Pregnancy in Africa

Pregnancy Africa

If you are pregnant in the United States, be grateful for the things you take for granted, like prenatal care, maternity leave, and access to doctors and a well-equipped local hospital. You have probably not spent much time worrying about surviving your pregnancy. You are luckier than most women in the world. What might pregnancy be like if you were a woman in Africa?

Africa is a continent with 54 countries, where 16 percent of the world’s population lives. Half of all Africans are under age 25. An average woman in Africa may have about six pregnancies. If you were like most African women, you would rely on your traditions and your village pregnancy caregivers. You would give birth at home, and you would be distrustful of giving birth at a hospital. In fact, going to the hospital would be your last resort.

The good news about being pregnant in Africa is that maternal deaths from pregnancy have dropped by about 40 percent since 1990. The bad news is that in some parts of Africa, about one out of 14 pregnancies is fatal. You would worry about that, and you would probably know someone who died in childbirth.

Prenatal Care and Traditions

If you were pregnant in Africa, there is a good chance you would be younger, maybe a lot younger. In Ethiopia, for example, it is not unusual for a girl to be married at 13 and have her first baby soon after marriage. Africa has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world.

If you lived near a city, you might have some prenatal care. You might have to wait a long time to have someone take your blood pressure and measure your belly. Most African women will never have a prenatal ultrasound or get prenatal diagnostic testing.

Like most African women, if you lived in the country, you would have no prenatal care. In Ethiopia, 75 percent of women never see a health care provider during pregnancy. Your prenatal period might be complicated by malaria. Pregnancy reduces your resistance, so a mosquito bite could lead to a malaria attack and a miscarriage or stillbirth.

You would probably rely and trust in your village pregnancy care providers. Your husband might be sure to not have sex with any other women, even other wives, during your pregnancy. You might abide by prenatal traditions like the following:

  • Not planting potatoes: to lower the risk of your baby being born with the umbilical cord around the neck
  • Eating traditional herbs or placing herbs in your vagina: to keep your baby healthy
  • Avoiding looking at a dead person or going to a funeral: to protect your baby from evil spirits
  • Not sitting for long during meals: so your baby will have a healthy cry at birth
  • Not eating yams: so your baby will not be too big
  • Not eating fish: so your baby will arrive on time

The good news about being pregnant in Africa is that maternal deaths from pregnancy have dropped by about 40 percent since 1990. The bad news is that in some parts of Africa, about one out of 14 pregnancies is fatal.

Birthing Care and Traditions

You would probably have your baby at home. You would feel safer at home than at the hospital. Like most rural African women, you would associate the hospital with death. The biggest risk during birth would be bleeding and infection. If you hemorrhaged and needed a blood transfusion, that would probably be fatal.

You might need to send someone for the village midwife when labor starts. You might have to climb into a horse-drawn cart and go find the midwife. If you gave birth at home, you might do it in a kneeling position on the side of the bed where your husband sleeps. A traditional birth might include the following:

  • Being attended by village care providers that you know and trust
  • Having your husband and family with you
  • Cutting the umbilical cord with a reed and smearing the cut cord with herbs and your saliva along with saliva of family and friends for healing
  • Treating the placenta almost as an another baby and burying the placenta after birth
  • Not giving your baby your first milk, to prevent making your baby sick
  • Holding your baby over the smoke of a “birthing fire” to help your baby’s head form properly
  • Staying home with your baby for about 4 days after the birth
  • Not having sex with your husband for the first month after birth

The pregnancy and birthing experience of a woman in a highly advanced country like the United States is a world away from the experiences of a woman in rural Africa. But some things are the same. Pregnancy is thought of as a special and sacred experience. Giving birth and being a mother is held in high esteem. And of course, mothers love their babies more than life itself.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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