Volume 92 1983 > Volume 92, No. 1 > A note on Nasioi childbirth, by E. Ogan, p 99-106
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This paper presents information about childbirth among some Nasioi-speakers of Bougainville Island (North Solomons Province, Papua New Guinea). It adds to more general discussions of Nasioi society published elsewhere (e.g., Ogan 1972) and to a paper specifically dealing with fertility among Nasioi and the neighbouring Nagovisi (Ogan, Nash and Mitchell 1976).

Although the data have limitations which will be discussed below, it seems worth-while to record them for two reasons. In the first place, despite years of scholarly pleading (Mead and Newton 1967:148, Landy 1977:289), the material available on this subject is still sparse in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Cross-cultural summaries (Mead and Newton 1967, Spencer 1977) are valuable but cannot escape the limitations of the original ethnographic accounts, which are often characterised by “errors and superficialities” (Raphael 1976:66, Mead and Newton 1967:151). Even a detailed discussion may be based primarily on statements by a single informant (Sample and Mohr 1980). Thus, the present offering is justified to the degree that it adds to a relatively scant ethnographic record.

Secondly, this paper is relevant to at least two concerns of a feminist anthropology. American feminists have been exercised over the manner and degree to which males seem to have taken control of childbirth in modern industrial society (Arms 1975:21). They have sought evidence from anthropology (and pseudo-anthropology) for matri-centred or female-controlled childbirth; this paper provides such evidence based on long-term field-work.

But there is another issue to which this paper also speaks, that of “male bias” in anthropology. “Male bias” may mean different things to different writers (cf. Milton 1979 and subsequent correspondence), and Marilyn Strathern (1981) has recently published a significant article to which all interested scholars are referred. The present paper hopes to make in passing a much more modest point: the inability or unwillingness of a male anthropologist to make useful observations of women's activities should not be taken for granted, but rather ethnographic accounts should be examined critically for evidence of such inability or unwillingness.

With regard to Nasioi childbirth, there is no question that my gender made me unable to witness directly a woman giving birth. I, along with every adult Nasioi male, was prohibited from entering the room while this took place. On the other hand, the contrast between Beatrice Blackwood's (1935:146) rich account and Hilde Thurnwald's (1938:235) desultory treatment shows that female gender alone will not produce detailed descriptions of childbirth. What is important is that the method of research and the consequent quality of the data be spelt out insofar as possible.

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During my first field trips (November 1962-November 1963, February-August 1964), 12 children were born in the Aropa Valley village where I lived. These were hardly events ignored by males, but were rather matters of community interest to be discussed by all of us residents. Furthermore, several post-menopausal women—who, as will be seen, have special roles in all women's affairs—had then become regular visitors to my home, precisely to exchange information about our respective cultures. In the racist colonial situation of the time, they had been barred from a close-up view of Europeans, who, in turn, had demonstrated only negative attitudes towards Nasioi customs. The contrast created by my presence, in a house only a few steps away from a half-dozen others, where I generally welcomed any visitor willing to answer the questions I tried to ask respectfully, seemed to stimulate these women to seek my company frequently. They provided much of the information presented here, not in response to abstract questions, but always in the context of a specific birth event. Male informants' statements are less often incorporated in this paper, and then generally either in connection with masculine activities associated with childbirth or with regard to customs no longer practised.

Three of the 16 specific birth events during all my residence in both Aropa Valley and Kongara villages (my field work in Bougainville encompassed more than four years during 1962-1978, in village and town, primarily but not exclusively with Nasioi speakers) have special significance for the material herein, and should be noted in some detail. The first of these took place on May 22, 1963 to my next-door neighbour Margaret, aged about 28. (All women are given pseudonyms, to preclude any chance of their embarassment). This was her fifth child, all males, the first reportedly having been stillborn. Shortly before mid-night on November 30, 1966, in a Kongara village, a boy who would be my first Nasioi namesake was born to Bridget, aged about 26. This child was the first of twin boys, the second of whom was delivered about dawn the following morning. Bridget had two other living children, a girl then five, a boy three, and had the year before borne a boy who died as an infant. On May 5, 1978, while I was living for a short time in a tiny Kongara hamlet (essentially a matrilineage of three households), Dorothy, aged about 24, gave birth to a boy, the younger brother of my youngest Nasioi namesake. He was Dorothy's third son, the first having been stillborn.

