For the peoples of southern Togo, the birth of a child signifies the return of an ancestor. We present some rites that accompany the introduction of the newborn into the cosmos and society.
In Africa, birth is never just an ordinary, monotonous, or indifferent event. This is because every birth is the affirmation of life over death. Birth is the return of an ancestor to manifest life (agbetome) with all that this involves.
During pregnancy the mother-to-be must avoid eating eggs since eggs contain life and eating them would be like wanting to offend life itself. She must avoid eating crabs or monkeys, otherwise the child would walk like them. She must avoid looking at chameleons to avoid losing her child. To stare at a chameleon would be like provoking the one who was present at the beginning of the world and followed man’s first steps on earth, inviting him to be circumspect and prudent. She must, therefore, avoid disturbing or frightening the chameleon; better to change direction than encounter it. It is said that, before taking flesh in the mother’s womb, children live in a mythical bome or world of possibilities and are then sent into the world of manifest life or the circle of life: agbetome. Before leaving, the future child receives the se or destiny soul that will be made known to the seer by means of the geomantic sign of the kpoli.
In the bome, the future foetus will receive the dzo or soul of the clan passed down by the ancestors. This will closely bind the future child to the ancestor’s destiny and the new living being must, in some way, repeat the ancestor’s life journey. The dzagbe – sending good or bad luck, to accompany every living being – depends on this dzo.
At this point the bomeno (bome’s mother) is sent into the maternal womb where it will receive the kla (individual soul), the gbogbo (breath of life), the nutila or material body, the se xoto (the father’s se), and the se xono (the mother’s se), the destiny transmitted by the parents.
From the bome, Mawu (the supreme divinity) sends individuals into the world two by two, a man and a woman. They will one day meet on earth to form a family. The woman who meets her husband chosen by destiny will be called sessi, wife of destiny.
At birth, the newborn is not automatically accepted and introduced into society but must submit to rites that ‘discover’ its person, that accept and introduce it into the agbetome.
Naturally, the first inclusion or integration places the child in cosmic time. The newborn then receives a name taking into account the day of the week and its gender; names are always related to circumstances or events that happened on the day of its birth. The name is given by the maternal aunts with the father’s consent. The most important moment for the family is when the newborn is inserted into the clan and into society. This is the day the child is officially born through the videto and dzoto rites.
The videto begins with a period of seclusion and separation for the mother, seven days for a girl and nine for a boy. The mother has to stay inside and cannot appear in public as the newborn has no right to enter into contact with the real world since it does not yet belong to anyone. On the eighth day, the paternal aunts bring a basin with some new cloth, clothes belonging to the father, a hairbrush, some ointment, and a lantern. The oldest aunt opens the door, goes into the room, takes the child and starts to leave the room. Meanwhile, another aunt throws some water on the roof of the hut. As the drops fall on the ground, the aunt carrying the newborn holds the child so that some drops fall on its head. This short rite is repeated seven times.
The oldest aunt then utters invocations to the clan’s voodoo and ancestors wishing welcome, peace, health, and long life to the child. Then the name chosen for the child is proclaimed loudly, a name that is tied in this case to the child’s very existence and destiny. The newborn is dressed in new clothes and is placed on a mat: people are allowed to touch it, caress it and hold it in their arms. Gifts are also placed close by. A common meal concludes the rite.
Dzoto or amedzodzo is the second rite that introduces the newborn, definitely and with full rights, into the real world. This consists in revealing the newborn to the ancestor who sent the child and from whom he received the power of his clan, the dzo. In doing this they have recourse to the clan seer. The ancestor will be no further than four generations removed. The newborn’s mother holds some objects that represent those ancestors in her hand. Once the ancestor is recognised, the seer decides whether to fix a rod of iron into the ground as a small altar (se agbata) or whether a small statue of him should be roughly hewn and placed next to the home door.
If the ancestor decides to be represented only by a wooden statue, this takes place in the mother’s home courtyard. A very deep hole is dug, into which an iroko leaf is placed after three drinks have been poured: dzatsi (water with flour), liha (a bitter liquor of fermented maize), and sodabi (an alcoholic drink made with the trunk of the palm tree). With these three libations the ancestor is invoked for peace in the family, clan unity, and so that the alcoholic drink may annihilate the family’s enemies. Being born in south Togo means, therefore, being welcomed by everything and everyone in perfect and complete harmony. The new child, whether male or female, will have much to learn from nature which works through its powers, its voodoo, and its ancestors. (B.G.)