Documenting History of Midwifery

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Filmmaker Rhonda L. Haynes is an award winner. She won the 2005 Paul Robeson Award Initiative Special Prize (PRAI) for her film ‘Bringin’ in da Spirit,’ at the FESPACO Film Festival in Burkina Faso, West Africa, the longest running, prestigious cultural arts and film festival in Africa. 

Haynes’ film records the ancient rituals and traditions of midwifery.  Thespian LisaGaye Hamilton won the 2005 FESPACO Diaspora Prize Award for her documentary “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks,â€? about deceased actress, Beah Richards.  Director Mateen Kemet won PRAIs 2005 Director’s Award for his film “Silence,â€? a story about incest. Haynes also garnered the Reel Sisters “Spiritâ€? Award and “Best Documentaryâ€? Award, and continues to showcase her important film at various venues and film festivals.

Rhonda Haynes was born in Pontiac, Michigan in 1960.  She earned her undergrad at Western Michigan University where she majored in communications and minored in journalism and dance. She produced a 13-part TV series on teen pregnancy for the school board in Pontiac before moving to New York.  Rhonda worked as a secretary and did temp work until she acquired a job as a camera utility person.  Finally, she was hired as a production assistant on The Cosby Show and later became a camera assistant.

“Eventually, I worked on ‘Where in the World is Carmen Santiago?’ which was a demographic show for children featuring the now deceased actress Lynn Thigpin,â€? said Rhonda, who traveled to India to shoot the Kumbh Mela, a spiritual pilgrimage that attracts devout people throughout the world; many who seek spiritual cleansing through bathing in the sacred Ganges River.  “The pilgrimage happens every 12 years.  However, when I shot the Maha Kumbh Mela, it had been a 144 years.  It was a 13 day shoot and a great experience. I got some wonderful footage,â€? recalled the talented filmmaker.â€?  Ms. Haynes was also one of the camera operators for Hughes Dream Harlem, a documentary about Langston Hughes. 

“I had met a midwife in Harlem who gave me the idea about doing my film, “Bringin’ in the Spirit.â€?  I hadn’t really known much about midwifery prior to then.  This woman was informing women that they had choices.  Going to the hospital is not the only way one can give birth to a child, especially since ‘C’ sections have been on the rise since the 1970s.  Some doctors have scared women so much about childbirth that many women only think in terms of scheduling a “C’ section rather than having a vaginal birth.  As I listened to the information, I realized within myself that this would be my first film,â€? Haynes stated. 

In pursuit of that, Rhonda went to Africa to shoot the indigenous midwives of Senegal as part of her documentary. “I started out planning to go to some indigenous African countries to talk to midwives and see how they practiced holistically.  It was quite a project. However, once I returned to America, I realized the direction in which I wanted the film to go.  I saw it was really about African American women in America.  These were the women at the forefront when Black people were undergoing the harsh realities of racism.  These women came forward to bring our spirits into the world because we couldn’t go to hospitals back then.  I thought it was very important to follow the African lineage.  So at the beginning of the film, I paid homage to that.  It is through the linage of midwifery that we got the knowledge of herbs and got the knowledge how to bring children forth into the world.  This was learned from our African ancestors, so I paid homage to that.  After all, it was from Africa that these women learned the Wise Women Ways,â€? remarked Haynes.  “My film documents the African ceremonies and traditions of child birthing.  So when I talked to these women, I felt blessed to be able to hear about these rituals; rituals now rooted in America.  I interviewed Margaret Charles Smith, who lived in Eutaw, Alabama, when she was 93.  She was one of the eldest midwives.  She was 99, when she passed away in November of 2004.â€?

Haynes wanted to document these timeless traditions because no one really knew their origin or the meaning behind them.  It was information that had gotten lost as it passed down through the generations. “Margaret Charles Smith talked to me about these remedies and rites of passage.  She explained why she used a certain salve, or took a thimble around the house, or named a child on the 7th day,â€? recalled Rhonda who spent 6 years making the film. “Fortunately the stories of these traditions continue through the women the midwives help to give birth,â€? explained Rhonda who also worked on a film about Yoruba dance and spirituality in Nigeria.

“A midwife is brought in the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant.  Formerly, midwives were well respected women in the community.  They guided pregnant women up until the time they gave birth and even afterwards up to 7 days. Midwives do more than aid birth.  They are spiritual guides, consultants, and advisors as well. Women called Doulas also assist the family.  They cook and clean and take care of the household in order to aid the pregnant woman, some eventually become midwives. Do we have that now? Fortunately, midwives are coming full circle as women weigh their choices and consider natural child birth.â€?

Haynes’ film was a labor of love.  She funded the film herself, later receiving $20,000.00 in 2002 from ABC through a minority grant. “It was marvelous to win at FESPACO.  I was in the company of great filmmakers of color from around the world.  That was daunting.  I was exposed to films that African Americans rarely get to see.â€? Rhonda stated.  Haynes is currently researching her new film documenting the history of African Americans who crusaded against lynching.

Filmmakers of color interested in submitting their films for the 2007 FESPACO Film Festival see:

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