The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa

 
Videos to accompany
The Afterlife Is Where We Come From
The Culture of Infancy in West Africa
by Alma Gottlieb

Alma Gottlieb created six short videos to illustrate the Beng caregiving practices she discusses in her book The Afterlife Is Where We Come From. In addition to the YouTube versions, each video can be downloaded in Windows Media format.

See also an excerpt from the book and color versions of the photographs in the book.

 

Playing and Talking

Playing

Beng babies are trained to be very sociable from an early age. While the American norm frequently emphasizes the mother as the major or even exclusive caretaker, Beng babies are passed around from caretaker to caretaker—often every five minutes. During a series of observed 2.25 hour sessions, babies typically engaged with 2.2 people (see pages 140-142 of Gottlieb 2004). In addition, adults and children of all ages play with babies from a very young age; children are not segregated by age in Bengland as they often are in the United States. The constant attention paid to young children is an incentive for babies—who are seen as having an active memory of their past life—to resist returning to the Beng afterlife, or wrugbe. Playing with a variety of companions of all ages is a reminder to babies of the love and joy that this life has to offer.

Download video: Windows Media

For further information, see: "Sociable Beng Babies," Ch. 6, in Alma Gottlieb, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. (U. of Chicago Press, 2004).

Speech

Having just come from the Beng afterlife, or wrugbe, where everyone is said to speak his or her own language but any language is understood by all, Beng babies are believed to comprehend all languages. Gradually, they lose this ability as they choose to speak one language. But while they are still young, since babies are believed to understand language, adults and children speak frequently to young infants and encourage them to babble.

Download video: Windows Media

For further information, see: "Spiritual Beng Babies," Ch. 4, and "Developing Beng Babies," Ch. 9, in Alma Gottlieb, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. (U. of Chicago Press, 2004).

Carrying Babies

Beng babies are almost constantly being held or carried, awake or asleep. In one study, sixty percent of babies' daytime naps occurred outside in a vertical position, with babies attached to someone who was walking about or working. The nearly-constant physical contact between babies and their carriers is meant to lure babies into this life as they resist the call of the Beng afterlife, or wrugbe.

Download video: Windows Media

For further information, see: "Sociable Beng Babies," Ch. 6, and "Sleepy Beng Babies," Ch. 7, in Alma Gottlieb, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. (U. of Chicago Press, 2004).

 

Bathing and Feeding

The Bathing Process

Beng mothers are responsible for bathing their babies twice a day until they can walk. The bathing routine is performed once in the morning and once in the evening for a variety of reasons. Many herbal washes are said to prevent diseases caused by both biological and spiritual agents, and some are also said to cure such diseases once they take hold. Additionally, medicinal paints applied after the bath decorate and beautify the baby, making them attractive to potential babysitters. Bathing also promotes hygiene. Diapers are not used in Bengland. Instead, enemas are administered once each morning and evening at bath time so that babies will not defecate during the day and can be given to caretakers aside from their mothers without fear of the babies soiling the babysitters' clothes.

Download video:  Windows Media

For further information, see: "Soiled Beng Babies," Ch. 5, in Alma Gottlieb, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. (U. of Chicago Press, 2004).

Jewelry

Almost all Beng babies are adorned with pieces of jewelry, typically made of cords, shells, and beads. Trying to counteract a high infant mortality rate, adults are very concerned with keeping babies alive. Thus jewelry is said to serve medicinal as well as aesthetic purposes. Some jewelry is used to protect babies from diseases with spiritual causes, some is used for diseases with non-spiritual causes, and some is used to beautify the baby. The decorations are meant to serve as a reminder that the baby is welcome, loved, and cared for; this reminder is thought to encourage the child to remain in this life and resist returning to the Beng afterlife, or wrugbe. The jewelry must be washed during each bath twice a day.

Download video: Windows Media

For further information, see: "Soiled Beng Babies," Ch. 5, in Alma Gottlieb, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. (U. of Chicago Press, 2004). See page 113 for an explanation of babies' jewelry.

Breastfeeding

Beng mothers are encouraged by other women to breastfeed their children frequently in hopes of creating a hospitable and nurturing environment in this life, as a motivation for babies to resist the Beng afterlife, or wrugbe. The younger the child, the more frequent the feedings. However, traditionally, before nursing a hungry baby, a Beng mother will offer her child a couple of small handfuls of water. Once the child drinks at least a little bit of water, the mother will allow the baby to nurse. Giving babies water before breast milk trains them to like water, for the times when their mothers are in the fields, unable to nurse them. If a baby is too young to consume solid foods, a caretaker in the village can provide the child with water as a holdover until his or her mother returns. In some cases, when a baby and his or her mother are separated, the child may seem hungry and is not satisfied by an offering of water. Another woman can offer to "breastfeed" the child, regardless of whether she has milk to offer—in effect, using her breast as a pacifier.

Download video: Windows Media

For further information, see: "Hungry Beng Babies," Ch. 8, in Alma Gottlieb, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. (U. of Chicago Press, 2004).

 

 

Praise for the book:

"Welcome to the Beng world, where toddlers welcome strangers, and parents consult infants and diviners to better accommodate the desires and gifts that very young babies bring from their former lives in the afterworld. This delightful, insightful, and quite provocative book about very small people makes a very large contribution—an anthropology of infancy enables us to rethink nature and culture in new and important ways."—Rayna Rapp, New York University "The Afterlife Is Where We Come From is filled with richly layered (and often moving) material on the daily lives of Beng people, especially on what they say about babies and how what they say informs their day-to-day practice in caring for infants.…The breadth of [Gottlieb's] knowledge is admirable and the book is engagingly written and bound to be widely read by the public at large as well as by anthropologists."—Christina Toren, Anthropological Quarterly

 

 

Alma Gottlieb
The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa
©2004, 424 pages, 53 halftones, 2 maps, 2 line drawings, 6 figures
Cloth $78.00 ISBN: 0-226-30501-5
Paper $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-30502-3

For more about the book, including information on purchasing the book from bookstores or here online, please go to the webpage for The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.


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