The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa

The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa

by Alma Gottlieb
The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa


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The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa by Alma Gottlieb

When a new baby arrives among the Beng people of West Africa, they see it not as being born, but as being reincarnated after a rich life in a previous world. Far from being a tabula rasa, a Beng infant is thought to begin its life filled with spiritual knowledge. How do these beliefs affect the way the Beng rear their children?

In this unique and engaging ethnography of babies, Alma Gottlieb explores how religious ideology affects every aspect of Beng childrearing practices—from bathing infants to protecting them from disease to teaching them how to crawl and walk—and how widespread poverty limits these practices. A mother of two, Gottlieb includes moving discussions of how her experiences among the Beng changed the way she saw her own parenting. Throughout the book she also draws telling comparisons between Beng and Euro-American parenting, bringing home just how deeply culture matters to the way we all rear our children.

All parents and anyone interested in the place of culture in the lives of infants, and vice versa, will enjoy The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.

"This wonderfully reflective text should provide the impetus for formulating research possibilities about infancy and toddlerhood for this century." — Caren J. Frost, Medical Anthropology Quarterly
“Alma Gottlieb’s careful and thought-provoking account of infancy sheds spectacular light upon a much neglected topic. . . . [It] makes a strong case for the central place of babies in anthropological accounts of religion.  Gottlieb’s remarkably rich account, delivered after a long and reflective period of gestation, deserves a wide audience across a range of disciplines.”—Anthony Simpson, Critique of Anthropology

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226305011
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/28/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 427
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alma Gottlieb, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the author of Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought and coauthor of Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa, both published by the University of Chicago Press. She is also the coeditor, most recently, of A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies.

Read an Excerpt

The Afterlife Is Where We Come from

By Alma Gottlieb

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 Alma Gottlieb
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226305015

Chapter One

Working with Infants

The Anthropologist as Fieldworker, the Anthropologist as Mother

There is no seeing from "nowhere in particular."... The agent of scholarship is a living person, not just a mind.... There is no way of understanding people except through one's own experience and power of imagination. -Kirsten Hastrup, "Anthropological Knowledge Incorporated"

Where should I best start a discussion of my fieldwork about, and with, Beng infants? Should it be by recounting the pleasures of my friendship with the delightful Sassandra, who was still nursing eagerly from his mother's breast when we began our relationship and was not quite nine months old when, to my great regret, I had to interrupt our camaraderie to return to another life? Or should I begin with tragedy, perhaps with the story of how I watched, and on occasion held, a dying Beng newborn as he stiffened his limbs and sharpened his screams with growing hysteria as tetanus overtook his tiny body? It would be humbling to inaugurate my discussion by relating how I begged the mother of a baby I was sure had meningitis to take the sick child down to the hospital, only to discover a few days later that the baby had recovered nicely with a treatment of far less costly herbal medicines acquired locally. Or should I begin more conventionally with the stories of the mothers of these babies, mothers who often confided their hopes and fears to me, a sometime stranger, sometime friend, sometime nurse, sometime baby-sitter, and always meddler? Perhaps I should choose the even more commonplace strategy of opening my tale by telling about training one of my research assistants to note each activity of a given baby as he followed a series of infants through their daily lives.

Every one of these constituted an important component of my experiences in the summer of 1993, when I devoted this segment of my ongoing work among the Beng community of Cote d'Ivoire, which began in 1979, to an intensive study of the lives of their babies. But none of them stands out as the single most important experience or definitive method. Most ethnographic fieldwork involves a multilayered tool kit and, equally importantly, a multilayered engagement with the emotions and textures of daily social encounters. This is perhaps even truer of work with infants because of the wiggly, unpredictable, and emotionally intense nature of the subjects. Our tiny informants have dramatic needs of their own; how we relate to them depends to a great extent on their momentary requirements. Holding them, treating their illnesses, listening to their babble and endeavoring to respond appropriately, playing with them, measuring their achievements, keeping track of their movements and moods, talking about them with those who know them best-all these can, and should, figure into how we approach infants' lives in a given hour. My approach to fieldwork with Beng babies was intentionally an intellectual and methodological grab bag. But the choices I made concerning how to pull together my particular grab bag began far earlier than the field experience itself.

In recent years, we have seen an epistemologically complex turn toward exploring various intersections between the personal and the professional. Beginning with a growing corpus of memoirs of the field experience, of which my own coauthored volume is but one of many, this trend permits us to recognize and try to account for the inextricable ways in which our so-called private lives conspire to shape our scholarly decisions and agendas-including the topics we choose to pursue, the field sites in which we come to feel at home, even the theoretical orientations we embrace. In keeping with this scholarly move toward disclosure rather than concealment of how the work and nonwork aspects of our lives are mutually implicated-a move I heartily endorse-let me now acknowledge: I came to Beng babies through my own. Given the theoretical rationale for identifying such connections and the fact that so few anthropologists choose to focus their intellectual energies on infants, I start with a bit of autobiography so as to situate the current study of Beng babies in an ongoing life and career. Then I move on to enumerate my field methods.

