BaAka birth story-Central African Republic
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
Itungu at home with grandbaby, photo by Dr. Carolyn Jost Robinson
Itungu’s Birth Stories, Mother (of 7, 5 living) and Grandmother
These stores were collected on July 5th, 2022 and were transcribed and translated on August 21st, 2022, by Dr. Melissa Remis . and Sophie Mbongo, Dr. Veile's undergraduate intern.
The BaAka who reside in the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas in southwestern C.A.R, are a formerly mobile group of hunter gatherers who continue to travel to forest camps and rely on forest resources for subsistence and medicines. They gather wild plants and hunt in regulated community hunting zones within the protected area. Many now participate in part time wage labor and plant small fields of manioc.
The stories were told in a group with two other BaAka grandmothers, in Bayanga, Central African Republic (C.A.R.)
All names have been changed except for Itungu, who preferred to keep her name.
Itungu: My mother gave birth to me in the forest, at Dzanga. She brought me to town, but I was born in the forest. She wanted to name me Dzanga after the stream that goes to the Dzanga saline, Village of the Elephants, but people rejected that name. My mother was from Congo. My father was from here (Bayanga). My parents met here when they were very young. My father--he never wanted us to go back to Congo.
I was born in the forest and when I was all grown up, I went to stay in the forest,
When my stomach was big—full size I went there and gave birth there too.
ITUNGU began to tell her story:
My first baby was a boy. He was born beautifully, he started to grow up. He crawled but he never walked. He died from some illness. Some older woman had come to help me give birth. I gave birth to this baby beautifully. They cut the cord in a way that wasn’t good. The belly button had a cut/infection and it got worse. This baby was a boy. He died.
Itungu: I later gave birth to another boy- . But no, the father of the first baby was someone different [not her current husband Mobale]. I only had one baby with him.
young Itungu in white long sleeves, pregnant with Hannah, photo by Dr. Remis
Melissa [Dr. Remis] was there when I gave birth to another boy baby (S)…but the first baby I had with Mobale, Hannah wasn’t there yet.
Moblae and I got married in the forest. He had been looking for me in town, but he didn’t find me. He followed me and my mother to the forest. We went to the forest to go net hunting. He followed me.
Mobale and I got pregnant. The pregnancy got big, I gave birth to a boy. Nothing was wrong with him. He died, for no reason at all…some kind of illness must have attacked him.. He died when he was still a little baby, he was drinking breastmilk. (Itungu's voice got smaller). He died just like that.
After that Mobale and I went to Bai Hokou [gorilla research site in the forest]. Mobale was working there tracking gorillas--we stayed there for a long time-for a few years….
I didn’t get pregnant right away. For a year, I never got pregnant. I don’t know why not.
Finally I got pregnant with baby Hannah while we were staying at Bai Hokou…one time we were there on our own for about a month when Hannah had gone away.
Itungu: There was no baby for me, no pregnancy at Bai Hokou for about a whole year.
After that one day, Mobale was at work looking for gorillas. In the evening I realized I must be pregnant, I said to Mobale “when I eat porcupine I’m ok, but I’m throwing up every time I eat payo [nuts] and sardines”. That is how we knew I was pregnant.
Mobale and Itungu, 1992, photo by Dr. Remis
Itungu: After Melissa closed the Bai Hokou camp and left to go back to the U.S., I came out back to town with the pregnancy. I gave birth to Hannah in Mossapoula in town. One day, I said “we should go net hunting.” This was before my stomach started to hurt. We walked for a long time, we tied the nets, we came back. My stomach wasn’t hurting yet. We came back to the village in the early morning.
After that, Mobale and his friends were here smoking cigarettes. I cooked some food. I saw in the evening that my stomach was starting to hurt. After a while I went to ask my mother. I went to tell her that "my stomach was hurting, the baby was hurting me. "
My mother said, “go back to bed and sleep.” I felt the pains from baby Hannah. After awhile, I got up...a little after that the baby started really hurting. I called for my mother... the water from Hannah just spilled out on the ground. I called out to my mother to come quickly.
My mother got there and said "quick take off your clothes, you sit like this" (crouching, squatting). She told me to push the baby quickly. She sat in front of me (Itungu demonstrating how she told her to sit so she could grip ahold of her mother who was in front of her while she was squatting and pushing). The baby came, she fell out quickly. Hannah just fell out on the ground.
