Not knowing about the views of the Tigrigna ethnic group on pregnancy, a foreigner, a doctor, congratulated an Eritrean man on his wife’s pregnancy. Although I was not told about the Eritrean man’s reactions, I can imagine how he reacted. I can also imagine how lost for words the Eritrean man felt when the doctor told him the news.
I don’t know how the woman also reacted, but can guess how embarrassed she felt as the doctor revealed her secret, which the woman she intended to keep hidden until she could no longer do so. For her and her husband, the message of congratulation came much too early.
In this respect, the Tigrigna culture is very different. People give such messages of congratulations when the baby is born. People (usually women) who visit the woman say, “Enqua Adey Mariam Meharetki” (I am happy St. Mary has shown you mercy” or “Enqua Mariam awxiatki” (I am happy St. Mary has spared your life.” (Culturally, a man is not expected to visit a woman who has given birth to a baby unless he is a very close relative. Men, if they met the husband, say: “Enquae hagosena.” Literally, “I share your happiness.” And add, “I heard your wife had a baby.”)
I think the phrase the Tigrigna use to express their message of congratulations shows their deep religious and use it to express their gratitude to St. Mary, whom Tigrigna women think comes to their aid during childbirth. In the past, childbirth was very traumatic for Eritrean women, who received no or little medical attention during delivery. Often, many women died during childbirth for lack of medical attention. It may be this traumatic experience that led Eritrean women to be grateful to St. Mary.
Traumatic as childbirth is and despite their love for children, Tigrigna women want to keep their pregnancy a secret as much as they can. In fact, conception should be a time of good news for women, and should be a time for celebration for the parents. I still don’t know why Tigrigna women want to keep their pregnancy a secret. Taking the fact that they suffer so much psychologically if they could not conceive, one can guess how elated Tigrigna women feel once they find out that they have conceived.
In the past, people equated children with wealth. They thought children provided labour, and, indeed, children served as shepherds when they are only seven, and when they grow up helped with the farm work. So, above all, men tried to raise as many children as they could support. So it was not unusual in a Tigrigna family to see as many as nine or ten children. Some even had eleven or twelve.
Another reason families had many children was because families lost many children due to lack of medical care. Therefore, people reasoned, may be some of our children would be lucky enough to survive. They thought that evil-spirits killed their children and, therefore, devised ways to ward-off these evil spirits. To ward-off these evil spirits, families would give their children such an unattractive names, thinking the evil spirits would be ‘disgusted’ by such names. So, they gave them names such as Godefai, which means a garbage heap. Other people thought it was God who killed them, and gave their male children names such as Yihdego, “May He spare him,” especially if they had lost children at young age repeatedly.
In short, for these reasons, Tigrigna women have high regard for children. In fact, in the Tigrigna culture children are given such a high regard that childless families are considered an aberration in the society. Therefore, married couples are under pressure to make something about their situation. Often, a man is under pressure to divorce his wife if they do not become pregnant. Or the man is encouraged to have children by another woman and, therefore, is pushed to have extra-marital affairs, and have children out of wedlock, which puts the marriage under strain.
For this reason, one of the things a Tigrigna woman doesn’t want to experience is barrenness. She fears it and loathes it very much. It is a something she tries to avoid by all means. If she lives in town, she sees a doctor and tries to get medical assistance. If doctors could not help her, she visits holy places hoping for a miracle. After all has been done and failed to salvage her situation, she even visits a felati, a euphemism for a witch-doctor, who is supposed to reveal the cause of her barrenness. Though the society frowns up on such practice women who are desperate to bear children keep on visiting such feleteti, witch-doctors. They hide their protruding bellies under a shawl until they can hide it no more.
Sometimes this view that a pregnant woman’s belly should be hidden under a shawl comes out of the blue when I am watching television. Often, on television women from other cultures do not hide their pregnancy, and I find this ‘offensive’.
“Don’t these women have any shame?” I ask myself. “Why don’t they cover their bellies with a shawl?” Later, I realize that this was my Tigrigna culture sitting on judgment over other people. Probably, seeing a Tigrigna woman behaving ‘strangely’, these same women wonder: “What in the world is she trying to hide her pregnancy for?”
I am not saying that this or that cultural attitude is right. Each people has its own culture, and as long as it serves the people, there is no reason other people should criticize that culture or that people. I am just thinking aloud about a part of my culture, which I thought I knew so well, but on close inspection that is not the case.
I asked a woman I know this question in an attempt to get a satisfactory explanation. She has four children and knows the experiences of pregnancy first hand. I was sure that she would give me the explanation I wanted.
“Why do women hide their pregnancy from other people?” She didn’t answer me immediately. She took some time thinking about my question. “I don’t know,” she said. “But I don’t think they have any particular reason.”
“But,” I said. “I am sure they have a good reason.”
“It isn’t a good sight, is it?” she said. She meant the sight of a protruding belly of a pregnant woman. “Look, don’t pot-bellied men try to hide their bellies? I think, it is the same.”
I was not convinced.