their own. They say they intentionally do not become pregnant because if they do they cannot go into labour normally without dying. This is because the swine will hold back the baby or the placenta in their belly and they will die during labour or after birth. A traditional post mortem (a brother of the dead woman is called to tear the belly of his dead sister) is usually conducted to identify traces of swine witchcraft in the belly of the dead woman.
It goes without saying that if such women become pregnant, their anxiety and stress alone about how to give birth can harm or kill the baby. And it is for this reason that women who die during pregnancy, during childbirth, or a few minutes after childbirth are considered witches and their corpses are maltreated as explained by my caller above. They also claim they died a bad death and so tradition must take its course.
When I was only 18 I met my first love. I was so in love with him. Assuming that he loved me too, we started trying to have a baby so that we could consolidate our relationship. For some unknown reason, I couldn’t get pregnant even if I had sex during ovulation. From then on we started seeking treatment. We moved from hospitals to herbalists to friends seeking help. I didn’t think of the fact that I was only 18, unmarried, and only in high school. How heart-broken my parents would have been if I had come home pregnant. My concern was to clear my name.
In the middle of this whole pregnancy-seeking struggle, I remembered when several of my class mates in secondary school told me that I couldn’t be beautiful for nothing – that I surely had swine witchcraft. A few friends had confronted me on this issue which of course I denied.
This incidence at hand was enough to get me scared because some say you may be initiated without knowing. I thought this was the case with me because normally, one angle said those who have swine don’t get pregnant while another claims even if they become pregnant they will die during childbirth. Believers in tradition therefore say any woman who dies during pregnancy or childbirth has swine witchcraft. Their corpses are therefore abused.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to think. My mind became so worried that one day as I was walking to school deep in thought, before I knew it, I passed out by the corner of the road. A few minutes later, I only discovered myself being surrounded by onlookers struggling to rouse me.
I was scared to tell my boyfriend about this culture thing. He didn’t know about this because we did not come from the same ethnic group. One unfortunate evening we went seeking more help from a herbalist and traditional doctor. I was sitting some distance apart as my boyfriend and the herbalist discussed things. All of a sudden I heard my boyfriend shout.
“What? Are you serious? Oh my God, what do I do?” he shouted, and then turned around and looked at me for some seconds, and then turned back to the herbalist.
I was totally frightened by this. We left that place with obviously no help but instead with some bad advice that I was not too sure about.
I was convinced the herbalist told him about ‘swine’ witchcraft.
“Did he tell you I have swine and could not have children?” I asked my boyfriend as we arrived his house.
He woke up with a start and looked at me again with fear in his eyes.
“Yes, yes – so it is true?” He asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before? So you are into this and you didn’t tell me? So you wanted to ruin my life? Oh, Nakinti I didn’t expect this level of wickedness from you,” my boyfriend said in anger.
He didn’t give me time to respond or explain myself. I cried like a child that has been burnt with hot water. And believe me, that saw the end of that relationship.
Can you imagine what happened to my life after this? I engaged full time in seeking for pregnancy to prove everyone wrong.
Without minding the presence of HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmissible Infections, I engaged in unprotected sex, looking for the man who will get me pregnant and end my shame. I will not tell you how many men I slept with but the truth is it was more than two in one year. I needed to prove my innocence.
Along the line, I finally became pregnant without knowing how it happened. I discovered I was pregnant when I was already 3 months gone. It was a-dream-come-true. But I lived in constant fear of dying in the process, just being afraid that I may have been initiated into swine witchcraft without knowing.
Hurray! I gave birth successfully and today my son is 13 years old. I proved my culture wrong.
Now, imagine that I died in the course of this: believers of swine witchcraft would have concluded that I was a witch. This is what has happened to countless women who have died in the process of giving birth. Their corpses were brutally treated and buried like fowls. Families that have experienced this still live with the stigma of being labeled mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers or cousins of witches. The pain lasts for long.
Such a situation, in the absence of full-fledged hospitals around my area has made many women die during childbirth. Quite often when a woman labours for longer hours, traditional birth attendants will conclude that she has swine and so must die. They no longer concentrate on caring for the laborer who is in pains but rather think about how burial will look like.
The truth is that like me, many other girls have gone through this situation and many have had to face the realities of its bitter consequences. Miriam is one of the Oroko girls who have gone through this ‘swine’ accusation because she was beautiful.
She says she has gone through a lot.
“I have been trying to have a baby for several years now,” Miriam told me. “This has made me to drink all sorts of herbs and taken all sorts through enema. This resulted in further aggravating my situation as a gynecologist told me in my last medical appointment that my tubes were blocked.”
Miriam says that even isn’t the worse.
“Because many men have abandoned me for not getting pregnant, I have been going around looking for a man to get me pregnant,” she says. “Today I am happy that I have finally become pregnant after several years, but also dying slowly because I am not only pregnant with a baby, I am also pregnant with HIV/AIDS,” Miriam cries as she tells me this.
Out of curiousity, I engaged in an informal Facebook discussion on this issue with an Oroko Anthropological researcher who has done extensive research on the Orokos and Post mortem. He said swine witchcraft is real.
“Nakinti, swine witchcraft is real,” he says. “I have participated in several traditional post mortem of women who are accused of swine witchcraft and to tell you the truth, there are some women who actually died of swine witchcraft. The womb of a normal woman and that of a woman who had swine witchcraft are not the same.”
Medical practitioners and cultural researchers say that the biology of [female] humans and that of swines are different. It says that the cervix of a swine is very small. Because of this, the swine dilates a special substance during delivery, a substance that humans don’t dilate during this very process. As a matter of fact, this goes a long way to say that women who have swine witchcraft cannot be delivered very easily because as humans they cannot dilate this special substance to ease delivery. As a result, they labour without dilation and finally die as a result.
Cultural believers are forgetting that some women naturally labour without dilation.
Now the issue here is not about whether swine witchcraft is real or unreal, the focus is that pregnancy comes with different complications and as such women who die in this humble process of bringing forth life deserve some respect.
To tell the truth, such cultural situations are ones which motivates me to carry on my journalism career. This is when I need my Provocative voice: because in addition to being a journalist, I will lead speaking missions, awareness raising campaigns, workshops, and conferences in a bid to say NO to harmful and discriminatory cultural practices against girls and women.
Oroko Cultural Association (OCA) USA started last year by sending 40 feet container load of medical equipment, more on the way, to be distributed to health centers in Oroko villages so as to improve health and reduce maternal mortality especially. This is a good mission that I think will go a long way to change mentalities if suspected cases of swine witches deliver successfully with medical care.
My first awareness mission on this issue started when I wrote a News article on this very issue published in the Global Press Institute News Wire in 2012. I have also concluded plans with an Oroko film producer to write a movie script and produce a movie denouncing this practice. This awareness raising movie will sure hit the big screen before December 2014 if we get sponsorship required.
We are going to sound the whistle so loud to the extent that even our ancestors who created tradition, whom we respect, will hear in their graves beyond and they will send messages of change to the world above. It is going to be hard, I think, but I am up to the task!
And all this is because:
“It-could-have-been-me-whose-corpse-would-have-been-maltreated, It-could-have-been-me. The-fight-is-on!” I just wrote this on a sticker and stuck it on my headboard.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals