Wisconsin University Press, 2004
Reviewed by Jamila Bargach, National School of Architecture, Morocco
Despite the sad nature of the main topic of Tired of Weeping, this is ultimately an ethnography that celebrates the redemptive nature of love, and more specifically maternal love. Jónína Einarsdóttir’s ethnography of the Papal people in the Biambo region of Guinea-Bissau is woven around the main theme of child death and the mothers’ responses to this loss. Einarsdóttir refutes the thesis of maternal neglect, an indifference and lack of grieving over a high infant mortality that is endemic to situations of extreme poverty and destitution. Einarsdóttir argues that despite high infant mortality, poverty and limited health resources, Papal mothers are always saddened by the loss of an infant and grieve the loss for years. This argument is drawn from a very rich and detailed cartography of the world of the mothers, of motherhood, of procreation and the attachment of these mothers to their infants.
More specifically, the ethnography explores five issues that build toward the thesis of maternal sadness in the case of loss. The first is marriage relations which are, according to Einarsdóttir’s informants, absolutely necessary within this culture if one is to be considered a ‘full person’. Marriage and procreation are therefore of primary importance in the understanding not only of the self, but also of the very make-up of the culture itself. The second issue involves ‘burdens of birth’ and looks into the preparation for birth and the birth processes the mothers go through. This chapter reveals the extraordinarily rich world mothers build for themselves in their eagerness for children despite their poverty.
In the following chapter, ‘Conceptualization of Children,’ Einarsdóttir presents Papal beliefs surrounding the concepts of child and infant. The fact that the Papal people believe that there is reincarnation of the soul and that an infant born is already a human being also provides support for her thesis of unconditional mothers’ love despite adversity or utter poverty. In “Disease and Death” the grieving of mothers and their deep distress at the sickness or death of their child (even at those labeled the “worst bets” i.e. with much less chances of survival) are examined in even more profound ways. The last chapter explores the very intriguing concept of the iran children, children believed by the Papal to be non-human and thus dangerous for the community. Einarsdóttir tracks a number of cases believed to be iran who are still cared for, and even mourned in case of their death (or killing), despite the significant danger they are believed to represent in the Papal belief-system.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death without Weeping is very much present in this ethnography. Einarsdóttir uses, quotes, and often criticizes Scheper-Hughes’ conclusions. While comparative notes, comments and studies are always helpful in understanding, among other things, the importance of the different local contexts, the repeated comparison in Tired of Weeping is often strained and uninformative. Guinea-Bissau and Brazil present very different social contexts and cultural imaginaries. While Scheper-Hughes goes to great depth analyzing the debilitating effects of poverty, the erosions it entails, the historical specificity (from utopian socialism to liberation theology) that went into fighting poverty in Brazil, she does not automatically make a sweeping claim as to the universality of her findings. Scheper-Hughes is very careful not to romanticize poverty nor deny agency to the poor.
Einarsdóttir calls attention to the many similarities between the two contexts, including a high birth rate and a high rate of infant mortality but these two variables are not structurally and theoretically sufficient to argue for comparable grounds. I think that the strength of this book is also paradoxically its weakness. It has wonderful details about a contained world, its rules, its imaginings, and the underpinning of the types of relations between its individual members, but we don’t know really what lies outside of this belief system and how it interacts with the changing world. The depiction of this community is done in classical terms: a discreet unit with few occasional presentations of a trip to Bissau or to the city. To what extent is the culture of procreation, rearing and parenting in touch with the ‘modern’ world? How has it been affected? Can the decrease of the phenomenon of iran children be the outcome of a less traditional and coercive belief-system? These are some of the questions that Einarsdóttir has not tackled or sufficiently analyzed in her ethnography. A case in point is the extremely paternalistic and even disrespectful attitude of the nuns towards the Papal mothers. At times we are too much inside an idealization of the culture and how the culture is supposed to work, but not necessarily how it does work.
However, this book nicely frames the notion of ‘maternal thinking’ while refuting the thesis of maternal neglect. The ethnography is built entirely around the relation that exists between the mother and child. The rejection of passive infanticide based on the empirical data gathered at the specific site is also informative. One leaves this book with a sense that in Guinea-Bissau there is great value of life and love of new life in the form of many children, a dedication to children despite adversity and poverty, and bereavement and sadness with the loss of a child. But we are also left with a looming question: what has happened since the war in Guinea-Bissau? If the value put on life is so essential, in what ways has it fared under the difficult circumstances of war? This of course is a question that Jónína Einarsdóttir cannot answer given that she did field-work prior to war. However, I am left wishing I could know more.
Despite these little limitations, this ethnography remains for me an ode to love. This could be an excellent selection for gender classes (the discussion of polygyny is most informative in this case, in that it is constructed by women primarily as a system of support and solidarity) and for anthropology classes (particularly the discussion of the iran children, who are non-persons, an anomie in the Durkheimian sense). It is an easy read with informative notes and bibliography.
Jamila Bargach is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Sociology at the National School of Architecture in Morocco.