The Anthropologist as Mother

As is the case with the vast majority of work in cultural anthropology, my previous field research among the Beng (conducted in 1979-1980 and 1985) overwhelmingly concerned the lives of adults (e.g., Gottlieb 1996b; Gottlieb and Graham 1994). Then, not long after my second field stay, I became a mother. The event changed my life-not just my family life but also my career. Being pregnant, undergoing childbirth, and embarking on the awesome project of raising a child raised for me countless questions, practical and emotional to be sure, but also intellectual. Entering this new stage of my own life cycle bestowed on me a double gift. Most important, of course, was the gift of a child. But along with that came a second gift, the gift of becoming an anthropologist of motherhood-and more generally, an anthropologist of parenthood, of caretaking, and of the object of all that affection and work, children themselves.

From the beginning, my first pregnancy and delivery were shaped decisively by what I had observed in Beng villages. Without romanticizing our Beng hosts, without ignoring the extraordinary hardships attendant on their grinding poverty, I still felt I had much to learn from many of their practices and the intellectual premises behind them. Having observed a regime of reproduction limned by contours radically different from those that surrounded me in the United States, it was easy to see the pregnancy and birthing practices of my countrymates as peculiar at best, and in some cases troubling.

For instance, while I was pregnant I became increasingly disturbed that in my native country adults, especially those who are not parents of young children, simply don't see children very often. I came to realize that although we lack the formal age grades for which many East African societies are known, American society segregates people by age quite systematically. Children typically inhabit different social spaces from those populated by adults. Moreover, youth are separated from each other by increments of merely a year beginning as early as one or two years old, when they start at day care.

While pregnant, I began to notice small people in public places where I had previously overlooked them: restaurants, malls, waiting rooms. But their new visibility only confirmed what I'd already observed after our first return from Cote d'Ivoire: that even when older people and children occupy the same spaces in the United States, they rarely intermix. Instead, parents spend much public time disciplining their young sons and daughters to conform to adults' rules of politeness so they will be less conspicuous and will conform to the old Puritan adage, Children should be seen and not heard. "Don't shout!" "Don't run!" "Sit up straight!" were incantations I now heard regularly from exasperated mothers and fathers in civic spaces clearly never intended to accommodate the explosive energies and imaginations of children. Why were there no indoor playgrounds in shopping centers, post offices, airports, office buildings? I wondered. Why were children almost never invited to the workplace or to the adult parties we attended, whether gatherings with academic colleagues, artists' get-togethers, or fund-raising soirees for our favorite political candidates?

Pondering my upcoming delivery, I turned to my field notes. In Bengland I had encountered a set of childbirth practices that emphasized personal rather than technological connections. My experiences attending and participating in Beng women's births constituted a reference point that shaped my subsequent consciousness of the event. With access to this alternative system of authoritative knowledge, as Brigitte Jordan (1997) would call it, the anthropologist in me was preshaping my perceptions of the moment when my own motherhood would come into being in a tangible way.

Having encountered home as the normal locale of birth in rural West Africa, I was tempted to follow the model of Beng village women and give birth to my child in my own house, and the more I considered the anthropological documentation of childbirth in other places, the more I thought there was much to recommend a home birth. I'd feel at ease in our bedroom and could assume any delivery position I found comfortable-maybe lean back into the comforting arms of a birthing companion as I'd seen my laboring Beng friend Amenan do. And I could avoid all those machines that measure a laboring woman's bodily events while ignoring her state of mind and heart (Davis-Floyd 1992; Jordan 1993). In short, I could relocate birth from a technological event defined by sickness and danger to an intensely emotional experience that might encompass anything from terror to joy.

Still, I was haunted by the story of my Beng friend Kouakou Nguessan. One day her husband came to fetch me while I was working in another village, imploring me to return immediately to drive Nguessan to the dispensary in town, almost an hour away, because she was having difficulty in her labor. Of course I agreed, and soon my husband, Philip, and I found ourselves racing down the gravelly road, Nguessan screaming her agony in the back seat. Perhaps the bumps in the road helped advance the baby down the birth canal, or perhaps the massaging that the midwife's assistant and I administered to Nguessan proved definitive. In any case, Nguessan delivered her baby soon after settling into the hospital bed. But the tiny infant emerged green and was not breathing. Only extraordinary efforts by the midwife's assistant revived the newborn.

At the time, I felt blessed to have been able to help in this event. But a few years later, Philip and I were devastated to learn that the little girl born after that fateful ride, frail ever since her traumatic birth, had died. Later, Nguessan herself, having no access to medical screening or transportation to town, died in another difficult labor.

