Article Information

Ilse Gravett1
Julian C. Mller1


1Department of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to:
Ilse Gravett


Postal address:
Department of Practical Theology, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, Lynnwood Road, Hatfield 0083, Pretoria, South Africa

African feminist theology; infertility within the African context; issues of death; mutual embracement; secondary infertility

Received: 04 Nov. 2009
Accepted: 12 Apr. 2010
Published: 08 Sept. 2010

How to cite this article:
Gravett, I. & Mller, J.C., 2010, Poetic song of Hester. Secondary infertility: Losing infants, inheriting a child, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 66(2), Art. #844, 5 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v66i2.844

This article is a reworked version of a section from Ilse Gravetts PhD dissertation, Narratives of couples affected by infertility: Daring to be fruitful, with Prof. Dr Julian C. Mller as supervisor. The dissertation was submitted and accepted by the Faculty of Theology of the University of Pretoria in August 2008.

Copyright Notice:
© 2010. The Authors. Licensee: OpenJournals Publishing. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

ISSN: 0259-9422 (print)
ISSN: 2072-8050 (online)

In This Original Research...
Open Access
Epistemology and methodology
Hester's helplessness
The story behind the poem
Hester's poem
Secondary infertility
Infertility in the African context
Hester imagining Hannah in the temple

The aim of the article was to explore the narrative of Hester, a black South African woman, who is living with secondary infertility. The perspective is that of postfoundational practical theology, feminist theology and social constructionist narrative methodology. Fertility, as one of the most intimate areas of human existence, lies at the heart of life itself. Within the African tradition, motherhood is seen as almost sacred. Despite Hesters multiple identities, one which is that of adoptive mother, the absence of biological children causes her to be regarded as a childless woman. That identity not only disproportionately defines her, but also stigmatises her as shameful and an outsider. Within the traditional African worldview being healthy (including being fertile) is seen as being in harmony with the societal order and systemic, spiritual and religious environment.

Hesters social construction of her self is that of helplessness, reflected in her near illiteracy, low economic status, socio-cultural position and lack of skills. Her childlessness reinforced her helplessness. Her woundedness was perpetuated by the fact that she could not share her painful story openly. In the article Hesters story is presented as a poem, titled: the thing that doesnt want to come out. The article concludes with Hesters reconstruction of self as a woman, although poor, also blessed.


A poem on infertility

Hesters story of her childlessness was told during three interviews, with Hesters adopted daughter, Florence, taking part in the last one. The term childless is ironic, since Hester had given birth to twins and has an adopted daughter. However, she does not have a living biological child and is therefore not regarded as a real mother by her community. The conversations were transcribed from audiotape. The 60 pages of verbatim text were then condensed into a four-and-a-half page poem. I adopted social scientist Laurel Richardsons (1992:126) idea of presenting her interview with someone called Louisa May in the form of a poem. Richardson had a number of reasons for choosing the poetic form. Firstly, she wanted something other than the dull academic style of paraphrasing case studies or simply quoting interviewees directly. Secondly, she argued that, by allowing Louisas language to shape the poem, she decentred herself as the expert sociologist and reached a sensitive, ethical solution to the issues of authority/authorship/appropriation whereby she felt she could use her skills and resources in the service of others less beneficially situated (Richardson 1992:131). It was inevitable that she did interpret Louisa Mays words, life and experiences, but, presenting them in a certain pattern that meticulously reflected the speakers tone, diction and meaning and using only Louisa Mays words, she tried to do so with subjective integrity. Thirdly, Richardson liked the idea of finding a union between the sociological and the poetic, because this is an important part of how she prefers to express herself as a sociologist and an individual. What she found, in the end, was that, in writing about Louisa May, she also rewrote her own self. Coming from a narrative point of departure, I could identify with Richardsons thinking and, in telling Hester and Florences story, I was inspired to make use of poetic representation in a similar way.

