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ScheperHughes - Nancy Scheper-Hughes Kinship systems are...

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Unformatted text preview: Nancy Scheper-Hughes Kinship systems are based on marriage and birth. Both, anthropologists as- sume, create ties that can link kin into close, cooperative, enduring struc- tures. What happens to such ties, however, in the face of severe hardship imposed by grinding poverty and urban migration? Can we continue to as- sume, for example, that there will be a close bond between mother and child? This is the question pursued by Nancy Scheper—Hughes in the following ar- ticle about the mother—infant relationship among poor women in a Brazil- ian shantytown. The author became interested in the question following a “baby die-off” in the town ofBom Jesus in 1965. She noticed that mothers seemed to take these events casually. After twenty—five years of research in the Alto do Cruzeiro shantytown there, she has come to see such indifi‘erence as a cultural response to high rates of infant death due to poverty and malnu- trition. Mothers, and surrounding social institutions such as the Catholic church, expect babies to die easily. Mothers concentrate their support on ba- bies who are “fighters" and let themselves grow attached to their children only Reprinted from Natural History, October 1989; copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 1989. 45 46 5 I Birth and Death Cattle they kill To the people they do something worse ~Anonymous Brazilian singer (1965) summer of 1965, the rusty, clangi over the market appropriate" grief, and the day came when she removed Joana' fully packed it away. Mother’s Love: Death without Weeping 47 attention in the 19605. My involvement with the people of the Alto do Cruzeiro now spans a quarter of a century and three generations of parenting in a com~ munity where mothers and daughters are often simultaneously pregnant. The Alto do Cruzeiro is one of three shantytowns surrounding the large market town of Born Jesus in the sugar plantation zone of Pernambuco in Northeast Brazil, one of the many zones of neglect that have emerged in the shadow of the now tarnished economic miracle of Brazil. For the women and children of the Alto do Cruzeiro the only miracle is that some of them have man- aged to stay alive at all. appallingly high rate of infant and child mortality. Approximately one million children in Brazil under the age of five die each year. The children of the North- east, especially those born in shantytowns on the periphery of urban life, are at a very high risk of death. In these areas, Children are born without the tradi- tional protection of breast-feeding, subsistence gardens, stable marriages, and multiple adult caretakers that exists in the interior. In the hillside shantytowns that spring up around cities or, in this case, interior market towns, marriages are brittle, single parenting is the norm, and women are frequently forced into the shadow economy of domestic work in the homes of the rich or into unpro- tected and oftentimes “scab” wage labor on the surrounding sugar plantations, where they clear land for planting and weed for a pittance, sometimes less than a dollar a day. The women of the Alto may not bring their babies with them into the homes of the wealthy, where the often-sick infants are considered sources of contamination, and they cannot carry the little ones to the riverbanks where they wash clothes because the river is heavily infested with schistosomes and other deadly parasites. Nor can they carry their young children to the planta— tions, which are often several miles away. At wages of a dollar a day, the women in school is also expected to find wage work. In most cases, babies are simply left at home alone, the door securely fastened. And so many also die alone and unattended. sequently, Bom Jesus has been a magnet for rural workers forced off their small subsistence plots by large landowners wanting to use every available piece of land for sugar cultivation. Initially, the rural migrants to Bom Jesus were squat- ters who were given tacit approval by the mayor to put up temporary straw huts 48 5 I Birth and Death on each of the three hills overlooking the town. The Alto do Cruzeiro is the old- est, the largest, and the poorest of the shantytowns. Over the past three decades many of the original migrants have become permanent residents, and the-prim— itive and temporary straw huts have been replaced by small homes (usually of two rooms) made of wattle and daub, sometimes covered with plaster. The more affluent residents use bricks and tiles. In most Alto homes, dangerous kerosene lamps have been replaced by light bulbs. The once tattered rural garb, often fashioned from used sugar sacking, has likewise been replaced by store-bought clothes, often castoffs from a wealthy patrdo (boss). The trappings are modern, but the hunger, sickness, and death that they conceal are traditional, deeply rooted in a history of feudalism, exploitation, and institutionalized dependency. My research agenda never wavered. The questions I addressed first crys- tallized during a veritable "die-off” of Alto babies during a severe drought in 1965. The food and water shortages and the political and economic chaos 0c- casioned by the military coup were reflected in the handwritten entries of births and deaths in the dusty, yellowed pages of the ledger books kept at the public registry office in Bom Jesus. More than 350 babies died in the Alto during 1965 alone—this from a shantytown population of little more than 5,000. But that wasn’t what surprised me. There were reasons enough for the deaths in the mis- erable conditions of shantytown life. What puzzled me was the seeming indif- ference of Alto women to the death of their infants, and their willingness to attribute to their own tiny offspring an aversion to life that made their death seem wholly natural, indeed all