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Fertility in African Culture and Religion » Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

Fertility in African Culture and Religion

April 15th, 2010 by jessica Leave a reply »

In this post, I would like to explore at greater depth the aspects of African culture that conflict with the central idea of birth control. Upon thinking about and researching the importance of fertility as a symbol for prosperity and success in African culture, as promised last week, it became quickly evident that the center of the contradiction between birth control and the value of fertility in Africa is predominantly religious. Across African culture, the fertility goddesses are the female deities that watch over and promote fertility, pregnancy, and birth. Some of the African fertility goddesses are: Ala (Nigeria), Lisa, Minona (Benin), Muso Koroni (Mali), and Oshun (Nigeria).
The religions that these goddesses are a part of seek to insure the fertility and vitality of human beings. Therefore, followers of these religions pray to these divinities who are in direct control of fertility, to ask for their favor and blessing of fertility and thus of success and good fortune. Consequently, infertility is perceived as a punishment for wrong-doing. It is not difficult to see, then, why birth control- a mechanism to promote infertility- is ill-received by these cultures.
The connection between fertility and success is very apparent in African culture. African fertility dolls play a large role in African culture. These statues and carvings are often placed near the family alter with suitable offerings in order to ask the fertility goddess to be favorable towards them. African villagers pray to these fertility goddesses through the dolls to ask for healthy babies to be born to them and for personal health and fertility.
An example of the deep value of fertility in African culture is the Oshun festival in Oshogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Oshun, as you may recall, is the Nigerian goddess of fertility. Thousands of people gather there every year to attend a special annual festival paying homage to the goddess of fertility. At this festival, many women beg in prayer to her for  “health, prosperity, and children”, which they see as undeniably connected.
The Oshun festival has become the central pillar of the traditional religion of one of Nigeria’s main ethnic groups, the Yoruba. This week-long ceremony is a celebration of the Orisha religion which is as old as Africa itself. It is clear that fertility is a vital aspect of a religion that is central to African culture.
Understanding of the significance of fertility in African religion and culture allows one to see why it is so difficult for birth control to be accepted in these cultures. When this culture comes under threat from western skepticism about their spiritual matters, they fight back hard to remain steadfast in their tradition. The Oshun festival, for example, is seen as a last bastion of a tradition that people do not want or dare to abandon. This determination to maintain age-old traditions is the demise of the attempt to institute birth control in Africa. The value of fertility is engrained in African culture so deep that it seems impossible to uproot in order to plant the seed of birth control and begin fighting against AIDS in Africa.
From here, I would like to begin to understand the effect of the implementation of birth control in Africa. As I move from the cultural perspective on the fertility of women, and more towards current policy, I will seek to answer these questions: What programs are working to implement it? How successful are they? Does birth control decrease the amount of reported cases of AIDS in the community? What are the roadblocks that they are facing in this process?

References
Sewpaul, Vishanthie. Cultural Religion and Infertility: A South African Perspective. British Journal of Social Work, 1999, Vol 29, Number 5, p. 741-754.
BBC News. “Worshiping the goddess of fertility.” August 29, 1998. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/160725.stm
Anti, Kenneth Kojo. Women in African Traditional Religions. University of Cape Coast. http://www.mamiwata.com/women.html

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5 comments

  1. kimani says:

    Thank you for these thoughts.

    I find this topic intriguing because I too glorify fertility as a unique mark for a woman’s capability in life. Motherhood has taught me so much about myself and my value and the nature of human beings, and there is no other experience like it. As you can imagine, the African value system stems from a unique history. Like their system of traditional healing, the human being is tied closely to nature, and so value is often placed on one’s interaction with it, including one’s role in creation and re-production and nurturing of life. Moreover, pride in taken in one’s bloodline because one’s progeny not only represents greater resources for the family, but also represents the passing on of a family legacy, culture and even the reincarnation of a spirit in physical form. The very fact that a woman can create and nurture a human being inside of her is also just so amazing and is simply a very spiritual and soulful process. I think fertility is to be revered in every culture!

    With that said, birth control is very counter-intuitive to the African value system, especially when interventions are aggressive and come from the outside – which they often are! More important to challenging an existing framework of belief, fertility interventions should be more of an opportunity to give women agency and choice for how or when they want to give birth. For some women, having more and more babies is great (I might be one of those!). But other women beg for a means to control their fertility. The truth it, I have control over my fertility now so even though I want to have 10 children (!) I can do so responsibly and happily because I have the choice. African women are smart and they are powerful. Give them the opportunity to chose and I am sure they will chose to continue being mothers of children, but will do so more responsibly.

  2. aliciaj1 says:

    I found myself instantly intrigued with your blog after reading the title. It is so interesting to me to see the ways in which culture, religion, and other beliefs play such a significant and yet, different role, in African’s lives. Living in the American Culture, a culture so different from theirs, it is very difficult for me to wrap my head around how the beliefs that they have can guide and shape their lives. I do think that westerners have some arrogance in thinking that our culture, which is so closely tied to capitalism, technology, and science, has the answers to everything, and truly is the best. However, it is a humbling thing to think about how devote many Africans are in their beliefs, and how they live their lives in accordance with them.

    Birth control is one of the many interesting instances in which western science and African Religion come into conflict with one another. I think in some ways, we as Americans, have become almost dull to the significance of birth control, and what it is actually doing. The ways in which it has been received in Africa is almost a wake up call and a reminder of the actual implications of it. While I am not against the use of birth control by any means, I do think its interesting the way that another cultures perspective can cause us to take a second look and examine things with a different perspective.

  3. kpwarner says:

    Really interesting topic, and great comments above. My one additional thought is that I’d be curious to know how Christianity has affected perspectives on fertility and birth control in Africa. Are there differences in perspectives in communities where non-traditional religions are more prevalent? I could see this going a number of ways, and would be interested in what the evidence suggests!

  4. kpwarner says:

    Really interesting topic, and great comments above. My one additional thought is that I’d be curious to know how Christianity has affected perspectives on fertility and birth control in Africa. Are there differences in perspectives in communities where non-traditional religions are more prevalent? I could see this going a number of ways, and would be interested in what the evidence is!

  5. kpwarner says:

    Really interesting topic, and great comments above. My one additional thought is that I’d be curious to know how Christianity has affected perspectives on fertility and birth control in Africa. Are there differences in perspectives in communities where non-traditional religions are more prevalent? I could see this going a number of ways, and would be interested in what the evidence suggests!