By Rachel Pieh Jones
A Djiboutian custom during pregnancy, and for forty days following childbirth for restoration, protection and health.
“The mouth of my grave is open.” This is what Djiboutian women say during pregnancy and the forty days following childbirth. “Qabrigayga afka ayaa furan yahay.” They mean that they could die, or the baby could die, at any time and they’re right. The infant and maternal mortality rates in Djibouti are among the highest in the world and aren’t helped by rampant female genital mutilation and limited access to quality healthcare.
I learned the phrase when I was pregnant with our youngest, Lucy Deeqsan, who was born in Djibouti. My friend Awo taught it to me and explained it as a request for prayers for protection and health.
Djiboutians had other ways of procuring protection during these vulnerable days like observing a mandatory rest period of forty days following childbirth during which mother and infant remained indoors. This sounded like paradise. Forty days to rest, bond, and recover.
“If you need to go outside before the forty days are over,” Awo said, “put a nail behind your ear. Or a knife like the one people put under their pillows at night. That way you can fight off the jinn who might attack.” Jinn are mischievous devils, or genies who wreak havoc on humans.
“Also, don’t look at the baby when you nurse her,” Awo said. “The jinn will know how much you love her and will make her sick or take her away.”
Seven days after Lucy’s birth our neighbors planned to sacrifice a goat and have a feast to protect her and guarantee a long, healthy life.
“The blood of goats can’t protect her,” my husband said. He explained that our faith relied on the one-time, all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. “But we’d love to have a party.”
The men came to an agreement that since we believed God had a plan for Lucy’s life or death and since our neighbor believed a sacrifice would help, he would sacrifice a baby goat instead of an adult. There would be less blood, my family could enjoy the meat without believing in its saving power and the neighbors could enjoy the meat and feel relieved that they were contributing to Lucy’s well-being. Plus, there could still be a party.
Friday morning a halal butcher slaughtered a tiny goat in our front yard. During the feast I remained indoors and ate blue, yellow, and pink rice with hot sauce and broiled goat from aluminum platters the neighbors carried into our living room. At the end of my forty days of rest there would be a party for women but this feast was primarily for men and for Lucy.
Outside, neighbors and friends lounged on pillows and sipped Coke, smoked, and dug into the feast with their right hands. My husband read prayers from the Bible and the Quran. The men took turns holding Lucy, taking pictures with her, and whispering blessings over her.
Lucy and I (mostly) stayed indoors during the forty days postpartum. We ate the goat meat. I never placed a nail behind my ear and I stared at Lucy while she nursed, devouring her with my eyes. We prayed for health. After forty days the mouths of my grave and Lucy’s grave quietly closed. We had survived.
Nine years later, our graves are still closed. I still pray for health. Sometimes I am half-tempted to slip a nail behind my ear, if that would guarantee a long and healthy life for my daughter. Anything, to guarantee I will never lose her. But I don’t believe in guarantees. I don’t believe in magic-like phrases or nails or goat’s blood.
Sometimes I wonder if it might be easier if I did, at least I would feel more in control. But this would only be an illusion, I don’t believe in control either. How can I? I don’t know who will carry a gun into the elementary school or who is wearing a bomb underneath their business suit in the restaurant. I can’t see malaria or ebola or cancer cells. I can’t decide who is too drunk to drive every time I enter the freeway or how long prison sentences should be for pedophiles.
Djiboutians know this too, that’s why they say the mouths of their graves are open. That’s why they sacrifice goats and put nails behind their ears. We all attempt to wrangle whatever sense of authority over our lives we can muster. Maybe that is why I find it natural to have faith in something I can’t see or touch. I have no confidence in my own authority. Some trust in nails, some trust in the blood of goats, some trust in their own competencies, I trust in an unseen God. I’m weak, I might and probably will, make bad choices. I can’t save my family from the train barreling down on us. I choose faith.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.