but anticipated. ' Although I found that it was possible, and hardly difficult, to rescue in- fants and toddlers from death by diarrhea and dehydration with a simple sugar, salt, and water solution (even bottled Coca-Cola worked fine), it was more dif— ficult to enlist a mother herself in the rescue of a child she perceived as ill-fated for life or better off dead, or to convince her to take back into her threatened and besieged home a baby she had already come to think of as an angel rather than as a son or daughter. ‘ I learned that the high expectancy of death, and the ability to face child death with stoicism and equanimity, produced patterns of nurturing that dif- ferentiated between those infants thought of as thrivers and survivors and those thought of as born already “wanting to die.” The survivors were nurtured, while stigmatized, doomed infants were left to die, as mothers say, a mingua, “of ne- glect." Mothers stepped back and allowed nature to take its course. This pat— tern, which I call mortal selective neglect, is called passive infanticide by anthropologist Marvin Harris. The Alto situation, although culturally specific in the form that it takes, is not unique to Third World shantytown communities and may have its correlates in our own impoverished urban communities in some cases of “failure to thrive” infants. I use as an example the story of Zezinho, the thirteen-month—old toddler of one of my neighbors, Lourdes. I became involved with Zezinho when I was called in to help Lourdes in the delivery of another child, this one a fair and ro- bust little tyke with a lusty cry. I noted that while Lourdes showed great inter- Mother’s Love: Death without Weeping 49 est in the newborn, she totally ignored Zezinho who, wasted and severely mal- nourished, was curled up in a fetal position on a piece of urine— and feces- soaked cardboard placed under his mother’s hammock. Eyes open and vacant, mouth slack, the little boy seemed doomed. When I carried Zezinho up to the community day-care center at the top of the hill, the Alto women who took turns caring for one another’s children (in order to free themselves for part-time work in the cane fields or washing clothes) laughed at my efforts to save Ze, agreeing with Lourdes that here was a baby without a ghost of a chance. Leave him alone, they cautioned. It makes no sense to fight with death. But I did do battle with Ze, and after several weeks of force- feeding (malnourished babies lose their interest in food), Ze began to succumb to my ministrations. He acquired some flesh across his taut chest bones, learned to sit up, and even tried to smile. When he seemed well enough, I returned him to Lourdes in her miserable scrap-material lean-to, but not without guilt about what I had done. I wondered whether returning Ze was at all fair to Lourdes and to his little brother. But I was busy and washed my hands of the matter. And Lourdes did seem more interested in Ze now that he was looking more human. When I returned in 1982, there was Lourdes among the women who formed my sample of Alto mothers—still struggling to put together some sem- blance of life for a now grown Ze and her five other surviving children. Much was made of my reunion with Ze in 1982, and everyone enjoyed retelling the story of Ze’s rescue and of how his mother had given him up for dead. Ze would laugh the loudest when told how I had had to force-feed him like a fiesta turkey. There was no hint of guilt on the part of Lourdes and no resentment on the part of Ze. In fact, when questioned in private as to who was the best friend he ever had in life, Ze took a long drag on his cigarette and answered without a trace of irony, “Why my mother, of course!” “But of course,” I replied. Part of learning how to mother in the Alto do Cruzeiro is learning when to let go of a child who shows that it "wants” to die or that it has no “knack" or no “taste" for life. Another part is learning when it is safe to let oneself love a child. Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of maternal thinking and prac- tice. In the absence of firm expectation that a child will survive, mother love as we conceptualize it (whether in popular terms or in the psychobiological no- tion of maternal bonding) is attenuated and delayed with consequences for in- fant survival. In an environment already precarious to young life, the emotional detachment of mothers toward some of their babies contributes even further to the spiral of high mortality—high fertility in a kind of macabre lock-step dance of death. The average woman of the Alto experiences 9.5 pregnancies, 3.5 child deaths, and 1.5 stillbirths. Seventy percent of all child deaths in the Alto occur in the first six months of life, and 82 percent by the end of the first year. Of all deaths in the community each year, about 45 percent are of children under the age of five. Women of the Alto distinguish between child deaths understood as nat- ural (caused by diarrhea and communicable diseases) and those resulting from 50 5 I Birth and Death was "too bad" that her infant was so weak that Jesus had to take him. They were coaching me in proper Alto etiquette. I agreed, of course, but asked, “And what do you think?" Xoxa, the eleven-year-old, looked down at her dusty flip-flops and blurted out, “Oh, Dona Nanci, that baby never got enough to eat, but you Mother's Love: Death without Weeping 5 I must never say that!" And so the death of hungry babies remains one of the best kept secrets of life in Bom Jesus da Mata. Most Victims are waked quickly and with a minimum of ceremony. No What, then, can be said of these women? What emotions, what sentiments motivate them? How are they able to do what, in fact, must be done? What does mother love mean in this inhospitable context? Are grief, mourning, and melan- cholia present, although deeply repressed? If so, where shall we look for them? And if not, how are we to understand the moral visions and moral sensibilities