Nancy Scheper-Hughes Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Studying the Human Condition: Habits of a Militant Anthropologist: Conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor of Anthropology, U.C. Berkeley; 12/14/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Anthropological Studies: Infant Mortality in Brazil

Obviously in an hour we can't cover all of the work, and I do want to touch on your work in Brazil, but a common theme in all of this work is looking at the public records, at the statistical information, and then trying to find the story behind it.


And in part doing that by embedding yourself in the community, as you've just described, but also finding the larger story and then confronting these realities that, in part, you find by interviewing and talking to people, and so on?

Right. In Brazil, I guess, I started out with the question of the high incidence of infant mortality. What did that mean for women who had to face four or five, six, in some cases eleven deaths in a row? What did it mean for their understanding of motherhood? What did it mean in terms of their sense of optimism and hope? And what did it mean for the children who lived? How were they raised, given the spaces that they were made to fill of all the children who had died before?

The setting here, we have to emphasize, is the unbelievable deprivation and poverty that they are trying to eke out an existence in.

Right. I returned sixteen years later to the northeast of Brazil and went back to the same squatter camp where I had lived for two years, because I lived in the community in a mud hut, you know, with the people. And began by working with records, you're right. I went to the Cartorio Civil and got the documented number of deaths, and then I would take a selected year and neighborhood and I would talk door to door with informants. And I found that a great deal of child death and infant death was not recorded, that there's at least a 30 percent difference, in some cases even higher than that.

And where it was recorded oftentimes it wouldn't be a very good description.

No, what was recorded would be -- first of all, the statistics were made up by records written by hospital orderlies, not by doctors. Often, there was no physician who would witness a death, or it would be someone from the mayor's office who was giving out pauper coffins, or the mother or the sister or even a little child could go to the Cartorio Civil and register a death. In fact, in a country like Brazil, which of course is a first world/third world mix as the United States is, it's a highly bureaucratic country. It's a place where you need triplicates of everything, to register a car, to expand on a house. And yet for a child's death, anyone can report it. So most of the records were useless, because the cause of death would be left blank or the cause of death would be a folk ailment, or it would be, "heart stopped," "respiration stopped" -- child died because child lived, essentially. It was an utterly naturalized understanding of infant death for that class, for the very poor.

photo caption below: Dalina. And so I decided I would track these deaths. I did it not only through interviews -- of course, I did interviews with a hundred women, close to a hundred women, getting them to tell me the context around each of the deaths of their children and what they thought were the causes of death. But also interviewing children, because children in northeast Brazil are the ones who bury the dead and they're the ones who form the procession. What do they think about death?

Sometimes it meant going to the coffin-maker. The one thing that the municipality of the place I call Bom Jesus did to respond to this problem of terrible infant mortality was to hire a full-time carpenter, and the official carpenter made free baby coffins. So I would interview him on how many coffins he made. How many nails did he need?

"Well, I'm using just cardboard."

"I see, you don't even need nails. You're using paper to line these coffins?"

"Well after all, they're pauper coffins, about fifty cents apiece we spend on them."

And then I say to Moircir [the coffin maker],

"Well, I need to know exactly how many deaths this year have occurred."

"Well, I don't keep records exactly on that; I can tell you something about my materials."

"Well, why don't you keep records?"

"Nobody is interested. Nobody really cares."

So then you begin to uncover, again, that which is normalized, that which is routine. And I see that as a great pathogen, of course, in human life, the accommodation that institutions have, not only individuals themselves, or women or mothers themselves who accepted that a large number of their children would have to die in order to make room for the ones that lived. So I was also interested in the sort of philosophy that underlies dealing with death.

But here you are an activist, a feminist, but also at the same time a scholar and a researcher, and you come in touch with this reality, really learn it in the way you describe, and then you come to a conclusion which was against the grain, so to speak.

Very much.

And what was that?

