The African Prenatal Diet
"...Sauce or soup is a staple side to most dishes prepared in African cuisine. Sauce is usually accompanied with Fufu (pounded yam), Toh (a firm mixture of cassava and corn flour cooked and beaten into a smooth, dough-like consistency), or a variety of prepared rice. The sauce is what carries the flavor of the dish and many of the components that aid in the digestion of the meal. The base of the sauce is relevant to a pregnant woman because there are some that are considered very good in preparation for the birthing process. ..."
Diet and Philosophy
All over the world, among different tribes, clans, and societies, diet is a fundamental element that defines cultural discipline. Naturally, a people’s consumption habits are dictated by the nature of their surroundings and how Earth affects the environment with its climate. A traditional diet, no matter which tradition, is founded in an understanding that what one consumes is linked very closely with one’s health and longevity. What goes into our bodies has a physical and spiritual effect.
It’s no mystery that simple, clean diets free of unnecessary components, additives and preservatives are much more favorable to the digestive system and work with the systems of the body rather than against. In contrast, we see a variety of harmful growing methods from chemical pesticides and GMOs to animal factory farming and other unnatural techniques of modern societies. Consuming a wide variety of foods produced using harmful, unnatural techniques like these results in sickness and requires our bodies to adapt.
Therefore, traditional societies around the world tend to eat to live, rather than live to eat (for the pleasure of eating). This wisdom is the reason behind why the ingredients and spices that go into the preparation of foods are also the medicines that aid in the digestion of the meal.
In many West African cultures, food is observed as something consumed only when there is a need. For children, there are fewer restrictions on the frequency with which they eat, but the nutrition is still very seriously taken into account. The logic is that if the body is provided the nutrients it needs at natural intervals, it will adapt to nature and its functions appropriately. But, when the stomach gets comfortable in eating excessively, the body becomes physically sluggish and more likely to suffer from adverse health issues.
With these factors in mind, the diet of a woman during and shortly after her pregnancy is highly regarded. There are some specific things she is recommended to consume and others she does not. Her diet is composed of everything that will be beneficial for herself and the baby’s health and well being during and after pregnancy. The diets referred to in this article are coming from West African cultures. The diets vary slightly as the climates change from region to region, yet the principles surrounding diet and health are fundamentally the same across the cultures in West Africa and throughout the continent. There is also a uniform contrast to the diets in the Western, or let’s say modern societies.
In Meritah, a child born into the world is seen as a spirit, a valuable entity that has a destiny and bloodline that all of us who come in contact with the child, must honor and respect. Everyone takes responsibility for how the child ends up because they are not only a reflection of the individual who raised them, but are representative of a whole culture.
Carrying a child to term and birthing that child in the best way is of utmost importance. Therefore, there are some behavioral and dietary restrictions that are imposed during pregnancy on the mother to ensure she stays healthy (physically and spiritually) while her unborn child is growing and maturing inside her.
This article is a collection of questions I posed and the responses I received by the elder women who supported me and taught me how to care for my newborn son. Bathing is one of the most important occurrences in the life of an infant and throughout their childhood. In the Tem culture of Sokode, Togo, bathing is done very thoroughly.
Suggested foods/ingredients during Pregnancy
- Toh & Sauce
Sauce or soup is a staple side to most dishes prepared in African cuisine. Sauce is usually accompanied with Fufu (pounded yam), Toh (a firm mixture of cassava and corn flour cooked and beaten into a smooth, dough-like consistency), or a variety of prepared rice. The sauce is what carries the flavor of the dish and many of the components that aid in the digestion of the meal. The base of the sauce is relevant to a pregnant woman because there are some that are considered very good in preparation for the birthing process.
Leaves such as Adame (similar to jute leaves), Okra, Kodoroh (fresh baobab leaves), Kouka (dried, pounded Baobab leaves) are highly suggested. These leaves all have a viscous texture to them when prepared as a soup/sauce. The texture of these sauces is said to help the mother deliver easily because the viscosity is what will help the baby slide out with ease. Kouka and Kodoroh are particularly favorable in Togolaise culture because they are known for preventing hemorrhoids, which in the west is common among pregnant women. Unfortunately, it is very hard to find either of these sauces outside of the local markets in these regions. But, not impossible!
Some popular ingredients used in the preparation of these leaf-based sauces include...
Soumbala – Soumbala is a very pungent base ingredient for just about every sauce that is eaten with Toh or fufu. It is effective in preventing stomach issues and aiding in digestion.
Garlic and Ginger – Both these ingredients treat many forms of nausea, especially morning sickness. They are excellent in aiding digestion, they eliminate harmful bacteria in food and increase blood flow. These also should be consumed in moderation, but when added to food, they are beneficial for digestion.
