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Anthropological Quarterly 77.1 (2004) 167-179

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Do Babies Have Culture?

Christina Toren
Brunel University

Alma Gottlieb. The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
'[B]efore local officials of the Ivoirian government ordered all thatch-roofed houses to be destroyed in the late 1960s, the Beng [of the Côte d'Ivoire] lived in large, round dwellings that accommodated an extended family, which was meant to include not only the living but also the dead. Every night someone in the household would put out a small bowl of food for the ancestors of the family, and the last person to retire would close the door, locking in the living and the dead to sleep together. In the morning, the first person to open the door released the wrus, who travelled back to wrugbe for the day—only to return at night for their dinner and sleeping spot once again' (Gottlieb 2003:.82).

Today all the dead spirits (wru) of "all the world's ethnic groups live together harmoniously" (98) in spirit villages (wrugbe) that are "dispersed among invisible neighbourhoods in major cities in Africa and Europe" (80). The dead may be invisible to us, but we live alongside them. Are we invisible to them? Presumably so. It would seem likely that from their own point of view the dead lead a material existence, but why today is it an urban one? Perhaps the existence [End Page 167] of the dead alongside us has to do with the wealth of the city and its plentiful food; there, one might suppose, the dead have access to everything they need. But perhaps the dead are not able just to have what they want? Perhaps access to what may be obtained by the dead requires the mediation of the living? Certainly it seems that living Beng have to make the dead recognize them, remember their ties to them as kin, and in doing so at once protect the living from all forms of evil and ill chance and promote their well-being and fertility. By the same token, it may be the case that from the spirits' point of view wrugbe finds its material continuity in the dutiful behaviour of the living towards the dead. 1

Wrugbe—the domain of the dead—may be accessible to adults in dreams (82), but otherwise adults must undertake special procedures via diviners to consult the dead and gain their support. Babies, however, have unmediated access to wrugbe where they spend a good deal of time (p169): "all infants and young children, as well as adult diviners, tack back and forth between past and present by travelling—one might even say commuting—to wrugbe" (80). Considered as a spatiotemporal location, wrugbe is always present; and like our own lived present, this one contains with in it its own past and its potential future. 2 Beng neonates incarnate specific ancestors, though often enough the ancestor remains unknown in that s/he cannot be identified with a named, now dead, once living, person (89).

The living baby and the dead ancestor are, however, aspects of an entity whose substance and sociality is slowly differentiated over the years of infancy and early childhood—a process that cannot itself really begin until the stump of the newly born child's umbilical cord withers and drops off (83). A child who dies before this time is not yet classified as a person, so the death is not announced publicly, the neonate being deemed simply to have returned to wrugbe (p83); indeed, it is perhaps because it is wru that the dead neonate is "buried in a muddy patch behind the home" but is given no funeral (90). The neonate is so closely at one with wrugbe that until the umbilical stump drops off he or she must be washed four times a day using a special soap that is otherwise used only to wash a person newly deceased, and four times a day the child's mouth too must be washed with half a newly-cut...


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