Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Malay Pregnancy

This is from my own assignment on Malay pregnancy, when I was a CFCS facilitator for our Medical School. CFCS = Community and Family Case Study. CFCS is a community-based program which begins in Year 2 Medicine and ends in Year 4 or 5, depending on the nature of each case under study. It is a program managed by the Dept of Community Medicine and lecturers from various departments are roped in to assist as facilitators. It is quite time-consuming to be a CFCS facilitator but the experience far outweighs the KPI for a senior lecturer. KPI = Key Performance Index, a measure of success at job performance; used for promotion by universities and businesses worldwide. 

For this assignment, I went to Ulu Kusial in Ulu Kelantan, near the virgin jungles of Kelantan. Not many people live there. The community is that of timber loggers, lorry drivers and a few Malay households. There was one main street that had a petrol pump, a satay shophouse, a provisions shop and no commercial clinic. The nearest  community clinic was Klinik Desa, Ulu Kusial. In a small community such as this one, everyone knows the other person. Even the big bully is a well-known figure. Even ladies who offer one-night stands for the lorry drivers are known. And ladies who married many times to different husbands are also known. Such is life in a remote area.

This is my story from my diary of 11 March 1993 (page 1). I have only recently retrieved this diary and I had only written 3 pages when this diary went missing. My family found it while cleaning the storeroom from white ant infestation. My other diaries have gone into the bonfire outside our house. This is the only way to get rid of the white ants - by burning. Page 2 had a tracing of my eldest daughter's right foot. Page 3 had a tracing of my elder son's right foot. The other pages of my diary were just the children's scribblings and sheer little-hand forces at work (conteng spree). The children's scribblings make me happy.

In my quest to learn about Malay pregnancy and care, I was interested to meet and talk face-to-face with the practitioners, persons whom the Malay people refer to as "bidan" (midwife). I had asked around if anyone knew of any good midwife whom I could interview. There were a few whom I met but most refused to be interviewed, and more so by me (a young mother with 4 kids; I was 34 and 4 months pregnant with #5). Anyway, after a long search I managed to talk to a boy at a shop. His mother was a Malay midwife. I have never met her. I decided on a date to return to interview his mother at her house (she lived alone).

I returned a week later and went to the shop where the boy worked for his grandfather's provision shop along main street, a dusty street with many timber lorries parked by the roadside as the drivers enjoyed satay at the shop across the road from his grandfather's shop. 

He obtained leave from his grandfather to bring my husband and I to his mother's house. Before we ascended the mud steps to her abode on the hillside, I noticed he called out to his mother in a language I did not understand. We waited a few minutes for the mother's reply before we were allowed to ascend to her house. I did not know where the front door was (there was none). However, we went to the back of the house and there was a creaky old door. She called us in and asked us to sit. We sat in a semi circle facing her. She was known by her midwife name, Bidan Lijah. I don't know her real name as most Malay folks do not give their full name for fear of black magic and spells that are possible with knowing full name, mother's name and birth date. My diary says her name is Lijah bt Awang. She was 55 years old. She married and had 4 children, 3 sons and a daughter (second child). Her son who brought us to see her was called Idi (maybe short for Rosdi, Rosmadi or smthg). It is quite intriguing that her father's name is Awang. In the Malay circle and health practices and especially involving the supernaturals, Awang refers to a male spirit, a male servant or a male genie. Whether she was referring to her spiritual name, I haven't the faintest clue. I learned very much later, that in Malay conversation (including interview), I must not ask for a person's real name, or name for that matter. In this interview, I broke that rule as I had asked for her name for my record. Because I had asked for her name for record's sake, she became a bit hesitant to carry on being interviewed. I backed off a bit and said I only needed to interview her for her practices as a midwife as I had no knowledge about the practices of Malay pregnancy. She agreed and we continued our conversation in Kelantan dialect. Since I was not familiar with the Kelantan dialect, my Chinese-Malay husband (Affandi) was the go-between and he jotted down notes for me. Later when we reached home, I wrote my own notes with his guidance.

First we talked about Malay pregnancy (mengandung). According to her, the mother-to-be must refrain from a lot of things (pantang) even before pregnancy takes place. These included many taboos which I never knew.

For example, when cutting the chicken, the mother must constantly remind herself that she maybe pregnant and as such she should cut the chicken gently and not use chopping actions as these will cause her unborn child to suffer limb deficiencies (cacat). She must not kick the cat. All her actions to other creatures will affect her unborn child somewhat. 

Another example she cited was about using a container for collecting nectar (tukil untuk air tuak). The mother-to-be must not tie a rope to the container or to her legs (genting kaki).

Yet another example was frankincense or sandalwood. The mother-to-be must not burn frankincense or sandalwood and call out to any spirit (bakar cendana dan seru). If she does that her unborn child will become deaf and mute. Beckoning the spirit includes saying things like: Bangun make Awae (rise and eat, son ...). 

The spirit is referred to as Awae (Awang) in Malay. It is known to enter the body when a person opens his mouth wide as in yawning. It can also enter the body through any orifice - mouth, ear canal, nostrils, vagina, penis, and anus. When it enters the human body, it settles in the organs - heart, liver, kidney, intestines etc. It flows in the body in the blood. It manifests as a difficult to cure disease, a diseased body part or an ugly body part. It can manifest as a miscarriage or death in utero

I have also heard cases of missing fetus and this is also accepted as manifestation of the underworld where the spirits are thought to impregnate the mother and which return later to claim the unborn child. The mother is pregnant for a few months only and then becomes 'not pregnant' when her fetus is removed by the spirit which impregnated her. She has no bleeding as occurs after a normal delivery. 

The Malay people call this spirit bunyan and the immortals orang bunyan. Bunyan are like 'little people' or elves and knolls in British folklore. The bunyan are thought to be underworld royalties and therefore their presence on earth are marked with yellow satin during homebirth and even birth at hospitals. Similarly, gravestones are sometimes tied or covered with yellow satin. Sometimes the entire room is decorated with yellow satin as the fetus is thought to be descended from the royal underworld. For this type of birth, the Malay people therefore name their assuming royal sons "Raja" and their daughters "Puteri". I have no objection with these royal name prefixes.

As the day approached nightfall, she gave us an example that a mother-to-be must not walk about at dusk (berjalan waktu Maghrib). If she walks about outside her home at dusk, she will have a difficult delivery.

Our conversation quickly moved to another topic - breech child (menyongsang). Breech is songsang and a breech baby is bayi menyongsang. Her advice was about using a wooden stove (as in the old days before the mid-1970s). When the mother is pregnant, she must not push in the firewood in oblique direction or she will have a breech child (anak songsang). 

At Maghrib, we quickly thanked her and left.