Born in Borneo

Midwifery Today, Issue 95, Autumn 2010.
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My husband and I met a couple a few years ago in New Zealand. Being sailors ourselves, we had agreed to help them and house them when they sailed into the San Francisco Bay Area. A couple years passed, and then one day we got an e-mail from them saying they had gotten as far as Borneo and it was so wonderful they didn’t know if they’d ever make it to the US. They invited us to join them on their sailboat off the coast of Borneo. As part of my preparation for going, I did quite a bit of reading, as I usually do before visiting another country. One of the books spoke of the magic of Borneo being inseparable from the dizzying mix of cultures inhabiting the island. Another book acknowledged that children are among the Borneo people’s most treasured possessions. Every blessing, prayer and invocation includes a petition for healthy progeny. It went on to discuss some of the country’s pregnancy taboos. I was determined to interview as many people as possible about childbirth during my stay on the world’s third largest island to see if these taboos really existed, as well as anything else I might discover about birthing in Borneo.

I spent time online with women involved in childbirth education for months before I left the US and wasted no time, starting my inquiries about “being born in Borneo” the night I arrived in Kota Kinabalu by talking with the woman in charge at our hotel. She, like all others I talked to in this town of half a million people, told me she had birthed her baby in a hospital. Childbirth classes were available but cost money, so she did not take any. She had a vaginal birth with a vacuum extractor “…as the baby was nearly 10 pounds.” She chose a doctor. She said she could have had a midwife but, again, that would incur an additional fee. With no “extras” and only a one-night stay, the cost was about 3,000 ringgits (about $900) and included her prenatal care. She told me she had her sister with her, as her husband didn’t want to come. This was a theme I heard repeated numerous times, with little variation. It seemed that if a woman lived within the larger city area, she chose to have a hospital birth without a husband or partner present. This fact was borne out by taxi drivers, shopkeepers, jungle lodge managers, women in roadside cafes and in various shops.

The responses were a bit different in the small villages, especially in the jungle area away from the “big city,” but the absence of husbands at the birth seemed the norm there as well. In the small villages of Borneo I found that pregnant women are subject to various taboos. Even women who deliver in a hospital often listen to and abide by these taboos and visit a bidan. This is their word for what appears to be similar to what we sometimes refer to as a “lay midwife.” In Spanish, we would call her la partera. After a few more conversations, I realized that bidan meant “woman helping women” and they were identified by the villages where they assisted births. For instance, in the village of Kampung, the midwife would be known as bidan kampung.

Diana, a delightful, bright, 34-year-old mother of three, talked to me about the country’s pregnancy taboos and introduced me to her friend, Salina, who had two babies who had been born with the help of the local bidan. Salina spoke no English, but Diana translated as we discussed the various customs and taboos for the pregnant women in their region. Salina contributed to the conversation as we sat along the bank of the Kinabatangan River, for she had delivered at home with the help of a bidan. Although Diana’s births took place in a hospital, she also went regularly to the local bidan.

I found the local customs so very fascinating that I put aside my list of questions and just listened (while furiously taking notes). Some of the more common customs both women agreed absolutely must be followed involved food. Pregnant women were told not to eat turmeric or their baby would turn yellow. If eggplant were eaten, according to another custom, the baby would be born blue. Eat chilies and the baby would have a rash. The consumption of sting rays produced a white color, while eating cold rice would make her baby cry. Tying a towel or scarf around a pregnant woman’s neck was taboo, as people believe this will ensure a cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. I had read that if a pregnant woman looked at a monkey or something else considered ugly she might very likely end up with an ugly baby. Salina broke in to say that it wasn’t so bad to look at them, they just shouldn’t say anything bad about them or the baby would end up looking like a monkey.

The mother’s activities also were restricted, for local customs said that if she sat in front of a door the baby would have difficulty exiting into the world. If a woman had been in labor an unusually long time, her family members would start to uncover jars and baskets, untying any knot in the house to allow the baby to “get out” or “come unstuck.” In really serious cases, another source reported, all the boats in the jetty would be set adrift, usually in the care of a few young boys who would later paddle them back to a safe harbor. Special prayers often were said over a cup of water, which the mother was to drink in order to speed things up. Another reason for a slow labor, it was believed by many in Borneo, might be because the laboring woman had spoken too harshly to her mother-in-law. This could be corrected if the father-to-be apologized to his mother.

Women weren’t the only locals I talked with. Handsome Ibrahim also patiently answered my many questions. When I asked if his babies were born in a hospital or with a bidan, he said both his girls had been born in the hospital. When I asked if he had been present at their birth his answer was, “I love my wife and I love my children, but no.” He added that he also had never killed any animals while his wife was pregnant, which is another no-no in Borneo culture. Diana explained that not only were fathers not allowed to kill animals during their wife’s pregnancy, they were not to dig holes in the land for fear the baby would be born without an anus. I was never able to find anyone who reported the father of the baby present at the birth of their child—either in the hospital or at home with a bidan. Even the bidan who graciously gave me time to talk about local birth customs agreed, saying, “Only women at births.”

