Trobrianders are the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands officially known as Kiriwina Islands lying at the eastern coast of new Guinea. They live in traditional settlements and have traditional beliefs about reproduction. These people are completely ignorant of physiological paternity (Lyons 2004); they see no connection between copulation and procreation treating a father of the children simply as the mother’s husband. Their families maintain patriarchal relations and a woman is expected to get married before giving birth to a child; a woman with children but without a husband is considered to be an anomalous group. Trobrianders acknowledge social rather than physical fatherhood; they have their own ideas about conception, naming “baloma” as a real cause of childbirth and providing their own explanations for the physiological changes a woman undergoes during her pregnancy.
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Physical fatherhood is unknown to the Trobrianders, though a father is considered necessary in a social sense. According to the local rules, a woman cannot become a mother until she gets married. Though a woman’s brother is regarded as her natural protector, she still needs a guardian, a man who would run the household. As stated in Malinowski’s work about this tribe, the tribal law requires a family to consist of father, mother, and children and also defines the function of each member of the family. The part the father plays in the family is socially indispensible, but he is believed to bear no relation to procreation. Physical resemblance between a father and a child is explained by the fact that during the woman’s pregnancy, her husband is always beside her, which results in the child’s taking some of his features.
Trobrianders consider “baloma” to be a real cause of childbirth. Baloma is a controlling spirit which penetrates into the body of a married woman and brings her a child (she cannot bring a child to a virgin girl). A woman can talk to baloma in her dreams and this spirit can also “communicate with the living through dreams to give them news of dead kinfolk or to inform of a pregnancy.” (Obeyesekere 2002) The spirit is believed to carry the baby either in a special coconut basket or simply in her arms and puts it in the hair of a woman (the head is the place where the blood effuses this is why namely this part of the human body is chosen).
After the spirit brings the baby, the mother experiences certain physiological changes. First she has a headache, nausea, and pain in her belly after which the baby actually comes down into the belly and the woman gets pregnant. When the child is laid by the spirit on the woman’s head, the blood from the rest of her body rushes there and during the tide of blood after nausea and headache, the baby is brought into the womb. The blood nourishes the body of the baby, which explains the fact that woman’s menstruation stops when she gets pregnant.
In sum, Trobrianders do have fathers but only socially. The fathers are not believed to take part in conception because the baby is brought by a controlling spirit, baloma, who puts the baby on the woman’s head; from there, a flood of blood brings the baby to the womb. The father performs the role of a protector of the family and the children may bear physical resemblance with him because he is constantly beside the mother when she is pregnant.
Gananath O 2000, Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth, University of California Press.
Lyons, AP 2004, Irregular Connections: a History of Anthropology and Sexuality, U of Nebraska Press.
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