The importance of the umbilical cord in Nigerian culture
The significance of the umbilical cord goes beyond biological function...
The umbilical cord literally connects a pregnant mommy-to-be with her baby. It’s a giver of life and nourishment and so much more. Needless to say, the function of umbilical cord in pregnancy is extremely important.
But beyond the biological function of umbilical cord in pregnancy, there are other beliefs connected to it that are important to our culture. First, let’s take a look at the role of the umbilical cord while you are pregnant. Next, we explore its cultural significance and some related traditional practices.
Biological function of umbilical cord in pregnancy
One important function of umbilical cord in pregnancy is to nourish your baby. The umbilical cord is a passage through which molecules (food, drink and oxygen) move from mother to fetus and vice versa.
One end of the umbilical cord connects to the fetus while the other end connects to the placenta. Molecules travel from mother to fetus through this mechanism. First, the molecules move from the mother to the placenta, before travelling through the umbilical cord, eventually to the fetus.
The umbilical cord has one vein. Its work is to carry oxygenated blood from mother to fetus. It is also responsible for carrying nutrients from mother to fetus.
Gynaecologists often recommend a balanced diet for pregnant women as the fetus ingests everything the mother takes in. Do not take that statement literally, though. Take it in veracity, as the baby shares the mother’s nutrients via the blood. If the mother is malnourished, she will lack the vital nutrients the baby requires for its growth and development.
The umbilical cord has two arteries. These arteries carry carbon dioxide and nutrient-drained blood from the fetus to the mother. Simply put, they transport waste to the mother for proper disposal. The carbon dioxide, from the fetus, is first received by the placenta which delivers it to the mother’s bloodstream and finally to her lungs for exhalation.
The last component of the umbilical cord is Wharton’s jelly. It protects the umbilical arteries and umbilical vein.
However, the umbilical cord plays other very significant roles in the growth and development of the fetus. Although the placenta and umbilical cord play different roles, they are both considered lifelines. The umbilical cord is a symbol of life.
Significance of the umbilical cord and placenta, culturally
In some traditions, the placenta isn’t returned to the mother after birth. The hospital staff dispose of the placenta because they regard it as a waste product. Sometimes, the nurses throw away the umbilical cord too. Other times, the mother collects the cord and decides what to do with it. Some mothers store it in a jar or in a plastic bag as a memorabilia.
To perform rituals of protection
In Igbo land, the placenta and umbilical cord are considered vital and crucial to the Fates of the baby and its mother. To protect both mother and child, a trusted member of the family (usually an aged parent) buries both placenta and umbilical cord.
The procedure is usually simple. The moment the child enters the world, the placenta and umbilical cord are severed, bagged, and given to the father of the child or any close relation (if the father is absent). This is a very important tradition and the family can sue the hospital if they do not receive the umbilical cord and placenta.
The recipient buries the placenta and umbilical in a secure spot. This custodian does not disclose the location to anyone, not even to baby’s mother. It is a sacred tradition. The goal is to prevent evil people from exhuming them and probably using them to invoke bad voodoo against the child and mother.
Some Mexicans still practice this tradition of burying placentas and umbilical cords.
Deeper cultural significance
The placenta and the umbilical cord have other significances too.
In precolonial times, the Ibos went beyond burying the placenta and umbilical cord. They categorized them.
The cord that accompanied a male child held more value than the cord of a female child. And in those days, women gave birth at home in the company and with the assistance of a local midwife. A knife sliced through the umbilical cord to separate the mother from the child. The nurse proceeded to tie whatever remained of the baby’s end of the cord.
As mentioned above, the father took the placenta and umbilical cord to be buried and planted upon. Only strong fruit trees are used for this planting project.
Often fathers would plant huge trees like udara, mango, orange, and so on. The pawpaw doesn’t possess the strength of a giant avocado or an Iroko tree and so, such a fruit tree would not be planted on the burial spot of an umbilical cord.
When the child comes of age, the father would tell the child the significance of that tree. Planting a tree there means that the child will grow to be strong, fruitful, successful and accommodating (because of the shades the tree would later give).
As a result, certain trees are never cut in Igbo land. It is a taboo to fell a tree that stands on the umbilical cord of a great warrior or founding father. Cutting down such a tree would signify the destruction of the community.
This explains why trees grow unharmed for centuries. Some people worship these trees. Tree worship connects the worshippers to their founding fathers. It gives them the opportunity to seek guidance and protection.
In some traditions, the umbilical cord and placenta are cooked and eaten. Research has shown that they are rich in nutrients.
Studies also revealed that the umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells that can cure generic diseases including anaemia, leukaemia, cancer, sickle cell disease and so on. So why waste such a treasure by burying it?
Also, sharing the meal of the placenta and the umbilical cord is a way of celebrating the coming of the child. It is a way of being part of his/her life. Eating the cord helps the parents and guardians form a stronger bond with the child.
Some cosmetics contain placentas and umbilical cords. Experts believe that they are rich in collagen. Collagen promotes the rejuvenation of dead skin. It keeps the skin, hair and nails healthier and more beautiful. Essentially, the placenta and umbilical cord are processed and mixed into body and hair creams. One popular hair product is called ‘placenta’.
The umbilical cord and placenta are used for several different purposes. Many societies cannot imagine life without them. This explains why they signify the celebration of life.