Nguessan's tragedy warned me not to trivialize the dangers of childbirth. After reading up on further legal and practical complications of home births in the United States and the risks involved in transporting a laboring woman in distress to a hospital, Philip and I reluctantly decided to give birth in a hospital, while forging a commitment to recast the hospital's vision of birth to our own. Having seen a very different system of birth in action in Bengland, we no longer accepted our culture's constructed knowledge as having a unique claim to authority. We hoped to convince the medical system operating in our local hospital to accommodate our model of birth.

When my labor began and I paced through our house and moaned loudly as the contractions intensified, I thought of my laboring Beng friend Amenan. Sitting on her dirt floor, leaning back slightly against her mother, legs outstretched, forehead sweating, she had said calmly to me in her fine French, "Je souffre un peu"-I'm suffering a little. Her stoicism shamed me. I thought too of Nguessan suffering in her bedroom; then of my friend Amenan's mother getting stuck in her labor for several hours before her sorcerer cousin, who had been bewitching her, was finally killed by a falling tree sent by an avenging Earth; then of Amenan herself almost dying during her delivery of her son Kouadio; and finally of Nguessan succumbing during her next delivery. Had my Beng friends ever lost hope, imagining they might never emerge from their ordeal? Or were they always confident that their bodies would cooperate, that the witches could be kept at bay, that a healthy baby would eventually be born?

The theme of my hospital stay became polite but firm rejection: No, I didn't want to be hooked up to machines, or take painkillers, or lie down in bed. My most serious resistance occurred when it was time to prepare for the delivery. The head nurse was adamant about resituating me in bed, but my midwife convinced another nurse to permit me to use the wooden birthing stool we had brought along. The head nurse panicked: it seemed the baby would be born onto the carpet, and what about all the germs? The idea was intolerable. I was too distracted to mention that during my Beng friend Amenan's delivery, not only was the baby born onto the floor, but it was a dirt floor at that.

After the birth, I craved company. Some of my friends called and said they would visit the next day or once we left the hospital or once we had "settled in." Depressed by these delayed offers, I thought back to my friend Amenan's birth. Only minutes after her tiny daughter had emerged into the world, Amenan was greeted by a line of dozens of villagers coming to congratulate her and give her small change as thanks for putting another child into the world (see chapter 6).

By contrast, on the assumption that fatal germs might threaten a new baby's life, my hospital displayed a sign that read "No Visitors while Baby in the Room." We had to make a choice: either we banish our child to the nursery or we quarantine ourselves from our close friends. After living among the Beng, I found this choice unacceptable. I had seen too many newborns, only minutes old, being passed from person to person to believe that healthy babies being held by healthy adults are endangered. We subverted the rule, finding hours when the nurses were too busy to notice our friends sneaking past the desk and creeping down the hall to our room.

Those who were already parents I bombarded with questions. In some I sensed impatience: surely my "mother's intuition" should tell me what to do when my new baby cried. But I had lived in Africa long enough to be convinced that even this sort of "common sense" is culturally constructed (Geertz 1983). The hundreds of parenting books lining bookstore shelves all seemed to dispense advice that was shaped by a cultural, not natural, script. No, I did not put much stock in intuition when it came to raising our new child. Culture seemed to get in the way too much.

Our new son, Nathaniel, cried a lot. None of the advice offered by well-meaning nurses, doctors, friends, or neighbors helped. Struggling to manage the seemingly endless cascade of Nathaniel's tears, Philip and I cast about in our memories of Beng villages, crowded as they are with infants and young children.



Excerpted from The Afterlife Is Where We Come from by Alma Gottlieb Copyright © 2004 by Alma Gottlieb.
Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Pronunciation
Part One: Studying Babies, Studying the Beng
1. Working with Infants: The Anthropologist as Fieldworker, the Anthropologist as Mother
2. Do Babies Have Culture? Explorations in the Anthropology of Infancy
3. The Beng World
Part Two: Days in the Lives of Beng Babies
4. Spiritual Beng Babies: Reflections on Cowry Shells, Coins, and Colic
5. Soiled Beng Babies: Morning Bath, Evening Bath, and Cosmic Dirt
6. Sociable Beng Babies: Mothers, Other Caretakers, and "Strangers" in a Moral Universe
7. Sleepy Beng Babies: Short Naps, Bumpy Naps, Nursing Nights
8. Hungry Beng Babies: Breast Water /Ordinary Water/Sacred Water and the Desire to Breast-feed
9. Developing Beng Babies: Speaking, Teething, Crawling, and Walking on (a Beng) Schedule
10. Sick Beng Babies: Spirits, Witches, and Poverty
11. From Wrugbe to Poverty: Situating Beng Babies in the World at Large

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