Stunning WaterAid photo series reveals birth traditions from around the world

In Madagascar, Nome, 21, wears a 'masonjoany' mask to protect herself from the sun and bad spirits after giving birth. ...
In Madagascar, Nome, 21, wears a 'masonjoany' mask to protect herself from the sun and bad spirits after giving birth. Image: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala 

The birth of a new baby is a time of great joy, celebration and ritual. 

A fascinating new photo series by WaterAid reveals the different traditions observed by communities around the world to 'protect' mothers and welcome new babies, giving them the best start in life.

From string blessings and paint masks to baptisms and twig ceremonies, the striking images show how 10 countries, from the UK to Uganda, celebrate new life.

The photo series is part of a global campaign to help get clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene in health centres around the world. 

Here's a closer look.

Mother's mask - Madagascar

There are many sacred rituals, taboos and customs around pregnancy and birth in Madagascar. For example, when a woman gives birth, the placenta is buried by the father near the house and the umbilical cord is either given to the zebus to eat or thrown into river - depending on the tribe. 

For the Sakalava of Menabe tribe, the moment the mother and newborn step outside the house for the first time is known as 'Manaboaka Jabely'.

In this image, Nome, 21, wears a 'masonjoany' mask to protect herself from the sun and bad spirits after giving birth to her son seven days ago. It is created by grinding a sandalwood tree branch and adding water to form a paste. 

"In our culture, mothers like me and our newborn babies are not allowed to go outside during the first seven days after the birth," said Nome. "The mother is still suffering and the baby is still very fragile and at risk." 

"But once we have made it through these sacred critical seven days we step outside for a short time to face the reality of life and the bright sun. And we celebrate this moment with our family members."

Mother's Mask, Madagascar from a global snapshot of how new babies are welcomed around the world. Credit: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Photo: WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

First food ceremony - Japan 

In Japan, Natsumi, 29, feeds her daughter Miwa, four weeks old, during Okuizome, a first food ceremony

Okuizome is a family tradition which takes place at home or a restaurant when the baby is 100 days old. The purpose of the custom is to ensure that the baby never goes without food during their life.

The family prepares traditional Japanese dishes which each have a symbolic significance and the baby is fed (imitatively) for the first time. 

"We decided to do this tradition because we wish our daughter good health and happiness," said Natsumi. "We also want to respect our old tradition. I hope my daughter grows up to be healthy, strong, curious, caring and successful." 

FIRST FOOD CEREMONY: In Japan, Natsumi, 29, feeds her daughter Miwa, four weeks old, during Okuizome, a first food ceremony from Wateraid photo series of birth traditions
Credit: WaterAid/ Kodai

Photo: WaterAid/ Kodai

Eye kohl - India

​Rinku, 22, from Delhi, has followed the Indian baby tradition of applying thick, black paste called kohl to her daughter Kritika's eyes.

"The tradition of applying kohl or 'kajal' to the infant's eyes and forehead began long ago and has been taught to each generation by the elders, " Rinku explains.

"The black kajal protects the child from any evil spirits and keeps them healthy."

Credit: WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
Credit: WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

Protective cut - Ghana 

In Ghana, Mary, 21 and her husband performed the Nila tradition on their son Nathaniel, now two, when he was a few months old.

Nila is a small cut made on the baby's cheek, which is thought to prevent the child from getting sick or having convulsions. Both parents also did the Nila tradition as infants.

"A herbalist does the cut and then applies some traditional medicine to make the wound heal. We paid for it with a guinea fowl. Everyone here does this ritual and has done it for many years," said Mary. 

Mary's birth was very difficult as she had no access to water or toilets. 

"My sister had to go to the community borehole to collect a gallon of water. It was a 15 minute walk and then a long queue. I used the water to wash myself after giving birth. It meant she wasn't around to support me or get food if I was hungry," she explained.  

"After giving birth, I washed outside in the open. People were outside looking at me."

Protective Cut in Ghana. Credit: WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

Photo: WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

String blessings - Uganda 

In Uganda, 30-year-old Nagit and her husband Lomer participate in the blessing and naming ceremony for their baby Bakita.

There are many aspects to the welcome rituals. As part of the ceremony the skin of the Etopojjo tree is soaked in water for three hours, and the small strings that are formed are tied around the baby's wrist, ankles, neck and waist.

"We have many birthing rituals and they have been performed for generations," explains Nagit. "After giving the baby a name, there is a continuous lighting of a fire in the house for four days. During this time the mother does not leave the house during the day, she waits until the evening."

"The day the baby's umbilical cord falls off, it is collected together with ash from the four-day fire, mixed with water and is poured into the animal enclosure by the baby's grandmother."

If the baby is a girl, this symbolises blessings for her to bring more cows back to the animal enclosure on her wedding day. For the boy, it means that he will be rich with many cows. 

String Blessings in Uganda. Credit: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

Photo: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

Twigs opening in water - Nigeria 

The Nana Fatsuma tradition is practiced in the rural area of Kirfi in Nigeria. When the pregnant mum is in labour, a stick with twigs like fingers is put into a bowl of water and placed near the delivery bed.

When it dissolves, the solution is given to the pregnant woman to drink to hasten delivery and protect her and her unborn child.

Alti, 40, is a widow with 10 children. Five of them are alive today. 

"I have given birth to three of my children through Nana Fatsuma," she said. "We respect this tradition because it has some spiritual significance since the stick with twigs like fingers is named after Nana Fatsuma, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad."

"A woman in labour and her child might die if she fails to follow this tradition or she might have excruciating pain including a tear."

Twigs opening in water in Nigeria. Credit: WaterAid/ Wash Media Network Nigeria

Photo: WaterAid/ Wash Media Network Nigeria

Beer and dancing - Uganda 

In Uganda, 24-year-old Sagal, participated in several traditions within her community to welcome and bless her new baby Loumo, who is six-weeks-old.

After giving birth, the mother of four returned home with her baby and her mother and grandmother lit a fire. When the umbilical cord falls off, local beer made from sorgham is brought in a calabash for people to drink. The residue left in the calabash is poured on the ground to share with the departed ancestors who it is believed will bless the baby. Ash from the fire and the cord are also taken to the kraal to bless the cows.

"Clan members sit near the house waiting to drink the local beer," explains Sagal. "The elders drink first from the calabash, as the younger members patiently wait to eat the sorghum residues of the local beer."

After drinking the local brew, clan members join together in singing and dancing as a sign to welcome the new clan member. The elders, men and women from both sides of the family, share tobacco amongst themselves as a sign of unity."

In addition, when the baby is one month old, the ritual of putting a black thread around the waist, hands, ankles and the neck is performed. At five months, the threads are replaced with black beads.

"These are blessings for the baby to be successful in the future," says Sagal. 

Beer and dancing - Uganda. WaterAid photo series reveals birth traditions around the world. Credit: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

Photo: WaterAid/ James Kiyimba

Find out more about the WaterEffect campaign at wateraid.org