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Tired of Weeping

Mother Love, Child Death, and Poverty in Guinea-Bissau

Jonina Einarsdottir

Publication Year: 2004

In this comprehensive and provocative study of maternal reactions to child death in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, anthropologist Jónína Einarsdóttir challenges the assumption that mothers in high-poverty societies will neglect their children and fail to mourn their deaths as a survival strategy. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted from 1993 to 1998 among the matrilineal Papel, who reside in the Biombo region, this work includes theoretical discussion of reproductive practices, conceptions of children, childcare customs, interpretations of diseases and death, and infanticide. Einarsdóttir also brings compelling narratives of life experiences and reflections of Papel women.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiii

In this book I examine mother love in a setting characterized by poverty and high child mortality. The work is based on anthropological fieldwork conducted from 1993 to 1998 in the Biombo region in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. Sadly, child death is a common event in Biombo, and about one third of all children born alive are likely to die before they reach the age of five. Most of these deaths are preventable. I have written this book to illuminate...

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pp. 3-26

This book is about Papel mothers’ struggle to keep their children alive and their desperation when they fail. As a resident in the Biombo region in Guinea-Bissau for nearly five years, I could not escape the experience of child death. On the second day of my stay in the village of Quinhamel, Braima’s daughter died. She was one year old and I never got...

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1. Marriage Relations

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pp. 27-59

During my fieldwork I was often confronted with contrasts. Sometimes I experienced the hopelessness and desperation of the mothers. Despite heavy and incessant work they could hardly feed themselves and their children. Their husbands, and men in general, were frequently commented on as ka bali nada (totally worthless). The world of mothers was full of constraints, and adversity marked their lives....

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2. Burdens of Birth

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pp. 60-87

The phrase “burdens of birth,” (kansera di padi), is commonly heard in Biombo. With time, I come to realize that burdens of birth are not restricted to delivery but included other events related to childbearing as well. Delivery, which is considered to be a frightful and dangerous event, is described as a particularly...

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3. Conceptualization of Children

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pp. 88-105

The Papel maintain that an infant born into this world has the soul of a person who has died. Fernanda is in her forties and has been a widow for many years. Her youngest son is twelve, and her oldest daughter is already married and has given her a grandson. Fernanda is very fond of him and she keeps me continuously informed about his intellectual...

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4. Diseases and Death

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pp. 106-137

Juleta, who is in her forties, is one of those women who has lost many children, but she also has many left. When I meet her for the first time she has six children who are alive; she has lost six. Juleta gave birth to three children with her first husband but only the first-born daughter is alive. Then her husband suddenly disappeared and she had seven more...

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5. Nonhuman Children

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pp. 138-163

After eight months in Biombo I notice a comment about a particular child who is said to be an iran. The concept of iran is not new to me as it is so frequently used by Guinean people. Indeed, I have already spent a lot of time trying to understand what iran means. Referring to a particular child as iran is, however, something new....

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pp. 164-170

In this book I have examined what I refer to as the neglect thesis, which predicts that impoverished mothers in societies with high child mortality will as a survival strategy neglect their children, sometimes fatally, and fail to grieve their deaths. The neglect thesis is assumed to apply particularly to children who are unviable...


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pp. 171-199


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pp. 201-202


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pp. 203-225


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pp. 227-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780299201333
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299201340

Publication Year: 2004