If you ever thought giving birth is incredibly difficult, just imagine doing it outside in subfreezing temperatures.
That’s exactly what the Nenet women of Siberia do, and understanding exactly how they do it is what award-winning explorer, ethnographer, and photographer Alegra Ally set out to do. Ally, 38, is the founder of the Wild Born Project and has spent over 20 years traveling the world and spending time with indigenous people, focusing her work specifically on pregnancy and birth.
Currently based Sydney, Australia, Ally shared her adventures with Babble, explaining that she set out to explore the world as a curious young woman determined to “go places.” With the support of her parents, Ally set out as a teenager traveling solo. First, she headed to Papua New Guinea, where she lived for four months with tribes deep in the jungle. She then crossed the Sepik River on a canoe, where she was initiated into one of the tribes.
“[That] experience which changed my life forever, and led me on the way through a two-decade long [journey] for who I am today,” Ally says.
In 2011, Ally was inspired to launch the Wild Born Project, a long-term project based on her decades of work that interweaves photography, ethnography, and the stories of indigenous people. She has documented the project through her Instagram account, highlighting the hidden ways of women, pregnancy, and birth from around the world.
Ally explains that throughout her travels she was struck by the central role storytelling plays in tribal communities, as stories are passed down from generation to generation, interweaving community, identity, and pride.
“Many tribal communities live close to nature and connect through storytelling, stories that are woven around a whole web of cultural beliefs,” Ally notes. “These stories are important. But they’re slowly being lost.”
The explorer adds that she is particularly inspired by the women she has met. The Wild Born Project celebrates women and cultural diversity, with special focus on the resilience, roles, and power of indigenous women and girls from around the world. Over the past five years, Ally has focused on the rituals and initiations surrounding transformations into womanhood, birth preparations, and postpartum traditions. For example, she discovered how some cultures honor and celebrate a girl’s first menstruation. The Himba tribes of Namibia celebrate with a week of dancing, singing, and gifts, culminating in the girl being crowned as a queen.
Since starting the project, she has worked with more than 10 different tribes from around the world, including Himba women in Namibia, Meakambut and Kosua communities in Papua New Guinea, Taut Batu communities in Palawan, Philippines, Changpa nomadic communities in India, and the Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia.
Ally calls her with journey with a small group of Nenets herders in the Arctic Circle her “most ambitious” trip yet, as they completed their annual 1,000 kilometer migration with reindeer-pulled wooden sledges.
In the frigid environment where temperatures plummet to -60 degrees Celsius, Ally focused on documenting the entire process of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care in one of the most hostile climates on Earth.
Ally documented the journey of the Nenets people as they migrated across the Yamal Peninsula, sharing how women give birth and care for newborns, along with their other children, in conditions most of us can’t even imagine. The women accomplish the precarious balancing act of surviving and continuing the next generation with careful planning.
For example, both the men and women try to plan a woman’s due date for the more favorable seasons of autumn and winter, when night shifts with the herds aren’t necessary and the ground is still frozen to allow for easier migration. Giving birth during the migration season also allows the tribes easier access to hospitals if the women choose a hospital birth or there is a complication.
The women also craft special hand-stitched cradles for their newborns that are designed with four hooks that hang on the chum’s (the Nenets’ tipi-like home) poles and swing. Three belts attach to the cradle to keep it in place during migration and allow the mother to position the cradle near her for breastfeeding.
All the data Ally has collected during her time with the Nenets people, including oral histories, myths, taboos, ceremonies, sayings, songs, ritual chants, will be provided to local Nenets cultural heritage organizations and complied in a book entitled Women at the End of the Land, created in collaboration with writer Kim Frank.
Through her travels, Ally notes that her eyes have been opened as to how other cultures don’t treat pregnancy and childbirth as a medical condition, the way Western citizens do. Soon, the adventurous photographer will have an opportunity to experience everything she has learned about childbirth for herself when she welcomes her own baby, due in three months.
After embarking on what may be her best adventure yet, Ally and her husband, expedition leader Erez Beatus, look forward to traveling across Africa for six months with their baby while working on their next book and expanding the Wild Born Project into a nonprofit organization.
The nonprofit will invite midwives, doulas, students, and women to take part in projects focused on documenting and revitalizing the traditional knowledge of indigenous women, building birthing stations, empowering local women and girls, and exchanging knowledge with traditional midwives.
Ally continues her work because she believes that the Wild Born Project is different than any other exploration of tribal women, as it places the wisdom of women, along with their traditions, customs, and rituals, front and center. And the world is in desperate need of their stories.
“It’s important to capture that wisdom, perhaps now more than ever,” she says.
We couldn’t agree more.