When I was pregnant the last thing I was worried about was a ghost stalking my growing foetus.
Yet this is a legitimate fear for superstitious Indonesian people. Night time is when ghosts are out. Protect your foetus by warding off ghosts with scissors or garlic!
Strange as this imperative may seem, belief in the supernatural is commonplace. Even modern Indonesians are prone to sheepishly observing rituals associated with superstitious beliefs. There is something magical and precarious about pregnancy, that induces superstition in every culture. Perhaps because it can be such a vulnerable time for mother and baby and humans are the only animals that endure so much pain and complication. However in Indonesia, this might just go a little further than a Western person is used to such as ‘old wives tales’ advising pregnant women not to dye their hair, or to consume more dairy to conceive a girl.
Elly, my friend, is married to a bule (white person), so she is in a unique position to compare differences in Indonesian and English cultures. Her own inherited traditions and superstitions stood out more starkly when she was pregnant. Elly’s mother is also very superstitious and traditional, encouraging Elly to adhere to what she feels are common sense ways of doing and being.
Elly is small and pretty with thick black hair and a giant baby half her size. She does not wear the jilbab like other Muslim women because it is too hot and out of touch with her modern persona, although her mother would be very pleased if she did. Elly comes from a village in Sukabumi, where superstition is a part of life. As a child she believed what she was told, but nowadays she does not consider herself very traditional or religious, and patiently pacifies her mother’s agitations to her non-compliance with traditional practices. If her mother rings her up crying and sniffing into the phone, Elly looks to the ceiling and remains composed as she waits for the inevitable allegation.
“Why aren’t you praying anymore? When you came to visit me last time you didn’t bring your prayer mat! Have you stopped praying? What’s going on?” her distraught mother will sob.
However, Elly is used to traditional expectations because they are embedded in the culture and she said that when she was pregnant she listened but did not bother to entertain most warnings.
“Everywhere inIndonesia they have these traditions” she said. “Even on the tv if an artist (actor or singer) is pregnant they are reminded about superstitious things like having to bring a pair of scissors everywhere at night if they go out after six pm. And if you don’t have a pair of scissors you can bring garlic instead and put it in your bra. The scissors you can put in your pocket, just a little pair. This is so the ghosts and everything will be scared of you and don’t want to touch your baby.”
Strange as they seem, Elly insisted people actually do follow these rules. When she attended her baby shower she experienced the customary enthusiasm to warn her about things she can and cannot do as a pregnant woman. If nothing else, these traditions galvanise the experience of pregnancy and reinforce membership by engaging in shared, culturised beliefs with other members. Elly deserves credit for listing these conventional superstitions with a perfectly straight face as I, who consider myself something of a critic, snorted and exclaimed “Really! No! Really? People believe that?”
Elly said many Indonesians insist that if you’re pregnant you cannot stand by a door or sit near a door because it will be difficult for you to give birth when the time comes. There’s a whole list of warnings for pregnant women.
“When you’re pregnant and you need to pour out some water you have to pour it little by little, not in a splash. After you finish a meal, you need to make sure you clean up really well so that when you have your baby it comes out clean, instead of with dirty spots on its head. Don’t put too much stuff in your bag, whether your shopping bags or handbag because later the child will want to eat continuously. When babies hiccup you must take a small piece of tissue, wet it with a drop of water and stick it to their foreheads,” she paused as my eyes rolled heavenward. “I have seen this and it really works!” she said laughing.
Elly then disclosed that she accceded to her mothers exhortation in the case of pumpkin. “Mum told me not to give her (my daughter) pumpkin because it’s not good for babies and her stomach will start making sounds. I broke this rule and gave her pumpkin and then I was telling my mum about what foods I had been feeding her and my mum cried ‘Don’t give her pumpkin!’ I just agreed with her, but I realised that her stomach was making sounds so she might be right. This is actually something I had heard at the baby shower as well. So I don’t give her pumpkin anymore!” Elly admitted.
While Elly insisted she doesn’t believe in most superstitions, I definitely noticed ambiguity. Going against authority and tradition isn’t easy. These are things she has been told since she was small. Superstitions are reiterated as common sense by her mother who she trusts and respects, plus belief in ghosts and spirits is ingrained in wider Indonesian culture, so Elly probably finds it hard to fly in the dismiss.
Elly insists there could be some truth behind the rituals because the anecdotal evidence is compelling, but I’m not convinced. “If you don’t understand something, better to just accept it,” she shrugs in exasperation with both me and the echo of her mother’s voice in her ear.
Actually her stories are interesting cultural eccentricities and I’m keen to hear more. Pregnancy and motherhood are exceptionally difficult periods anyway, without worrying about how fast one is pouring out water or timing how long one has been sitting near a door, yet psychological resources are spent thinking and behaving on the efficacy of this information. Superstitions add extra limits and pressures to motherhood and parenthood but they also give people a sense of control over the unintended. For Elly superstitions roll off her tongue like second nature.
“After babies are born, mothers and babies must stay at home for 30 days and not go out. A baby cannot touch the ground for the first month. On the first day the baby is not allowed to be left alone, even if the mother needs to go to the toilet she must find someone to constantly watch the baby. This is because of the kuntilanak, a ghost that goes after babies. The kuntilanak follows the mother while she is pregnant and continues to hunt the baby after it is born.
Sorry? A ghost that is after foetuses? Elly nodded. Indonesians are particularly superstitious about ghosts or bad spirits. Apparently if a woman is newly married and trying for a baby, she should not sleep on her back because this can give her a ghost pregnancy.
“I knew a lady when I was nine years old, that lived in my village in Sukabumi. When she was about seven months pregnant she lost the baby and her stomach went flat. Then two months later her stomach came back again. That was a ghost pregnancy,” Elly explained.
It is hard for a non-superstitious Western person to believe, but for Elly it is hard to reject those customs. Some might have legitimate reasons behind them. And some seem only to work to the detriment of logic and reason.
For example, there is probably no equivalent advantage to the mother in logical terms, to taking scissors or garlic out after six o’clock, however, cleaning up fastidiously after eating, and lessening the weight you carry while pregnant, have obvious benefits for a pregnant person.
However, as far as tradition goes, Elly is not the only one accommodating fantastically specious conventions. Elly’s bule husband Bram engaged in an incredibly superstitious and icky ritual. He dug a hole in the ground and buried his daughter’s placenta in it for good luck.
Elly’s equally tiny and admittedly influential mother encouraged him to take the placenta from the hospital, in the car, all the way to their garden and dispose of it traditionally. This is after Bram advised her that she would probably not be able to carry the placenta on the plane herself, all the way back to her village in Sukabumi like she wanted. Bram had his reservations, but high on the birth of his daughter and given a well sealed box, he was willing to oblige his conservative mother in law. To this day the placenta is fertilising the garden and possibly providing good luck to the family.
Elly’s mother was suitably pacified and the placenta ritual shielded Bram from her disapproval. Now she gets to enjoy her granddaughter until the next family pregnancy, when she will have to worry about the kuntilanak again.
Every culture has its own traditions, habits, rituals, and superstitions around pregnancy and motherhood, but only the lucky ones have placentas dotted about their gardens.