What Happens When Traditional Practices Meet Modern Day Science?

How do you bring about change without overlooking traditional cultural practices?

At Christian Aid we want to see change happen, but we know we can’t change things without doing it alongside people and empowering communities to be part of that change.

Mbaububo Gumbo is a traditional birth attendant in Malawi

Mbaububo Gumbo is a traditional birth attendant. She’s been one her whole life, in fact, the job was passed onto her from her grandmother.

In Malawi, women have given birth with the support of traditional birth attendants for hundreds of years.

But it didn’t stop hundreds of women dying in childbirth every year.


We all trust what we know. People trusted their traditional birth attendants; the women who had delivered the babies of their mothers and sisters and friends. They didn’t trust new hospital facilities that were far away and unknown.

The combination of far-away health facilities and the traditional practice of giving birth at home meant that when women got into last minute complications during birth, even with the support of their traditional birth attendant they didn’t have the medical support to help them survive.

‘We were trained, but we lacked medical knowledge or technical know-how. We didn’t know how to deliver a baby in breech. We were living far from health facilities, so if a woman had a profuse loss of blood we couldn’t even help: she could bleed and bleed until she died.’  - Sophie Nkwinka, Traditional Birth Attendant

In 2007, in the hope that women would go to hospitals to give birth instead, Malawi banned traditional birth attendants.

But nothing changed.

Mothers and babies continued to die in childbirth.

It’s all about trust. People didn’t trust the healthcare facilities. They trusted their traditional birth attendents.

So in 2010 Malawi lifted the ban and tried something new.

The president realised that what needed to happen was to combine the wisdom of the traditional birth attendants with the medical knowledge of modern birthing techniques.

And that’s where we come in. 

Over the last few years we’ve been working with traditional birth attendants and bringing them together with modern day health practitioners in Malawi, to provide them with medical training and the tools they need to make sure that women can give birth safely. The trusted traditional birth attendants encourage women to give birth safely in health facilities instead of at home, and they know exactly when and how to get women there, accompanying them along the way. 

Now they call themselves Mother Companions.

‘Since the training there’s been tremendous change. Pregnant women are no longer dying.’

So how do you bring about change without overlooking traditional cultural practices?

You get alongside people and find solutions together.

We’ve learnt that in a place where too many women die in childbirth, simply building a new maternity ward won’t fix the problem. You also need to make sure that women want to use the ward. And the way to do that is to work with the people they trust – their Mother Companions.

This project has been a resounding success, and it’s only been possible because people like you helped us to raise over £3 Million to fund it. Even better than that, it was supported by UK Aid Match. That means that any money we raised was matched by the UK Government. That’s over £6 Million to retraining people like Mbaububo and building better maternity wards. Together we can make double the difference in people’s lives. 

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