During a Prayer of the Faithful at a Eucharistic celebration, I heard for the first time what I considered a strange prayer intention: “For those looking for the fruit of the womb . . . .” I was startled by the intention, surprised because I was oblivious to the magnitude of the problem that has brought the prayer request to a public forum.
Indeed, I have heard similar prayer intentions in not too few parishes in the city. What is at stake? Offspring. For a Nigerian and for most Africans, children represent an extension of one’s life. Children appear synonymous with marriage. For the most part, a marriage without offspring remains problematic. But what is of interest is that prayer is offered for the fruit of the womb; this places the problem of infertility within the ambit of the woman, the one who possesses a womb.
(In this essay, I shall retain the terms “fruit” and “seed” to preserve the integrity of their usage in our local churches. Moreover, in our culture, people generally express weighty matters such as progeny in coded language or metaphors. Let me also note that the sense in which the term is employed in our context correlates with its usage in Gen 1:28. Similarly, the term “seed” in Genesis denotes progeny — 3:15; 9:9; 22:17a, etc.)
The pressure to conceive a child months after marriage is taking a toll on women’s health both physically and psychologically. Indeed, the issue of the “fruit of the womb” appears as a concern of not only the couple but of the extended family and community. During the last Laity Week, I spoke at Sacred Heart Church, Diobu, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. A parishioner asked me how the church could solve the problem of the fruit of the womb. I am neither a medical practitioner nor in the biological sciences, but being a religious sister, the expectation is that “sister knows the solution.” Of course, sister can help.
My response shifted attention from the woman and directed it to the man; I asked the parishioner about the seed of the loin that produces the fruit. Normally, a seed grows into a shrub or tree and produces fruit; fruit seldom grows on its own. At least in the human species the so-called fruit of the womb only comes about if there was a seed of the loin in the first place. Finally, I advised the parishioner to pray for the seed of the loin and then the fruit of the womb and support the prayer with medical intervention.
For some parishioners, this was a novelty. It did not occur to them that the problem of infertility can be complex, that infertility within marriage is a problem of the couple. Worthy of note is the rate at which prayer requests are made for the fruit of the womb, belying the much-trumpeted population explosion in Nigeria. Furthermore, the mores that sustain the fruit-of-the-womb pattern of emphasis may be directed at the current hot-button issue of same-sex relationships.
In the matter of progeny it does seem that patriarchy is overwhelmed by infertility and so surrenders by scapegoating the so-called childless woman. There seems an underlying belief that a woman has the power to produce children — even without a male! This understanding informs the insistent prayer for the fruit of the womb in many of our churches. To suggest that the seed of the loin can be defective is abominable because, for some, every seed is viable.
A number of factors come into play within this understanding. Ignorance remains the principal culprit. It was the prophet Hosea who lamented the poverty of knowledge and its consequences on the people of his time: “My people perish for want of knowledge” (4:6). Contrary to the views of some in the international community, the level of ignorance of basic human biology appears widespread. The tremendous progress made in science and technology with respect to biological science is yet to trickle down to areas inhabited by more than two-thirds of the world’s population. Basically, this lack of knowledge, particularly in human reproduction, continues to drive women’s subjugation and subordination.
Traditional practices that support women’s subjugation collude with ignorance of human biology to objectify her. Tradition expects the woman to be a miracle worker, to provide an answer not only for her inability to produce a fruit of the womb but also to account for, in most cases, the defective seed or lack of seed of her spouse. The burden placed on women has caused not a few to degenerate into a psychiatric condition. But the man continues to walk around as though nothing is at stake because society exonerates him. He is perfect. His only imperfection is the woman in his life.
Some men even reject clinical investigation perhaps for fear of an unfavorable outcome, yet would quickly subject their spouse to such inquiry. In extreme cases, the woman is rejected and turned out of her matrimonial home. Another woman is brought in to produce the fruit of the womb.
Markedly, this highly sought after fruit must of necessity be of a particular sex — a male. The male-child syndrome is another kettle of fish. Against this background, one begins to understand the worth placed on children in this part of the world. Among the Igbo, for example, such names as Nwakaego, loosely translated (nwa = progeny, ka = greater than, ego = wealth/money), a progeny is greater than wealth/money, captures the significance of the “fruit of the womb.” Interestingly, the designation Nwakaego is conferred only on a female child, another suggestion of women being the custodians of culture. Little wonder the woman is expected to solve all the problems of the seed of the loin and the fruit of the womb; the fruit that guarantees the survival of a people. Here lies the paradox: The woman is at once indispensable and expendable.
Women must come to grips with their inherent power. The various grassroots women’s empowerment projects must transcend economics to address the deepest sense of womanhood in the African cultural context. Many Catholics must also sever cultural affinities with their traditional past that promotes prejudices and biases against women. In our churches, gender sensitivity calls for inclusive prayer petitions for the fruit of the womb and the seed of the loin. Such prayer would serve as a corrective measure. It would educate parishioners on human biology as well as relieve women of the burden of sole responsibility for the fruit of the womb.
[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]