Some of the taboos involved the treatment of the couple’s other children.

“A father-to-be had hit the hands of his other children. The baby was born with a withered hand. All the village people said it was because he had used a ruler on his other children’s hands while his wife was pregnant,” Diana told me. Salina nodded in agreement.

Diana had been so helpful and seemingly interested in talking about this topic, I asked if she knew any bidans that I might visit. I said I would gladly give up my nightly jungle walk to meet with one. She excitedly said her neighbor was a bidan and she would arrange the meeting. Since Diana had had all three of her births in the hospital, but had also seen a bidan, she gave me some insights into the costs of a birth in Borneo village. What a difference between the cost in the capital for a hospital birth and here on the other side of the island! In the small, outlying village hospital on the east coast of Borneo, the cost of the birth would be about 50 ringgits or roughly $15 plus 5 ringgits ($1.50) for each prenatal visit. Bidans, on the other hand, didn’t charge for their services, but they were usually given 20 ringgits (a little more than $6) plus a chicken, some fabric or whatever else the woman had to give.

Taking a boat across the river in the dark to sit with a bidan was another exciting part of this birthing in Borneo study. Waiting inside a modest spartanly furnished home was a bitty, charming bidan who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see her. She sat against the wall on the linoleum floor and gestured for Diana and me to join her. Shortly, someone brought out a pounded silver pot of tea and some teacakes and sat them on the floor next to us. A young man lounged in the only chair I saw in this large, open space. He seemed most interested in the conversation, though he had no children himself and he quickly agreed to take pictures for me. I had asked Diana what I should call the bidan. She answered that she could not say her name out of respect because she was older but I could call her Madam Jamurd. This delightful woman told me, with Diana acting as a translator, that she had given birth to 10 babies with the help of a bidan, then giggled and said she had delivered her 11th baby by herself. I struggle to put into words the way she gleefully gestured a swooping motion with her hands from her perineum to her breasts.

“Bu Dayang” (Auntie), as this midwife was called by some, confirmed what I had heard over and over again in Borneo: only women were present at births. She also told how to tell if the baby was ready to be born. As she chewed on some leaves she had cut while she was talking, she explained that the pregnant woman would chew these leaves, spit them out and rub them on her stomach. If they turned a brighter red she would go into labor within a few days, but if they were not red she wasn’t ready.

When I asked if I might see what she took to a delivery and perhaps take a picture she simply responded, “I take my hands.” When I asked what she used to cut the cord she explained that she milked the cord in both directions about a foot from the body of the baby, laid the milked portion on a coconut shell the father had prepared, and cut the cord with a knife the father had made out of a piece of bamboo while saying a Muslim prayer as she made the cut. After the birth of a baby, the mother is considered cold and various means are used to warm her. The custom of having the new mother sit on a rack over a fire seems to be dying out, but bidans still try to warm the women in other ways. In a climate that easily gets close to 100 degrees during the daytime, one wouldn’t think this would be much of a problem.

When I asked where the women labored, Diana, without translating, said they were in bed. But the bidan answered, “I have them walk.” When I inquired about positions for pushing, it wasn’t until I said, “In this position, or this, or this for pushing?” and demonstrated the various positions I help women into during delivery that I got my answers.

With giggles all around they agreed to have me be the pregnant woman and they would show me. The young man in the room quickly offered to take a picture of this. With this, the bidan was all business, she made sure a pillow was fetched from the other room and put it under my head. She then slipped her hands under my buttocks and raised me up slightly.

After this picture was taken, the bidan said she would like to show me how she massages her pregnant clients. She was massaging my abdomen quite gingerly until she saw the large surgical scar that went across my waist and up toward the area between my breasts. With that she stopped saying she was afraid she would hurt me. I assured her it was 10 years old and demonstrated how vigorously it could be touched but it did nothing to reassure her. She shuddered and tucked her hands away.

Later, at a roadside “restaurant” on the small island of Labuan, about 14 miles off the larger island of Borneo but still considered part of Borneo, we stopped for lunch. The women running the establishment (which was actually just a few chairs and tables set up on the side of the road) asked if they could take our picture, as they had never had anyone from the US eat in their restaurant. They took pictures of us with their cell phones and we took pictures of them with our cameras. It was an easy opening for me to get confirmations about the birthing customs I had learned. The several women there readily recognized all of these customs as being the truth. Much of the conversation took place with the translating help of the 18-year-old daughter of one of the women at the restaurant.

The scenic beauty and wildlife I came to Borneo to enjoy surpassed my expectations, but the openness and willingness of the island’s women to share their stories of birth—plus the friendliness of these delightful people of Borneo—went way beyond anything I could have hoped for. I will be eternally grateful to them all, but especially to Diana who asked me to e-mail this story to her and checked my writing for accuracy.

About Author: Linda B. Jenkins

Linda B. Jenkins, RN, has taught in a variety of capacities—from ghetto schools to the Spanish-speaking community to doctors. She has researched and filmed births in the US, South and Central America, Europe, Japan, South Africa and now Borneo. To learn more about Linda visit

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