that guide their actions? trait of poor Brazilian women, women who are, after all, themselves the victims of severe social and institutional neglect. I have described these women as al- lowing some of their children to die, as if this were an unnatural and inhuman act rather than, as I would assert, the way any one of us might act, reasonably and rationally, under similarly desperate conditions. Perhaps I have not em- phasized enough the real pathogens in this environment of high risk: poverty, survival, as well as to their own well-being. Under circumstances of high child- hood mortality, patterns of selective neglect and passive infanticide may be seen as active survival strategies. They also seem to be fairly common practices historically and across cul- tures. In societies characterized by high childhood mortality and by a corre- spondingly high (replacement) fertility, cultural practices of infant and child care tend to be organized primarily around survival goals. But what this means is a pragmatic recognition that not all of one’s children can be expected to live. The nervousness about child survival in areas of northeast Brazil, northern India, or Bangladesh, where a 30 percent or 40 percent mortality rate in the first 52 5 l Birth and Death give tranquilizers and sleeping pills to quiet the hun- Alto babies. Mother's Love: Death without Weeping 55 saint had claimed the child. The infant would be an angel in the service of his or her heavenly patron. It would be wrong, a sign of a lack of faith, to weep for a child with such good fortune. The infant funeral was, in the past, an event cel- ebrated with joy. Today, however, under the new regime of “liberation theology," the bells of NS. das Dores parish church no longer peal for the death of Alto babies, and no priest accompanies the procession of angels to the cemetery where their bodies are disposed of casually and without ceremony. Children bury children in Bom Jesus da Mata. In this most Catholic of communities, the coffin is handed to the disabled and irritable municipal gravedigger, who often chides the children for one reason or another. It may be that the coffin is larger than expected and the gravedigger can find no appropriate space. The children do not wait for the gravedigger to complete his task. No prayers are recited and no sign of the cross made as the tiny coffin goes into its shallow grave. When I asked the local priest, Padre Marcos, about the lack of church cer- emony surrounding infant and childhood death today in Bom Jesus, he replied: “In the old days, child death was richly celebrated. But those were the baroque customs of a conservative church that wallowed in death and misery. The new church is a church of hope and joy. We no longer celebrate the death of child angels. We try to tell mothers that Jesus doesn‘t want all the dead babies they send him.” Similarly, the new church has changed its baptismal customs, now often refusing to baptize dying babies brought to the back door of a church or rectory. The mothers are scolded by the church attendants and told to go home and take care of their sick babies. Baptism, they are told, is for the living; it is not to be confused with the sacrament of extreme unction, which is the anoint- ing of the dying. And so it appears to the women of the Alto that even the church has turned away from them, denying the traditional comfort of folk Catholicism. The contemporary Catholic church is caught in the clutches of a double bind. The new theology of liberation imagines a kingdom of God on earth based on justice and equality, a world without hunger, sickness, or childhood mortal- ity. At the same time, the church has not changed its official position on sexu- ality and reproduction, including its sanctions against birth control, abortion, and sterilization. The padre of Bom Jesus da Mata recognizes this contradic- tion intuitively, although he shies away from discussions on the topic, saying that he prefers to leave questions of family planning to the discretion and the "good consciences" of his impoverished parishioners. But this, of course, side— steps the extent to which those good consciences have been shaped by tradi- tional church teachings in Bom Jesus, especially by his recent predecessors. Hence, we can begin to see that the seeming indifference of Alto mothers to— ward the death of some of their infants is but a pale reflection of the official in- difference of church and state to the plight of poor women and children. Nonetheless, the women of Bom Jesus are survivors. One woman, Biu, told me her life history, returning again and again to the themes of child death, her first husband's suicide, abandonment by her father and later by her second husband, and all the other losses and disappointments she had suffered in her 54 5 I Birth and Death long forty-five years. She concluded with great force, reflecting on the days of Carnaval ’88 that were fast approaching: No, Dona Nanci, I won’t cry, and I won't waste my life thinking about it from morn- ing to night. . . . Can I argue with God for the state that I’m in? No! And so I’ll dance and I’ll jump and I’ll play Carnaval! And yes, I'll laugh and people will wonder at a pobre like me who can have such a good time. sula, her last-born daughter who had died at home of pneumonia during the festivities. The rest of the family barely had time to change out of their cos- tumes. Severino, the child’s uncle and godfather, sprinkled holy water over the little angel while he prayed: “Mercea, I don’t know whether you were called, taken, or thrown out of this world. But look down at us from your heavenly home with tenderness, with pity, and with mercy." So be it. Connection Questions \ 1. Discuss whether low life expectancy in Bom Jesus is a result of indirect in- fanticide. 2. What are the major proximate, intermediate, and ultimate causes of death of the infants in Born Jesus? ...
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