UP documentary spotlights dwindling practice of traditional midwifery

A scene from the documentary, Vroedvrou.

A scene from the documentary, Vroedvrou.

Published Mar 13, 2024


A new documentary by two University of Pretoria (UP) professors captures the diminishing expertise of traditional midwives amid the global shift towards Western medical practices.

It is set to premiere in Springbok in the Northern Cape on March 23, 2024.

Titled Vroedvrou (Midwife), the film was directed by Professor Siona O’Connell, a professor of African studies and a member of UP’s School of the Arts, and Professor Loretta Feris, UP Vice-Principal: Academic. Vroedvrou was born out of research by Feris, who had been approached by members of the Nama community in Namaqualand who were seeking support to preserve the knowledge of ageing midwives.

The community was concerned that this invaluable expertise would be lost and the contributions of these midwives to community maternal health overlooked.

O’Connell, who has made several impactful documentaries, joined forces with Feris to capture the richness of traditional midwifery, and raise awareness about the indispensable role of traditional midwives in the Northern Cape.

A shortened version of the film was screened on eNCA’s current affairs show CheckPoint (DStv, channel 403) on March 6.

“This was a very personal project for me because I am from the Northern Cape, and I feel strongly about the role of women supporting community development,” Feris says. “I wanted to capture the contributions that these women have made to community health, and even life, as they often provide emergency healthcare to mothers and babies. Yet these midwives are not necessarily trained or educated, and often don’t receive remuneration for their services. They are also not formally acknowledged for the vital role they play.

Traditional and indigenous midwives are found in different communities in South Africa and in other parts of the world. In some legal jurisdictions, they are explicitly acknowledged and integrated into the healthcare system, but this is not yet the case in South Africa.”

O’Connell says: “This film has broad appeal. It speaks about what it means to be pregnant, give birth and what is necessary for new mothers to flourish. It also urges all of us in the academy to think about the Western knowledge paradigms on which our institutions are built, and how we work with indigenous knowledge systems as equal partners. It can be used as teaching material across all faculties.”

The film highlights the epistemic diversity of what we consider “knowledge”, Feris adds.

“Knowledge production does not reside in the domain of the academy only. Traditional midwives developed their own knowledge and expertise on childbirth and maternal healthcare, and if we can drive closer collaboration between the academy and traditional midwives, we will all benefit from each other.”

There was urgency to make this film, given that one midwife had recently died and the others are ageing.

“So we made it in record time,” O’Connell says. “I don’t work in the way that a conventional filmmaker does – there is no script or storyboard. The film really reveals itself through what is being said. We used a South African music library, and Prof Feris takes us through the film, not as a narrator who has little to do with the subject matter, but because traditional midwives are an important part of her personal and academic journey.”

For O’Connell, documentary filmmaking is vastly different to scholarly writing in that it is able to open up conversations with broader audiences and the general public, and in so doing, opens the academic space to new and novel ways of knowledge production.

“One of the most difficult things about making a film such as this – and it is no different to any of the 11 others I have made – is the constant back and forth,” she explains. “There’s a lot of research, and we have to leave lots of footage on the cutting room floor. You can’t be precious. You also need a first-class team that includes students.”

The two professors began making the film without a budget, but eventually received support from the University’s Faculty of Humanities and the Department of Research and Innovation. The Northern Cape Department of Sports, Arts and Culture has also come on board as a partner for the formal premiere of the film.

O’Connell hopes that the issues raised in the film about indigenous knowledge systems and women and birth will continue to generate debate and discussion.

“We are dreaming big about the next steps,” O’Connell says. “We have had invitations to screen the film abroad at notable institutions, including Brown University in the US.”

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