"...The Wenélé is the 40 day period when a woman stays at home with her newborn baby. She doesn’t leave her home for 1 month and 10 days, until she is fully herself again. During this time she is recovering not just physically, but is spiritually transitioning from being in the vulnerable and sometimes dangerous state of carrying a life inside her, to being fully herself again..."
The Condition of Pregnancy
Before I could get an idea of what is called the Wenélé, I had to understand the spiritual condition that a mother enters into once she becomes pregnant. It is general knowledge that during pregnancy a woman has a variety of characteristic or dietary changes that affect the way she interacts with her environment. In many cases, it also modifies the way her environment and the people in it respond to her. During pregnancy, the energy or spirit of the developing child offsets that of the mother’s.
She is no longer herself. Though she is present, it is the force of the child that dominates her or ‘takes over’ on every level. She is completely at the mercy of what the baby needs from her body as well as from the outside. During her pregnancy, everything is about ensuring the baby is OK. Thus, the mother becomes like an egg, housing or hosting a life inside. Her own vitality rests somewhere between life and death.
In the Tem traditions ( the spiritual practices of the tribe inhabit the Sokode region of Togo) of various rural areas in Togo, West Africa, a pregnant woman is likened to the proverb, “The casket is open” or, “A woman who’s casket is open”. It’s as if she has one foot in the grave, so to speak. This is because pregnancy is a very fragile period for a woman. There are many spiritual vulnerabilities the baby is susceptible to. There are cultural protocols surrounding her behaviors and even her diet that are observed in order to protect herself and the baby physically and spiritually. For example, in the traditions a woman is advised not to travel, go out, or shower late at night. She is also advised to refrain from sleeping outside as well. This is because during the late hours, there may be unwanted entities or spirits that can negatively affect her pregnancy.
There is also the reality that not every pregnancy is carried to term. Sometimes, despite various efforts or preparations, it may take more than one pregnancy for the mother to experience the full term. Even during labor and delivery there may arise complications that put the baby and or mother’s life in danger. To avoid these circumstances, divinations are done early on to find out which Ancestor will be reincarnating. This gives an idea of potentially what can be expected during the pregnancy. It may also reveal spiritual works or guidance to avoid complications related to the pregnancy or birth and ensure the best situation for a safe delivery.
However, based on a variety of material or non-material factors (physical/spiritual health, environment, unstable emotions, timing, environment of the parents or the incarnation themselves), there is always a possibility that complications may endanger the life and health of the baby and mother. This is the reality for the mother from the moment she becomes pregnant until she delivers the baby. Once the baby has arrived, there is a 40 day adjustment period known as the Wenélé (translated in Tem as ‘40 days’) as the mother returns to herself again.
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.
What is the Wenélé?
The Wenélé is the 40 day period when a woman stays at home with her newborn baby. She doesn’t leave her home for 1 month and 10 days, until she is fully herself again. During this time she is recovering not just physically, but is spiritually transitioning from being in the vulnerable and sometimes dangerous state of carrying a life inside her, to being fully herself again.
At the 40 day mark, the “casket is closed” and she is back to herself again. In the Tem traditions an offering may be done on the mother’s behalf commemorating the completion of the Wenélé. She puts on her finest fabric, wraps the baby on her back and goes to greet the community with her newest arrival. About 3 generations ago it was very unusual to see a mother with her baby outside of the house before the Wenélé had ended. Nowadays, it’s a fading tradition, even in the rural areas. This is due to either the newer lifestyle some mothers have adopted or the lack of assistance allowing her to stay in her home for the full duration of the Wenélé. Sometimes, they don’t have a choice, but to leave the home to work, run errands or do what is necessary to take care of their home. Those women who don’t have as much help at home must do what is necessary to take care of herself, the baby and her household. This may require her to go to the market, pharmacy, job, etc.
The Benefit and Comparison
Traditional family structures ensures that the mother and baby could recover from pregnancy and birth. In most cultures, households are comprised of many relatives living and working together. The mother, her mother in law and various relatives lived together in one household or compound. This way there are always people in the families as well as the community to call on if the mother or baby needs something outside the home. It allows a mother to devote 100% time to caring for her child. These traditional family structures are a healthy and refreshing contrast to the modern workforce structure.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) established in 1993 is the law allowing qualified employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons. Having a baby, or caring for an adopted child falls under this category. For a pregnant mother, this time period is very restricting. It is simply designed to separate a mother from her infant by forcing her back into the workforce as she struggles to make ends meet from the 12 weeks of unpaid leave she was given. Bear in mind, the allotted time is 12 weeks total, meaning the time has to be divided between the later stages of pregnancy and the postpartum and recovery period. This may force many women to push themselves by continuing to return to work everyday as late into their pregnancies as they can bear.
It begs the question, what system will force a mother to separate from her child only to continue to serve the same ones prying her from her home and family? What does it say of those who continue to serve it, day after agonizing day? I was blessed with the opportunity to experience the Wenélé in Meritah (traditional Africa) because of the family environment I was exposed to.
My personal take-away
For me, it was a period of reflection and gratitude. It also took about this amount of time to get into a solid rhythm, especially as a first time mother. During this time, my son and I had a swift and complete recovery with no complications. Having to disrupt the daily routine, healing and bonding that was happening during the Wenélé, only to return to the colonial workforce would have been devastating. In the vicious cycle of being worked by the modern system day in and day out,, many mothers don’t find a way around it. Valuing these traditional practices is one step closer to us finding our way back home.
This pic of me was during my Wenele and I can’t tell you how proud I was to enter into the world of motherhood. I was so proud of myself! I truly love being a mother.
Me during my "wenele"- just a week or so after baby # 2
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