In these three cases, I was in particularly close physical and social proximity to the birth and therefore could observe more carefully. However, these cases are subject to another limitation of data. All took place under essentially the same conditions with regard to perinatal survival and maternal well-being. My material suggests no difference between Nasioi and other women (e.g., modern English and Welsh described by Lambert 1976) in these respects: childbirth is most likely to be successful when the mother is in her 20s (see also Nurge 1975:27), and in that age range the second child has a better chance of perinatal survival than the first. All three babies were male, always more vulnerable than females (Lambert 1976:6), and each mother had lost a male child at birth or in infancy. These circumstances, together with the fact that there are several thousand Nasioi living in - 101 varied ecological niches with varied histories of contact with European and other Bougainville cultures, certainly raise the possibility that there is more variation in Nasioi childbirth practice than my data can show.


Traditionally Nasioi welcomed the arrival of children, provided they were spaced at appropriate intervals of at least 24 months. It seems likely that, until the increased availability of improved medical care and especially the malaria eradication programme in the 1960s, maternal, perinatal and infant mortality was high. Children would thus have a “scarcity value” ensuring community interest in the childbirth process. (These points are discussed in greater detail in Ogan, Nash and Mitchell 1976.)

Certainly the pregnant mother was and is the object of friendly concern by others in addition to her immediate kin and matriclan mates (Mead and Newton 1967:165, Raphael 1981). No food tabus were reported to me but informants of both sexes said that such rich food as opossum, pork and dishes cooked with coconut cream were given the expectant mother to ensure her health and that of the developing infant, as well as an abundant supply of breast milk. This concern was especially marked in a first pregnancy in former times (Thurnwald 1938:239), when women might come from considerable distance to feel the mother's abdomen to ensure proper placement. (In the past, the perinatal period was also a time for exchanges connected with namesake relationships and infant betrothal, beyond the scope of this paper.)

Special huts for menstrual or childbirth seclusion seem not to have existed among the Nasioi. However, today childbirth takes place near the cooking hearth which may be (as in the case of Dorothy) in a structure built on the ground separate from the raised sleeping dwelling. The expectant mother, who works in the gardens so long as she feels capable, charges her husband with the tasks of fetching the women she wants to help her, and removing other children from the house at the onset of labour.

Two or more women are always in attendance at childbirth, as active assistants or merely as visitors. Unmarried older girls may also help in such minor ways as holding an assistant's infant while she supports the mother from behind or puts downward pressure on her abdomen (Mead and Newton 1967:218). Although active assistants are often in the classificatory relationship of “father's sister/mother's brother's wife” or “grandmother” to the child, kinship ties seem less important than maturity and responsibility. There are no women who could fairly be called “midwives” (Blackwood 1935:155), and biological grandmothers to the child are more involved in feeding assistants and visitors than assisting at the birth itself (contrast Raphael 1975:68, Blackwood 1935:146-49, Oliver 1955:173). Above all, this is an affair of women: they are in, out and around the house continually during and after childbirth, talking and chuckling in assured management of something truly their own.

Birth takes place with the mother in a seated or squatting position, supported from behind. Informants did not state whether the mother removed all clothing at the onset of labour; until recently, women in the village wore only a length of - 102 cloth wrapped around their hips, creating no formidable barrier to childbirth. Mothers are encouraged to grasp a housepost or similar object as they pressed down to bring forth the baby (Blackwood 1935:146, Oliver 1955:173). I watched Dorothy's younger sister carry into the small cooking hut a log which had earlier been set outside for that purpose. Women attendants keep up a flow of low-pitched encouraging commentary. When Bridget was having difficulty producing the second twin and whimpered “Pity, pity,” I heard older women mutter what seemed to be mild scolding for her “weakness.” Kongara men said that, in earlier times, people would break arrows and bowstrings to ease a difficult labour.

As soon as the child is free of the mother's body, the assistants give it to her to hold and warm. Only after the placenta is expelled does the mother cut the cord (contrast Oliver 1955:173). Margaret did this with a razor blade, while Dorothy sent her husband into the house where I waited, to get a fine thread. It is not certain how Bridget handled this, since for some hours after the twins were born she experienced difficulty in delivering the placenta. The cord is cut about two or three inches from the navel in the Aropa Valley, and some two inches longer in Kongara. In neither area is it normally tied; Dorothy's use of thread as ligature is probably a mark of her Methodist mission education. Mead and Newton (1967:223) cite a study showing that, if the cord is not cut for 15 to 20 minutes after the delivery of the placenta, there is virtually no bleeding from umbilical arteries, while Emmanuel and Biddulph (1969:68) comment on the low incidence in 1966 of umbilical hernia in Aropa Valley children.

Attendants can now massage the baby with a warmed leaf held in the palm of the hand, moulding its limbs and head (Blackwood 1935:150, Oliver 1955:174, Thurnwald 1938:239). Mother, child and the area where the birth took place can be cleaned off with warmed water (Dorothy sent her husband to fetch sanitary napkins from the house), and the child wrapped in a blanket or cloth, or placed in one of the narrow, soft-sided woven baskets which are a Kongara specialty. Throughout the birth process, keeping the mother and baby warm is regarded as therapeutic (Mead and Newton 1967:205).