I said, “Mama go get some cloth, go get some water, I will swaddle the baby in the cloth. “ Mama washed the baby. She cut Hannah’s cord with a stick from the forest. (Ingoka is the name of the herb they use for this). She wrapped her in cloth. She cut the cord with a stick that she cut in the forest. She told me to go ahead and go back to the house and into the bed. She took the baby for awhile and cleaned her up. Later she brought me the baby at the bed.
MR: She came quickly, it didn’t take long? The pains were they strong?
Itungu: It only hurt a little, the birth didn’t take long at all.
(An aside: Now one of the BaAka grandmothers who was with us during the interview said she has some scissors she was given when she got trained as a midwife in the hospital that she can use to cut cords, but most women are still using sticks they find near the house or in the forest to cut cords.)
ITUNGU continues: After Hannah was walking already, I got pregnant with another boy.
His father, Mobale, was working at Mondika. Wonga came back home, he came with a whole lot of money. I bought clothing and everything the baby needed.
After that, the baby started to come. The pains started; my stomach started to hurt.
BaAka grandmother asks: "nobody was there You were alone?
Itungu: Only my grandmother was there when this started happening. I called my mother, only my grandmother was there. I called my grandmother.
I said, “Mama my stomach is starting to hurt.” Then one of the older mothers said “You go to the forest and take off your clothes.” Mobale’s sister the two of us and a young wife came behind me into the forest.
Ata [Grandmother] was sitting in front of me. She was in front of me like this. The other woman sat right behind me while I squatted. I cried. Ata told me “You push that baby.”
I said, “I’m pushing”, but my heart felt closed-up. I called “Come bring me water to drink”, I was also hungry. I wanted to eat something. The boy didn’t take long, he came.
I gave birth to the baby quickly already but there was no cloth.
Mobale sent a lot of cloth; I divided it so we could use some for the baby.
Grandmother (Ata) she cut the cord, she used Mobanzo ti bambu—cut it like this (gesturing) she cut his cord. She said "thank you."
I said “Ata, my stomach is starting to hurt." I went to lay down in the house. She said, “go lie down, I will come with the baby afterwards”.
I went to the house by myself to try to sleep,…..(waiting to sleep)… but I was crying, my stomach hurt so much.
Grandma took a machete, and she went to cut some bark of the Mopusa tree, she cooked it, I drank some of the medicine. Then she went and she opened some Mokana nuts, she fried them, like these peanuts we are eating here. And I ate that. The pain started to be finished. My stomach was hurting, she made me the Mopusa tea, I drank that by itself and started to feel better.
Itungu and Hannah, 1997, photo by Dr. Remis
After that, I got pregnant with another boy child who came after Samuel. I got pregnant; the pregnancy was getting bigger……I was waiting for him to arrive.
His father was still working. My younger brother said to me, “let's go to walk in the forest with the dog”. There were two women and one man.
We went to the forest to hunt for porcupine—we killed three. We came back through the forest and on the road, we came across some guests that were coming from the Sangha region. We stopped and greeted each other beautifully. We asked where they were going, and they said they were going to the savanna (MR: this is a long distance trip on foot they still had at least 50 km to go and not clear where they came from exactly but probably somewhere in Congo).
I walked further ahead, and I said, “what is this water?” I said to myself, “that is the water from your baby that has splashed on the ground right in front of the in-laws.” I was so embarrassed!
My little brother said, “lets go." I stopped to look for firewood to put in my basket, even after the water broke. I carried the wood, and we reached town. I cooked food, I cooked that porcupine. I mixed gozo [cassava]. All the while, the pains were bothering my stomach, but I ate.
Later, Mobale was in bed. I said to him, “Mobale come out!” I tried to wake him up. Mobale got mad. Mobale was asleep and he didn’t want to help me. I told my Aunt (Mama Kota) that he wouldn’t come. After Mobale refused to help, I thought to go get my aunt. Then I just said to myself no just let me go to dance NDJENGI—I danced and danced. NDJENGI came (forest spirit). Then I ran from that place. This baby was hurting me. I went to sit at Nyele’s house in pain. After awhile the pain let up a bit, so I went back to dance NDJENGI again. After that I let it be. Mobale said to me “Never! Unbelievable! What are you doing! Go get your aunt.” My aunt came fast.
She said to me "hurry, come quickly." I sat just a little while, then the baby just fell on the ground. I gave birth to him just at the entrance to the house.
I cut his cord. Mobale came out from the house; I told him to get (who was a small child at that time) out of our bed so I could bring the infant to sleep. Innono was a big baby.
