Marshallese Pregnancy Customs

When my husband and I first moved to the Marshall Islands in 1979, we were newlyweds. I worked as a teacher trainer for Special Education teachers with the Ministry of Education. My husband worked with the Department of Internal Affairs. His job took him out on the field trip ships for three weeks at a time, as he worked with local governments on the outer islands. One time when he was out in the outer islands, I was at work and some of the young teachers  I worked with were giggling and talking about me. I asked what was up and they said “you’re pregnant!”  “No I’m not”, I insisted. But they were certain. Apparently they could tell because of something about my eyebrows. They convinced me to go to the hospital for a pregnancy test. Sure enough, pregnant. Everyone was thrilled! But Jim wasn’t due back for another two weeks and there was no way for me to get in touch with him. On my own.

My habit in those days was to go swimming in the lagoon every day after work. That afternoon though, Clena, a friend from work, arrived on my doorstep and stayed for a visit until a little after 6. I was flattered and pleased, but missed my swim because it was dark by the time she left. The next day, it was Hannah who stopped by; the day after that Teikla, then Bella. In fact my Marshallese friends showed up every afternoon and left at dark, until the day Jim came home. It was such fun to have the company. I said “hey gals, you don’t have to stop your visits just because Jim is home!” “Oh no” was the response. “Jim can protect you and the baby now that he’s home. You cannot be alone while the sun is setting because that is when the bad spirits are looking for a body to inhabit. They look for unborn babies. We were protecting you because Jim was gone, but now it’s his job.”

There were many other pregnancy related customs I learned over the next few months. Like, don’t sit with my back to the door because then the baby would be breach. And don’t wear a flower crown because then the cord would wrap around the baby’s neck.  But mostly, I just loved the support, concern, and yokwe.

Kathy Stratte, teacher and principal in the Marshall Islands , 1979-82, 1990-1993, 2006-2014