Fresh or dried parsley is a staple ingredient in many of these sauces and has anti-inflammatory benefits often necessary for a pregnant woman because it can significantly curb swelling within the joints. It is detoxing, good for the heart and prevents UTI. All of these conditions a pregnant woman can be particularly susceptible to.
Anise seed – Aids in digestive disorders such as flatulence, bloating, colic, stomach pain, nausea, and indigestion.
These sauces are eaten with a staple all across the continent of Africa. It is referred to by many names such as Toh, fufu or Banku. But, what is referred to as “Toh” in western Africa is usually produced from 2 flours, corn & cassava.
The two are mixed together and added to boiling water. Once it comes to a boil, more of the dry flour mixture is added. As it thickens, it is very important that it is stirred thoroughly as not to create lumps. This is an age-old technique that every youth will learn in his or her lifetime from their mother (or in some cases, the father) that improves with time and experience. It will be ready after several minutes of turning, stirring and pounding the flour and water mixture until the consistency is right.
Potassium – Potassium is good for the preparation of acidic, or acid-forming foods, like tomatoes and most legumes. When preparing tomato paste based sauces, a small amount of potassium (soaked in some water) is added to the dish. The water from the potassium is added. This cooks away the acidic quality and taste, rendering it slightly sweeter.
In the case of heartburn (acid escaping from the stomach and back towards the chest and throat) A half a teaspoon of the same potassium soaked water, or a pinch of baking soda does the trick. If you have ash (natural ash, not laced with accelerant, but from natural coal or wood) this will also subside heartburn. Aside from dietary causes, a child who has a lot of hair inside the mother’s womb will also cause heartburn.
Foods to avoid during Pregnancy
There are certain foods one must avoid during pregnancy in order to ensure good health for the mother and developing child.
- Avoid consumption of cold things or ice. Although they are popular commodities, things like ice cream, frozen yogurt, etc. are a no-no. Cold items are generally avoided among3 everyone living in traditional communities in hotter climates. As warm-blooded beings, warm and hot foods, and beverages are more conducive to our state of being and activate our natural cooling mechanisms. According to the cultural traditions of West Africa, consuming cold temperatures causes the baby to grow too large in the belly and reduces blood flow. The day it comes time to deliver, the mother will be challenged even more to get the baby out.
- Piment (hot pepper/chili pepper) Although some may have the craving, eating excessive pepper or spicy is discouraged and should be avoided when possible during pregnancy. The grandmothers say that if a pregnant woman eats too much piment (hot pepper), once born the baby will cry excessively every time before sleep. They say that the piment the mother ate during pregnancy causes the baby’s eyes to sting or burn when they get heavy due to drowsiness. It is also said that the overconsumption of piment is reflected in the character of the baby as they grow. “If you keep eating piment like that, that baby’s going to come out fiery just like that piment!” – Grandmama
- Sugar – Sugar, in general, is something to avoid for a variety of health reasons. During pregnancy, it can cause a number of complications including miscarriage, sugar-induced hemorrhoids, and bleeding. If the baby is carried to term, the day of delivery, the mother is susceptible to losing a lot more blood than normal. Despite the cravings for sweets, it is very important to avoid excess and added sugars. The natural sugars found in basic foods, including fruits, are okay but processed foods and added sugars or stimulants are not a good idea. This includes juices that are not fresh squeezed, and other sweet beverages or sodas.
Sugar is a prime element for sickness and/or weakness to thrive, especially when it is added to foods. Keep in mind most foods already contain digestible sugar. Excess sugar provokes hemorrhoids in both the mother and baby. Babies can even be born with too much sugar in their systems. This will cause many health issues in their life early on that could have otherwise been prevented.
- Foods or beverages that are bitter – Bitter foods/drinks are also harsh on pregnancies and can cause miscarriage. This includes medicines that are bitter as well. Wait until after giving birth to take these types of herbs.
These are a few dietary precautions that are observed in the West African regions, particularly Togo and Burkina Faso. Yet, as mentioned previously, the diet in traditional cultures stems from an understanding of the relationship a human being has with nature and the harmony we seek to maintain within it. Traditional healing is an age-old practice that is built on the value of the material and spiritual components of a human being that work together and are influenced both physically and spiritually by what we consume. Therefore, diet and consumption is a discipline that is adhered to spiritual principles. When a woman is pregnant, even more precaution is taken into account because of how fragile and vulnerable the child is at that time. We truly are what we eat.
Read more on prenatal/post partum diet
Postpartum is the healing period for both mother and baby. Whether you are nursing or not, discover the traditional perspective on the shift of diet once this stage has begun.
For more literature on traditional culture, you can also visit the website below where many of these articles
(and others similar) are published.
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