The poem uses Hester and Florences own words. The nature and mood was conveyed by making use of poetic devices such as repetition, pauses, foregrounding of words and emotions, free verse and dramatic progression. The fact that poetry by nature lends itself to multiple and open readings in greater measure than does conventional prose or traditional narrative research writing, influenced my decision to tell Hester and Florences story in the form of a poem. Todorov (1981) describes the aim of poetic representation as an attempt to name the text that was examined (or, in this instance, to name the conversation with Hester and Florence). The act of naming reflects the determination to make the text itself speak:

It is a fidelity to the object, to the other, and consequently an effacement of the subject as well as its drama, which is to be forever incapable of realising the meaning, but only a meaning, subject to historical and psychological contingencies.

(Todorov 1981:4)

In this article, the following issues will be considered in the course of Hesters narrative: infertility in the African context, secondary infertility, Hesters poem, Hester imagining Hannah in the temple and Hester reconstructing her self.


The story of Hester and Florence, mother and adopted daughter, was originally told as part of the PhD thesis, Narratives of couples affected by infertility: Daring to be fruitful. As one of four very different stories told by four different couples on the issue of infertility, Hester gives her voice to the painful experience of stigmatisation and marginalisation that often shapes the lives of the childless living in the context of the African tradition.

The voices of Black women, such as Hester, have historically and culturally been silenced. Black women from non-developed countries are often disadvantaged in a threefold way: by racism, sexism and class differences (Bons-Storm 1992:134). Within the social constructionist view, the self is constituted in relationship with other persons (Freedman & Combs 1996:268). Since infertility in the African tradition is a highly uncomfortable topic, childless men and women often encounter a deafening silence even within the church, which echoes the cruel, hushed stigmatisation they face in their communities. By discussing the theme of infertility, it is not only the couple and their intimate life that is made public, but their parents personhood is also compromised, and that is unacceptable (Gabobonwe 2004:67).

Hesters self is also constituted in relationship to her inherited child and adopted daughter, Florence. Although they love and respect each other as parent and child, some members of their community continuously remind them that they are not really (biologically) mother and daughter and that their bond is of inferior quality.

The aim of the article is that the voices of Hester and Florence be heard. In African culture there is generally not much sympathy for childless couples. Antagonism is especially directed at the woman who is seen as the cause of the infertility problem.

Epistemology and methodology

This article is written from of a post foundational, social constructionist narrative perspective. It endorses an emancipatory feminist objective.

According to South African feminist theologian, Denise Ackermann (1998:80), a hermeneutic of healing should be at the heart of a feminist theology of praxis. Meaningful healing resists the pursuit of only individual and personal healing and rather recognises the interlocking of social, political and religious forces and the challenge to bring healing to peoples lives on multiple levels.

If African theology is about reflecting on how Christians in Africa understand God, then womens theology ensures the inclusion of womens expression of faith in response to their experiences. The main thrust of womens theology is to make a concerted effort to open the door for the voices of men and women, lay and ordained, teachers and preachers, poets and sculptors. Secondly, this theology takes life as a whole into consideration, everything that constitutes fullness of life well-being, the possession of powers, attributes and abilities that lead to a celebration of life (Oduyoye 2001:34).

The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (also known as the Circle), was initiated in 1989 by Mercy Amba Oduyoye to encourage gender-sensitive research and writing on African religions and culture by women. It also created a supportive space for African feminist theologians to develop creative practical theologies that grew out of their specific experiences and needs. Oduyoye, guilty of the ultimate failure of childlessness, raises her voice as an African theologian in the Circle to propose a theology of procreation that responds to the challenge and disgrace of barrenness. She laments the fact that Christianity apparently lacks stories from which the childless can draw strength (Oduyoye 1999:115). Another possibility is that stories that do exist are purposely ignored or are undeveloped because the church fails to appreciate the diverse ways in which men and women can live fruitful lives despite childlessness.She puts it as follows: It is for the church to acknowledge and raise up the diversity of Gods gifts and to celebrate all the ways of bringing forth life (Oduyoye 1999:119). Such a theology of procreation speaks to both those who reproduce and those who do not. Such a theology is gracious and mature enough to embrace different forms of fruitfulness, which might not necessarily be biological. It is a theology that teaches the church and traditional culture to understand and respect the unique state of life of the childless, that refuses to further blame and shame those who are infertile.

