Local midwives and traditional heal ers praying women as they are called advise

Local midwives and traditional heal ers praying women

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Local midwives and traditional heal- ers, praying women, as they are called, advise Alto women on when to allow a baby to die. One midwife explained: “If I can see that a baby was born unfortu- itously, I tell the mother that she need not wash the infant or give it a cleansing tea. I tell her just to dust the infant with baby powder and wait for it to die.” Allowing nature to take its course is not seen as sinful by these often very devout Catho- lic women. Rather, it is understood as co- operating with God’s plan. Often I have been asked how con- sciously women of the Alto behave in this regard. I would have to say that con- sciousness is always shifting between allowed and disallowed levels of aware- ness. For example, I was awakened early one morning in 1987 by two neighborhood children who had been sent to fetch me to a hastily organized wake for a two-month-old infant whose mother I had unsuccessfully urged to breast-feed. The infant was being sus- tained on sugar water, which the mother referred to as soro (serum), using a med- ical term for the infant’s starvation re- gime in light of his chronic diarrhea. I had cautioned the mother that an infant could not live on soro forever. The two girls urged me to console the young mother by telling her that it 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 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 tears are shed, and the neighborhood children form a tiny procession, carrying the baby to the town graveyard where it will join a multitude of others. Although a few fresh flowers may be scattered over the tiny grave, no stone or wooden cross will mark the place, and the same spot will be reused within a few months’ time. The mother will never visit the grave, which soon becomes an anonymous one. What, then, can be said of these women? What emotions, what senti- ments motivate them? How are they able to do what, in fact, must be done? What does mother love mean in this inhospita- ble context? Are grief, mourning, and melancholia present, although deeply re- pressed? If so, where shall we look for them? And if not, how are we to under- stand the moral visions and moral sensi- bilities that guide their actions? I have been criticized more than once for presenting an unflattering portrait of poor Brazilian women, women who are, after all, themselves the victims of severe social and institutional neglect. I have described these women as allowing 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 empha-
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