Pregnancy charms

Gourd, Angola

Strung charms, Hausa people, Nigeria

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by Antoinette and Diana Powell-Cotton 1936–1937, and donated by Antoinette Powell-Cotton in 1940; 1940.7.219 [br][b]Bottom:[/b] Donated by A. G. G. Webb in 1931; 1931.9.1Top: Collected by Antoinette and Diana Powell-Cotton 1936–1937, and donated by Antoinette Powell-Cotton in 1940; 1940.7.219
Bottom: Donated by A. G. G. Webb in 1931; 1931.9.1
Women in parts of Africa wore these objects – a decorated gourd and a charm belt – to either encourage or prevent pregnancy.

The gourd is a magical and important fruit to the people of Angola. A myth tells of the time when people first came there from the east but could not find anything to eat. A hunter was lucky enough to kill a bird which was found to have lots of seeds in its stomach. They went in the direction from where the bird had flown and found a land rich in gourds and other foods.

Today the gourd has magical uses for protection against evil spirits and illness and is often painted or decorated in some way. It is a fundamental object for use in charms and amulets and in certain rites, and is often buried with a person at death. This gourd is filled with perfumed powder and decorated with iron beads. It was worn at the waist of a bride as a fertility charm. She would also, on the night of her marriage, smear her body with a mixture of red ochre and oil as a way of 'ensuring' her fertility. This is actually a reproduction of a fertility charm, since the woman from whom the collectors purchased it in the 1930s would not sell them the real thing. Such wariness about the powers of charms is not uncommon; further north a Fulani woman from Nigeria once told how great harm would come to her cattle if she sold her decorated gourd charm.

Hausa girls of Nigeria wear the leather string belt, known as a guru for the opposite reason: to avoid pregnancy. The small, embossed leather squares are called layu and contain pieces of folded paper on which are written Koranic verses and symbols in Arabic. Charms are one way in which the respected local scholars and healers, the Mallami, may dispense their wisdom and individual ones are prepared for protection against specific illnesses, misfortunes or environmental hazards. Up to seven or eight layu may be strung on one belt and sometimes the leather packets are in the shape of circles, stars, or chevrons. This particular version with two layu was worn by girls before marriage, when they were indulging in flirtation, to prevent conception.

Today the majority of Hausa people Muslim, but older beliefs and customs still play a role in their lives. Proverbs relating to pregnancy are still a part of the folkloric tradition. For example, it is said that a woman bitten by a snake will become pregnant, and if a man puts his trousers on standing up, his wife shall experience excruciating labour pains. Once married, a couple do not use contraception but it is considered a shameful thing if a woman becomes pregnant again before her first child is weaned. The child is consequently weaned prematurely for if it continues to suck at the milk of the pregnant woman, it will become weaker and thinner all his life. The woman is made to feel ashamed in the company of others and in the past often put her health in danger by seeking herbal medicines to terminate the pregnancy.

Such situations are said to be avoided if the new mother wears an alternative version of the guru belt made of kola nut charms. The kola nut is important to many African peoples. It is thought by some to be the king of all the fruits because it came from the gods and is used in ritual communication with them. There is a strong association between the kola nit and a woman's reproductive cycle in Nigeria. Among the Igbo in the south east of the country, women are not supposed to climb kola nut trees as this will result in the tree becoming barren, and only older post-menopausal herbalist women are permitted to break the kola nut.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England