Hester's helplessness

Hesters helplessness manifests in her near illiteracy, low economic status, lack of any skills other than domestic capabilities, but mostly in her not being the biological mother of children. Two husbands had left her. Her first husband took another wife, because Hester had failed to fall pregnant again after they had lost their twins. The second husband left her after a 17-year marriage, because she never conceived and could not give him children.

None of the ex-husbands was available to take part in this research. Therefore I invited Florence, Hesters adopted daughter and her granddaughter, Thandi, to participate.

The story behind the poem

Hester's poem

The thing that doesnt want to come out

in Rooifontein my house stands empty

nobody there to care for

only me eating my money

even if your little house is nice

its a trouble to be without a child

my heart is very sore

very sore

it makes me scream inside

sometimes i cry - oo hoooo

like a wolf

im a poor woman

(my mothers heart also cries with me

my father always says why why?)

when i was nineteen the twins came too early

i took them home to Hammanskraal

from then on this thing is heavy

this thing

this thing that doesnt want to come out

it is big trouble

it talks to me every day

what shall i say?

its just how it is

the morena was good

her ma and pa had a fight

her pa said wheres the money?

the casino swallowed it!

her ma said

she fell

he didnt mean to hit her that hard

we were so happy

now we had children

we didnt sign the adoption papers

always we cry together

about the children

we hold each other

why our young sesie Willemina has four children


and shes the youngest of all of us

we always cry me and Rosie

the sangoma threw the bones

if it sits like that it means so

the baby will come

but it didnt help

she took my money

Samuel said i must sleep with his brother

to make a new child

but no i didnt want to

its better this way

i didnt like that man

the family wasnt angry

you dont have to really

this world is not a place to stay in

it is too hard for me

Samuel left me

we were together seventeen years

uh huh you cant make children

he left me

it wasnt right to run off

just like that

why must he go away after he promised me

where can i run to?

its a lot of trouble this thing

the morena knows some can have children

some not

we pray in the church holding hands in the air

going up and up

you have you have you have not

we think maybe if we say something else

the morena will give

the others throw their children away

at the river

and the toilet did you know the toilet

i think many stories

they have the ones there

without mothers

(im laughing at myself now

but my heart stays


every day i ask the morena

all day every day

why dont you give me one?

only one


im asking you for one only

i cant hear him

i dont know why

the morena speaks to me but i dont understand

im old now


too late

i mustnt feel like this

my heart pulls me down

grabs me

like a fist

too many women without children

all of us are pushed outside in this world

it doesnt help to cry every day

what will i do to become strong?

i have Florence

shes my daughter

i have Florence

shes my daughter

she wants to be a nurse

but she didnt get matric

when her baby came we called her Thandi

Florence is crying because the father left her

married someone else but he is still

the neighbour

she sees them together

he and the other woman

she cries a lot

Thandi cries too

that other woman swears at them

Thandis nose is small

like her fathers

Hester is my mother I love her too much

Im shy and big boned

I like to smile

my mother makes us chicken and pap

we are good friends

she helps me

i want to get a job

I didnt like school

the easy maths told me not to take all the money

for the clothes in Truworths

I must go back to school

but now it is difficult

I want

more babies

Florence is my daughter

i love her

and Thandi

theres this thing in me that does not want to

come out

theres this heavy thing that i carry inside

it makes me pregnant

with rivers of crying

from that time it speaks to me every day

my heart is very

very sick

i pray that god will take it away from me

this world is full of trouble

(i cant help crying)

Secondary infertility

Although the poem presents a number of themes, this article will focus on dominant discourses such as secondary infertility and infertility in the African tradition.

Secondary infertility is described as the inability to conceive a pregnancy or carry a pregnancy to term following the birth of one or more children (Simons 1995:2). It means that a woman has had at least one live child. Secondary infertility occurs among individuals and couples who previously had little or no problem in conceiving, as well as among those with recurring infertility difficulties. It is regarded not only as a medical diagnosis, but also as a social and emotional crisis.

Although it is even more common than primary infertility, it is a hidden form of infertility, an unfamiliar loss, and communities lack proper language to give adequate support. Unused to addressing such a difficult loss with acknowledgments, ceremonies, rituals and understanding, society prefers to ignore it (Simons 1995:13). Hesters poem reflects her pain and confusion in terms of secondary infertility.

