"Tired of weeping" : child death and mourning among Papel mothers in Guinea-Bissau
Abstract: The study examines the assumption that mothers in poverty stricken areas with high rates of fertility and child mortality will, as a survival strategy, neglect their children, sometimes with a fatal outcome and then fail to mourn their death. The thesis is based on anthropological fieldwork conducted in 1993-98 among the Papel people in Guinea-Bissau, West-Africa. Participant observation, interviewing and surveys were the main methods used. The study emphasises the agency and voices of individual Papel mothers, and their varied experiences, practices and opinions. At the same time it seeks to illuminate women's common patterns of thinking and acting but also the constraints and structures that curtail their choices. The Papel women's situation as wives in a polygamous society is explored as well as their motives for becoming mothers. Birth and breastfeeding practices are examined in the light of maternal bonding theory. The thesis further explores the following questions: Are conceptions of children reflected in childcare practices? Does the way mothers interpret disease and death, and their ideas about afterlife, influence their patterns of healthcare seeking and mourning? What are the local ideas about deviant or disabled children and how are they treated?The conclusion of the study is that Papel mothers do not neglect their children in terms of daily care or during illness. Nor do mothers fail to mourn children who die, irrespective of whether they are normal children, favourite children or children suspected to be spirit children, without a human soul. However, mother love is not unilaterally self-sacrificing and unconditional. Mothers emphasise their suffering because they give birth to children, but they expect to become rewarded for their suffering in social, economic and emotional terms. The thesis argues that poverty and high rates of child mortality do not necessarily produce neglectful and non-remorseful mothers. Religion, kinship, and economy shape gender relations and cultural values attributed to reproduction and motherhood, which in turn influence maternal sentiments and practice. Among the Papel, the system of matrilineal descent gives mothers, together with their lineage members, a central role in seeking healthcare for children, whatever the category. Poverty and high expectancy of child mortality contribute to maternal anguish and distress in relation to child delivery, diseases and death, not indifference.
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