Well, I concluded -- it was not a surprise to the women themselves, because I went back and gave them copies of the book. They're illiterate, they couldn't read, but I showed them pictures. They knew exactly what I was saying because they said, book cover "That's it. That's what we told you." That is, that they [themselves] contributed to the deaths of their children. That is, they had an understanding that not all children that are conceived are meant to live. They're all meant to be born, so they did not -- these were traditional Catholic women who did not believe in abortion, although some of them practiced abortion. They believed [abortion] was a grave mortal sin. They practiced birth control but mainly after the fact. After they had four or five children living to the age of about eight or nine, they would ask for tubal ligation to sort of end the whole thing. But basically, they said some babies were born as "red babies." Some babies were born as "white babies." Both babies can give you trouble. Some babies are simply difficult to raise, and a mother must be able to identify a child who is only going to give trouble, who is only going to need to be rescued time and time again but will die, will disappoint you in the end. And the white babies are the little, pale babies, anemic babies. They don't cry very loudly. The red babies are babies that have fits, that have high fevers and go into a kind of, what looked to the women like a state of possession. They were quite afraid of some of these babies. photo caption below: Meeting. These convulsions were simply brought on by dehydration and by fevers that were untreated and often did not, from a medical point of view, mean that the child was untreatable. But to the women of the Alto, such babies were untreatable, and you allowed them to die. That was the expression that they used. You "collaborated" with nature. You "helped God" bring them over to the other side.

So what you discovered on the basis of having had a relationship with this community over many years, because you had been there in the sixties, you had gone back several times, and now you were doing this piece of research, was that a culture had evolved that made sense in the context of the harsh realities, the inequalities, the oppression that they were existing in.

Yes. These were women who had gone through a life that was marked by chronic hunger, frequently by shortages in basic -- I mean, you could say starvation at times. They had been abandoned, often, by their own fathers. They had a series of chaotic relationships. Men came and went, babies came and went. You might say the only solid people in the community were women, who said, "We can't move. We don't even have the freedom to die or to run away the way men do. We have to be here for the others." They saw themselves as the rock, you might say, or the foundation of the community. And so it was all right that men circulated. It was even all right that babies be "circulated." But they, at all costs, must live. One woman said to me, "Don't weep for the babies who died. Weep for the mothers who have to live, who don't have the luxury to be able to die young."

And as children survived and they get older, then you see a more typical relationship?


Yes, I guess what I described, which was at variance at that point, considered quite radical; I think today much of what I've said would seem common sense. That is, that motherhood is not a biological, exclusively, phenomenon. As fatherhood is social, so is motherhood. Motherhood entails a choice. One as a woman is, you might say, existentially thrown into the world as a potential mother. But motherhood begins with an acceptance, an enfolding, a willingness to nurture a child. And these women would mother, they would attach, they would bond, but it really began later. It began, more or less, after the first year of life. During that first year of life the child is human, has a soul, it's not a thing, not objectified, not reified, but it's more like a spirit child. It's not clear whether this child isn't going to just fly off into the afterlife, and you look to the signs that let you know that this child is a "visitor," is a household guest. And then they act and behave towards that child accordingly. And some of their behaviors are designed, not perhaps intentionally, but have the effect of bringing on death more quickly. That is, by giving less food and water and, when the child has a convulsion, putting the child in a room, comfortably situated, but saying the child is fighting with death right now, don't interfere. Let it work its way out. So not necessarily intervening strongly to save the child.

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Photo captions

Dalina: Scheper-Hughes with her co-madre, Dona Dalina, a water carrier in the Alto do Cruzeiro. Dalina had seen her siblings, then her own children, grandchildren, and great- grandchildren carried away by hunger and public neglect. 'Don't pity the dead,' she told Scheper-Hughes, 'pity the living who are forced to go on.' Timbaúba, Brazil, 1987."

Meeting: "Scheper-Hughes with activist women of the Alto do Cruzeiro at a liberation theology "base community" meeting. They are 'raising consciousness' (conscientizaão) around the topic of infant and child mortality. 'Is God a cannibal,' asked Dona Rosalva angrily, 'that he wants to 'eat' so many of our children?' Timbaúba, Brazil, 1990."

Lourdes: "Scheper-Hughes with Lourdes, mother of 'Zezinho,' Alto do Cruzeiro, Timbauba, Brazil, 1992; photo by Dan Hoffman. Lourdes abandoned Zezino (not in photo) when he was a sickly toddler and she was barely 15 years old. Rescued by the cooperative day care center that Scheper-Hughes organized with activist women of the shantytown, Zezinho became his mother's favorite child, her 'arms and legs.' When Zezinho was killed as a teenager by a jealous rival, Lourdes could not get over her grief even several years later. Mother love takes many unpredictable turns in situations of extreme poverty."