Traditional Midwifery

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 91, Autumn 2009.
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Midwives Aurelia and Sra. Claudia performing shui shui (Photo provided by Cynthia Ingar)

We are losing the knowledge and wisdom of traditional midwifery as fast as we are losing the rain forest. Just as we are discovering this incredible knowledge base, it is disappearing. We can do better, and in some places we are. Much is being lost to our own arrogant medical imperialism and belief that we know what is best. Instead of extending a helping hand, as Marie Tyndall so artfully has done with respect and mutual sharing of knowledge (see her article, “Stories of Extraordinary Central American Midwives” in this issue), we often come in with our ideas, taking over another culture with our medicalized one. Respect is a keyword here. We have so very much to learn from these midwives, who in many places are dying out. In other places they are being pushed out or replaced with a medical practitioner. In still other places they are picking up some of the bad habits of Western medicine, such as inducing with Pitocin at home. We also have a lot of great information to share. It is mutual respect that wins the day, with an openness to learn, share and teach.

Mexico has an especially rich heritage that we are sharing all over the world through conferences. We bring midwives who have mastered much of the art and many of the techniques found in their country. My great joy is to see communities where this knowledge is picked up and used. For instance, in Denmark many of the midwives have learned Mexican techniques and incorporate them into their practices. In fact, until a month ago, I thought these amazing techniques were found only in Mexico. Since then I have been in contact with Cynthia Ingar, an anthropologist and doula who is working and doing research in Peru. Following is a note from her:

“Here is a photo of an Andean midwife performing the shui shui (that’s the local name). Her name is Sra. Claudia and she is a close friend of mine (I met her in my field work last year at Huari, Ancash department, Peru). I have read from other anthropological studies done in the Peruvian Andes that this practice, more known as manteo, is common to be performed by Andean (‘traditional’) midwives. I also observed it last month in a work visit I made to Carhuaz province, performed by a renowned Andean male midwife of the area.

“I have read, and know from an anthropologist that made a study in Mexico about midwifery, that Mexican and Andean traditional midwives have many practices in common. That’s why the dream I have is to visit Mexico and maybe contact some of [the Mexican traditional midwives], to facilitate some sort of ‘international exchange’ with Peruvian Andean midwives.”

Notice the word manteo. In Mexico, it is called manteada (a technique for massaging the pregnant woman’s abdomen by rolling her back and forth in a shawl). I can just imagine our sister midwives of thousands of years ago trekking through what is now Mexico, Central America and South America, carrying with them their knowledge of birth, and helping babies be born all along their route—with some staying in Mexico, and some migrating to Peru and places in between.

The ease of travel today has been a two-edged sword. We are discovering many interesting techniques and ideas that can help us improve our own practices; on the other hand, the world has easy access to sending the medicalization of birth to far-reaching communities, thus rapidly wiping out indigenous knowledge. It is important to find and preserve this knowledge, and to incorporate that which is useful into our individual practices to help us be the best practitioners we can be. In order to do this, we need to respect our traditional midwife sisters. To quote a song we often sing at conference, “you’ve got to humble yourself in the sight of your sisters, you’ve got bow down low and humble yourself in the sight of your sisters, you’ve got to know what she knows and humble yourself…”

Editor’s note: For another article on spreading midwifery knowledge, complete with beautiful color photos of midwifery exchanges in action, see the article, “Midwifery Knowledge Spread Around the World,” on our Web site.

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About Author: Jan Tritten

Jan Tritten is the founder and editor-in-chief of Midwifery Today magazine and a midwife who was in active practice from 1977 to 1989. She became a midwife in 1977 after the powerful homebirth of one of her daughters. Her mission is to make loving midwifery care the norm for birthing women and their babies in the United States and around the world. Meet Jan at our conferences around the world! Photo by Andrea Noll

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