Cultural diversity in childbirth

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 5 October 2015

For babies born into the Islamic faith, azaan is the prayer whispered into baby’s ears by the father, straight after birth. – Rizwanna Latiff, Midwife in Hawkes Bay  

I’m meeting Rizwanna Latiff, (affectionately known as 'Riz') – a midwife, on call at all hours of the day or night, to deliver babies into the world.

The unique aspect about Rizwanna is her knowledge of cultural differences around childbirth and the fact that she is the go-between for the hospital system in Hawkes Bay and many women from our ethnic minority communities, especially when overcoming language and cultural barriers.

It's because of her own multi-cultural upbringing that Rizwanna has these unique insights.

Experienced hand at comforting baby

Experienced hand at comforting baby Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Rizwanna was born into the apartheid era in South Africa. Her Indian family, go back four generations in Durban, the coastal city in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province is known for its African, Indian and colonial influences.  

Rizwanna had a conservative Muslim upbringing but her older siblings were very politically active, protesting against apartheid during the 1980’s. Rizwanna eventually immigrated to Auckland with her family in 2000. Since then Rizwanna has remarried and made Hawkes Bay home with husband Greg and their 3 grown children. She and Greg live just down the road from Hastings Hospital, a great location for any hospital deliveries.

While Greg makes South African style spicy samosas for our lunch in their kitchen Riwanna explains why she loves being the midwife with that special cultural angle.

“In South Africa I trained as a nurse and a midwife and I worked as a theatre nurse, but my midwifery wasn’t recognised here so I retrained in midwifery. Now I’m a full time midwife based in Hawkes Bay – I cover a large region from Napier almost to Taihape and across to Waipukerau.”

Being Muslim meant that when Rizwanna's own two sons were born they went through the Islamic rituals too. Within the first two weeks after birth babies will have their hair shaved. For the mother there is the South African Muslim version of ‘labaan’ - a ritual involving herbal and medicinal leaves being smoked to permeate the mother's hair.

I ask Rizwanna what kind of herbs and leaves are used in this ritual.

“It's a combination of guava and eucalyptus leaves among others – it's a beautiful scent. You dry the mothers hair with this smoky aroma and then eat nourishing soups and broths. 'Birth' spices like fenugreek are used to encourage milk to come for the mothers when breast feeding. These are all old family recipes.”

"In certain cultures, like for the Chinese mothers, you don’t drink cold water – you drink warm water.  It's soothing. There is meaning behind it – because your body is recovering so you need that quiet time to recover and to be nurtured by your family. The ritual of being a new mother at home for 40 days with baby and not leaving the home – it’s all for helping that bonding process between the baby and its parents.”

Rizwanna’s clients in Hawkes Bay are parents from the African, Indian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Cambodian and South East Asian communities. She pulls out her photo albums, she is surrounded by a large group of babies, some just new born and children, no older than 8 years of age.

Rizwanna measures baby Jamaica

Measuring wee treasures, part of the joy of midwifery Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

"The Southern Indian Kerala community in Hawkes Bay celebrate the Onam Festival in September and so 25 of the babies I delivered are all dressed up and surrounding me in this photo."

On the move

After lunch we drive through the heart of Hastings to the home of a new mother and her tiny baby girl.

On the way Rizwanna tells me she always takes a spare change of clothes, just in case. Much of the time her birthing experiences are wonderful with great outcomes but occasionally there is post natal depression as well as post-traumatic stress, when there are emergencies or when a birth doesn’t go well, parents need to be supported afterwards. "Quite often dads get forgotten, they must be remembered too," she tells me.

Ever had any Dad’s faint or vomit? Rizwanna starts chuckling –

"Ah yes! I had one dad vomit right over me – he came from a Christmas party! We had to haul him out and then he vomited all over me – that's why I take a spare change of clothing with me all the time."

Her mobile phone is busy taking messages as we drive.

“I’m on call, my friends know, when there is a dinner party I say I’ll be there as long as I’m not having a baby. The good thing is that I don’t drink so I can drive anytime of the night or day.”

We are greeted warmly when we arrive at the home of the new mum and her family. Chanelle Onverwacht and baby Jamaica (just under two weeks old) are being lovingly tended to by the extended family.

Dad Steven is at work but Chanelle’s parents-in-law are there, baby Jamaica’s Omah and Opah (Afrikaans for grandparents). Baby Jamaica is growing up celebrating a mixture of South African and Mauritian cultures.

Loads of questions as a new mum, Chanelle and baby Jamaica

Loads of questions as a new mum, Chanelle and baby Jamaica Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Rizwanna is helping Chanelle with tips on comfortable breastfeeding technique and telling her not to chat to baby at night or she’ll be over stimulated.

"Baby needs to learn to sleep otherwise she’ll want to chat to tell Steven [Daddy] all about her day."

Then Rizwanna sets about weighing and measuring baby Jamaica and checking her hip movement for flexibility. Sounding a bit like a mewling kitten, baby Jamaica lets Rizwanna know she doesn’t enjoy this but then she is quickly comforted in Rizwanna's experienced hands.

Chanelle takes the opportunity to ask her midwife and fellow South African a flurry of questions, everything from sleep patterns to breast feeding positions and dressing.

Rizwanna immediately puts Chanelle at ease, reassuring her, boosting her confidence as well as encouraging some great parenting tips. Jamaica's grandmother also asks questions and soon the three women are reminiscing over their favourite South African dishes and the best way to make spicy samosas - the South African way of course.

It’s easy to see why Rizwanna is so popular as a midwife. On the return home Rizwanna tells me it's all about respect and listening, taking the time to hear what the specific cultural needs are of the mother and the family and to embrace these needs.

I feel really honoured – it’s a great privilege to be there at such a special time, to be bringing new life into the world, no matter the culture.