Ile Omugwo

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Ile Omugwo is a practice that describes the period a mother (ie the new grandmother), whose daughter had just put to birth, spends nursing the new mother and her newborn back to perfect health. It is most often simply referred to as Omugwo.

In some cultures, the grandmother first goes to the new mothers home and spends eight days taking care of her, after which she will take her daughter and grandchild home with her to nurse them in her home. In most cultures however, the new grandmother spends the entire period of the Omugwo away from her home and in her daughters home nursing her and her newborn.

What Happens During Omugwo

During the Omugwo, the grandmother bathes the new mother every day for at least 2 weeks with hot water, applying extra pressure to her stomach and lower pelvis region. It is believed that this hot water press helps to push back her organs in place, get rid of blood clots and over all speed up the healing process post childbirth.

The grandmother bathes the newborn, massaging his enter body and even stretching out his limbs, while the new mother watches and learns.

Every day, the grandmother also prepares special soups for the new mother, using native herbs like the popular Aju Mbaise, Uda, Uziza seeds etc. these soups are served very hot and the new mother is expected to drink it while hot.

How Long Does Omugwo Last?

Omugwo is practiced all over Igboland. It is a period of sacrifice and service. The Omugwo period typically lasts for 3 months but the time frame can vary based on the circumstances of the people involved.

For instance, some grandmothers also have a life of their own which in recent times involves a full time job. It would be unrealistic to expect the new grandmother to abscond from work for 3 months. In these situations, the Omugwo period is seen to last between 3 – 6 weeks.

The grandmother can be available but not in the best conditions physically to spend a lot of time taking care of the new mother and her offspring, she can decide what is best for her, how long she can stay and what she is able to do. In this scenario, the grandmother may just cater only to the newborn if the mother is completely inexperienced or focus on the new mother if she needs more attention based on her birthing conditions.

On the other hand, the new grandmother may be very available both physically and in terms of time, and in such cases you would encounter Omugwo periods extending to almost 6 months post natal.

Pros of Omugwo

  • The new mother gets to rest and be completely taken care of. All she has to do is eat and breastfeed her newborn.
  • The grandmother teaches the new mother all she needs to know about taking care of her baby.
  • The Omugwo period provides an opportunity for mother and daughter to bond more. The two women would often develop deeper connections from their time together, there is a new found respect a daughter develops for her mother having passed through the ordeal of childbirth herself and a sense of appreciation for her mothers care during this period.

Cons of Omugwo

  • It can be a very emotional period for new mothers whose mothers are no longer alive to go through the process with them. It serves as a reminder of their loss.
  • It can cause financial distress for the family, having an extra mouth to feed.
  • There may be tension in the air if the members of the families were not exactly in the best terms prior to the grandmother’s visit.
  • It is a physically demanding period for the grandmother. The grandmother does most of the work during this period and if she is not in the best health, better to cut her stay short.

What happens after Omugwo

At the end of the third month, the grandmother parts with her daughter but not empty handed. The son-in-law is expected to show appreciation to his mother-in-law by resenting her with gifts which she will return home with and showcase and share with the other women as proof of a successful Omugwo.

The gifts would usually include two wrappers, twenty fat yams, one big stockfish, a carton of soap, one tin of palm oil, and any amount of money they both agree upon.

The challenges encountered

Although some communities do not have a fixed list of items a woman is expected to return with after her Omugwo period, it is not the same everywhere. Some son-in-laws have complained about the outrageous gifts they are expected to buy for the grandmother as she prepares to leave. The financial implication of catering to a nursing mother and her baby, the visiting grandmother and then the gifts takes a toll on some men who are still struggling financially. This could result to some sort of dispute between both families, as the grandmother will feel that her labor was not appreciated.

Some grandmothers’ visit may not be as helpful as expected. In very few occasions, you could encounter a new mother who is displeased because her mother was not exactly catering to her needs. Some grandmothers also use this period to rest from their own busy life.

On some occasions, the grandmother could overstay her welcome. This is often the case in families where there was a history of disagreement between both families, the Omugwo period could exacerbate the tension. In some rare occasions, the grandmother stays over 6 months to a year and may eventually need to be told that her help is no longer needed, a very uncomfortable situation.

The future of Omugwo

Omugwo is still very much practiced in Igboland but its intensity has greatly reduced. With increasing empowerment of women in the workplace, most women cannot afford the time or energy required for the Omugwo process.

Also, as young adults grow into their own and most often begin to leave home, some of them migrate very far away from their parents, as far as leaving their home country. It becomes harder for the grandmother to make the trip abroad for the Omugwo. It would require extra planning and a great deal of financial commitment.

In recent years, young women have referred to Omugwo as ‘unpaid labor’. These women appreciate the roles their mothers play or will play in their lives when they are nursing a newborn, but they still understand that this is labor with no fixed monetary compensation. It is simply an act of service.

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