Infertility in the African context

When referring to the African context one should take care to keep the rich diversity of modes of being in Africa in mind and not fall into the trap of thinking of Africa as a homogeneous society. The word Africa points to a philosophical concept that describes the complexity and diversity of different cultural, local and contextual settings as related to a state of being and mind (Louw 2007:13). Africa also embodies the spirit or soul of its peoples humanness and refers to a hermeneutical paradigm that differs from the analytical approach stemming from Hellenism and Western thinking.

As far as the African individual is concerned, being healthy means being in the right relationship with the environment. It signifies that the societal order and systemic, spiritual and religious equilibrium are in harmony. Illness (including infertility) in this context is both a sociological phenomenon (as it affects the whole community) and a religious concept (Louw 2007:25).

Berinyuu (cited in Louw 2007:26) points out that illness immediately provokes suspicion of what sin the person has committed in order to incur the current misfortune or death. Illness is seen not as the result of viruses or infections in the body but as the result of someone having disturbed the social order. Infertility in the traditional African context is not ascribed to purely medical reasons or unexplained causes. It reflects directly on a person who has done something wrong. The community finds that it has the right to scrutinise such peoples lives and hold them responsible.

In most parts of Africa motherhood is seen as almost sacred, a religious duty and a way to prove you are a full and faithful person (Oduyoye 1999:113). As if the pain of being childless were not enough, the state of infertility in itself is a curse which alienates people from community life. It is believed not only to affect the infertile person but blights the entire community, thereby undermining the survival of the clan and preventing ancestors from being born again into earthly life (Mathekga 2001:37). A womans body is, inter alia, seen as a vehicle for the reincarnation of her ancestors (Oduyoye 1999:105).

An infertile family member causes disharmony which affects the family also in the future. Living in abundance and fullness in this life means that a good life can be expected also in the afterlife. In some cultures, the eternal life is traditionally viewed as an endless continuation of the persons family line. The ability to have children then takes on religious significance. Because the Bible speaks of children as a gift from God, the community assumes the opposite also to be true: childlessness demonstrates the curse of the Lord on the couple. Even a husband and wife with strong Christian beliefs might become bitter and angry towards God because they are influenced by the communitys interpretation of their situation (ODonovan 1996:296).

In a study on the views of Black South Africans (Mabasa 2000:62), it was found that infertility was seen as a severe stigma. The general belief was that infertility is more common in women than men and, in fact, should be seen as a womens problem. The thinking in the African culture is that as long as a man is potent, he cannot be sterile. The comparison is made between a woman taking in the seed that grows to be a baby and the fertile soil that germinates the seed of maize and develops root. Traditional healers would often confirm that the infertility problem lies with the woman. In African patrilineal society, infertility is seen to be the womans fault and is thus not a problem of the couple (Mathekga 2001:37).

Hester imagining Hannah in the temple

Mercy Oduyoye (1999:118) explains how her liberation from the label of useless, shameful woman, which she received from her church and the African community, took place while she was visiting the island of Crete. She (once again) prayed to God, as Hannah did in the temple, to allow her to join in the command to increase and multiply, when he dealt with her directly: and God was saying a clear no to my offer. But it was not the kind of refusal that indicated she was not worthy of becoming a mother. Her acceptance of Gods answer through Gods grace allowed her to feel free and fertile, sure that something precious would be born of this experience. She laid her life on the altar before God to consume what was not necessary for her journey, she says. Then she arose, like Hannah, and although the promise to her did not include a child, she was nonetheless pregnant with the expectation of great things to come to me from God (Oduyoye 1999:118). She realised that children are Gods gift to creatures who need to survive through procreation. However, in Oduyoyes life the command to procreate means the following:

Increase in humanity.

Multiply the likeness to God for which you have the potential.

Multiply the fullness of humanity that is found in Christ.

Fill the earth with the glory of God.

Increase in creativity.

Bring into being that which God can look upon and pronounce good, even very good

(Oduyoye 1999:118)



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