After that I got pregnant with a girl. "It wasn’t long afterwards",. Mobale had gone to the forest to go net hunting. I was at home alone with nobody. They left me at home. They went to tie the nets; they were going to come back quickly. I was making a fire to cook. In the forest, Mobale had killed a duiker and sent Melissa to bring me the head of the baibe [duiker antelope]. When my stomach was starting to hurt, Mobale was still out with the nets out there. I got up, by myself. I was sleeping at the house of my mother, just me and my mother. My stomach was hurting. Mom quickly sat in front of me and told me to hold her legs, and I gave birth to the baby girl. She cut the cord with that stick from the forest just behind the house. I gave birth to that baby just outside the house, just behind the house.
Elephants at Dzangha Saline, photo by Sophie Mbongo
In the early morning, one of the women cooked some animal skin which was all that was left to eat. I was sick. I kept bleeding, blood kept spilling out, my stomach was still hurting. I sent word to Mobale in the forest to come out quickly. He came with Hannah, they put the meat in a basket and Hannah came out carrying the heavy basket of meat even though she was still young. Someone even thought of marrying her but we said, “no she was still a little child”
We ate the meat sauce in the evening, the baby was big enough.
I got pregnant with Tangani--the last child [Tongani is the word they always use for the youngest child]. A girl
The pregnancy of Tangani was big. Her father was there in town--not off working or away in the forest. But the pregnancy came with a lot of bleeding all the time. I said to him, “Dika this pregnancy seems like it is going wrong, I’m going to lose this baby.” I suffered a lot.
Mama took a vine-- Essuma, she gathered it in the fields, she tied it around my waist.
I thought, this is never going to work. “Dika I’m bleeding too much. This baby is going to come out badly.”
We went to the hospital. They gave me a whole complete exam. I came back home. I said to myself “never, this is not going to end well”. I passed so much blood, then the bleeding stopped but the baby hurt in a bad way. I felt it on one side only, my stomach started to hurt. It was too early, but Mamma grabbed me here, on my leg, to tell me to push that baby. I pushed. The baby was very small, very small. I lost a lot of blood. The baby didn’t cry, she was just barely breathing. I saw that she came with something wrong. I said to myself " I’m going to the hospital to see Bavoin (Bavoin a local health worker from a different ethnic group ran a small health post in the BaAka community. "
Bavoin looked at the baby and said "don’t let anyone see this baby, you stay with the baby in the house until it gets stronger. You need to go to the big hospital in Bayanga all the time to get checked."
Bavoin took on the expense and care of that baby himself. He sent me and the baby to the big hospital. A car came to take us there. We kept going back to the hospital every day. Bavoin paid for all of it. He took care of us. He paid because the baby wasn’t good. She didn’t have enough blood (anemic). We stayed over in the hospital in the early days. The baby was weak and sickly. It seemed like she wanted to die. I thought the baby was going to die. Bavoin realized it.
A women at he hospital said "the baby is weak, she could only barely grab her finger. " Tangani got to be one month old before she had even touched my breast. I slept in the hospital. I was weak.
One day, Bavoin said "go to the fields to get some gozo to eat." I was weak and stayed in the field, I vomited the gozo. Then I got the baby up, I washed. I gave her the breast to tell her to drink, but she couldn’t drink.
Bavoin took care of that baby. He gave her some herbal medicine from town (not forest medicine), he put it in the eyes of the baby. She got better. I said “thank you, you have helped so much with this baby.”
Bavoin was like my father--he said "go rest in the hospital. I’m going to take care of it myself."
At that time Mobale was still working for money with the conservation project, helping to fix the St. Francoise Road. That Mobale. I took charge of this baby, all by myself. I had to be tough, to cut off my feelings. The baby finally started to get bigger, she became a person. Now she goes to fetch me some water and I drink it. She is the last of my children.
As time went on, my mother said “Itungu, I’m getting older, I’m going to teach you how to help women who are giving birth.” My mother knew a lot. She said “I am going to teach you all I know. When people get pregnant, I am going to teach you how to do everything. If the stomach is hurting, you will go there to help. Like some woman showed me, you too, go Itungu to help, now you will see how to do it.” I saw all of it.
After that, when someone was going to give birth, they called me. A lot of women have called me to help. (Naming each of her children and their wives one by one), when they have gone to give birth, I have gone to help them. When you go to help a mother give birth you put your hands inside to see how big they are, how close to giving birth they are. Sometimes you guide a shoulder. You don’t pull the baby out; you wouldn’t want anyone to say you had hurt their baby.
After I’ve helped, people have given me 500CFA to thank me for the work that I've done.
Itungu's daughter Hannah and grandchild she helped deliver, 2022. Photo by Dr. Carolyn Jost Robinson.