While no male beyond the stage of infancy is supposed to be present at the actual moment of birth (Bridget's husband was in and out of the house during the five or six hours between the births of the first and second twins), the father nevertheless has a well-defined role to play. In addition to performing errands as noted above, he must bury the placenta and other effluvia beneath the house, and put a stone or log at the spot (contrast Blackwood 1935:150, Oliver 1955:174). Because of Bridget's difficulties, her father performed the unusual chore of burying bloody rags beneath the house while all awaited the complete expulsion of the placenta. When the remaining cord dries and drops from the baby's navel, it is thrown into running water where, one old Kongara man maintained, all birth effluvia were cast in precontact times.

It is clear that childbirth is not necessarily easier for a Nasioi woman than for her European counterpart (Blackwood 1935:153, Oliver 1955:173, Spencer 1977:293), yet both sexes would state that Nasioi women were superior to others in their ability to handle the event. Men could readily boast that their wives had special “medicines” obviating the need for European obstetrics. Women helped - 103 one another more realistically but consistently urged stoic behaviour from the mother (Nash 1981:124 for similar attitudes among Nagovisi women). These beliefs contributed to Nasioi reluctance to use Western medical facilities in childbirth until the situation was for all practical purposes hopeless. The incidents of perinatal, infant and maternal mortality in hospitals, which then resulted, in turn reinforced Nasioi distrust of those facilities.

Nasioi mothers do not breastfeed their own infants for two or three days (Mead and Newton 1967:202, but contrast Blackwood 1935:150). I never heard anyone describe colostrum as “bad”; it seemed rather that its presence was a sign that the milk was not “ready.” Any woman who is already nursing can serve as a wet-nurse for the newborn. Margaret's son received milk from three different women, including his classificatory “grandmother” (genealogical mother's mother's uterine half-sister). It seemed as if a platoon system was required for Bridget's twins, and the problem of breastfeeding twins was the reason commonly given for the failure of one to survive in the past (Blackwood 1935:164). There was no nursing mother in Dorothy's tiny hamlet. When I asked her husband who would feed the baby at first, he replied that the child had been eating inside the womb and didn't need food for a while. Since I had to leave the next day, I do not know whether other liquids were given to the baby or if he was put to suckle early. In any event, he is a healthy four-year-old at this writing.

Wetnursing the child of a living mother seems unusual in Bougainville. The practice is denied for Kurtachi (Blackwood 1935:162) and Nagovisi (J. Nash and D. Mitchell, personal communication), while Oliver's (1955:174) account from Siwai suggests that wetnursing only occurs when mother's milk is not immediately available after birth. Individual exceptions to wetnursing occur among the Nasioi, even when the mother dies. The father of my second namesake reported that, when his wife died while the child was still an infant, her clanswomen in her Koromira village refused this service, and he took the baby to the Catholic mission to be fed. In keeping with the general Nasioi exchange pattern, the mother's parents, husband, and close matrikin provide generous offerings of such valued foods as chicken cooked in coconut cream to wetnurses and birth assistants.


Despite any separation of sexes in particular tasks, it is possible for a male ethnographer to make useful observations of even so feminine an activity as childbirth. In the Nasioi case, this was facilitated by the length of field work, providing several examples of the event. More important was the nature of traditional Nasioi society, in which the roles of the sexes tended more towards complementarity, rather than hierarchy. The fact that fathers had a specific part in the birth event, while all males took an interest in children, made the ethnographer's presence and questions less disturbing than might have been the case in a different setting.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, Nasioi childbirth is very much women's concern, an occasion to demonstrate solidarity (Newman 1981:4) and a matter of great importance in which their special powers and interests are publicly recog - 104 nised. The Nasioi practice, involving several females including older unmarried girls, seems almost a model of the educational and support systems discussed by Raphael (1975, 1981). The European colonial invasion of Bougainville has distorted relationships between the sexes (Nash 1978:124-25), promoting male superiority where little or none may have existed in the past. It is possible that the social aspects of childbirth have become more important to Nasioi women as administrator, missionary, planter and merchant have treated them as inferior to their husbands, fathers and brothers. It does not seem likely that they will meekly turn over their management of childbirth to male medical practitioners.


Research and writing for this paper have been supported by the University of Minnesota, in the form of single quarter and sabbatical leaves, and small grants from the Graduate School, the Office of International Programs and the McMillan Fund. I am grateful to Stanford University for granting me the privileges of a Visiting Scholar during final stages of writing, and to Clifford Barnett for introducing me to the literature on perinatal mortality. I alone am responsible for any shortcomings of the finished paper.

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