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


"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 some of the finest anthropological work I have ever seen. The book is not just an analysis of Beng babyhood but a complete analysis of life as a Beng. Alma Gottlieb is able to tie together the slippery strands of ritual, ideology, daily practice, and expression to come up with a comprehensible look at Beng life."—Meredith Small, Cornell University

See also: Color versions of images from the book.


An excerpt from
The Afterlife Is Where We Come From
The Culture of Infancy in West Africa
Alma Gottlieb

Chapter One: Working with Infants

The Anthropologist as Fieldworker, the Anthropologist as Mother

There is no seeing from "nowhere in particular."…The agent of scholarship is a living person, not just a mind.…There is no way of understanding people except through one's own experience and power of imagination.
—Kirsten Hastrup, "Anthropological Knowledge Incorporated"

Where should I best start a discussion of my fieldwork about, and with, Beng infants? Should it be by recounting the pleasures of my friendship with the delightful Sassandra, who was still nursing eagerly from his mother's breast when we began our relationship and was not quite nine months old when, to my great regret, I had to interrupt our camaraderie to return to another life? Or should I begin with tragedy, perhaps with the story of how I watched, and on occasion held, a dying Beng newborn as he stiffened his limbs and sharpened his screams with growing hysteria as tetanus overtook his tiny body? It would be humbling to inaugurate my discussion by relating how I begged the mother of a baby I was sure had meningitis to take the sick child down to the hospital, only to discover a few days later that the baby had recovered nicely with a treatment of far less costly herbal medicines acquired locally. Or should I begin more conventionally with the stories of the mothers of these babies, mothers who often confided their hopes and fears to me, a sometime stranger, sometime friend, sometime nurse, sometime baby-sitter, and always meddler? Perhaps I should choose the even more commonplace strategy of opening my tale by telling about training one of my research assistants to note each activity of a given baby as he followed a series of infants through their daily lives.

Every one of these constituted an important component of my experiences in the summer of 1993, when I devoted this segment of my ongoing work among the Beng community of Côte d'Ivoire, which began in 1979, to an intensive study of the lives of their babies. But none of them stands out as the single most important experience or definitive method. Most ethnographic fieldwork involves a multilayered tool kit and, equally importantly, a multilayered engagement with the emotions and textures of daily social encounters. This is perhaps even truer of work with infants because of the wiggly, unpredictable, and emotionally intense nature of the subjects. Our tiny informants have dramatic needs of their own; how we relate to them depends to a great extent on their momentary requirements. Holding them, treating their illnesses, listening to their babble and endeavoring to respond appropriately, playing with them, measuring their achievements, keeping track of their movements and moods, talking about them with those who know them best—all these can, and should, figure into how we approach infants' lives in a given hour. My approach to fieldwork with Beng babies was intentionally an intellectual and methodological grab bag. But the choices I made concerning how to pull together my particular grab bag began far earlier than the field experience itself.

In recent years, we have seen an epistemologically complex turn toward exploring various intersections between the personal and the professional. Beginning with a growing corpus of memoirs of the field experience, of which my own coauthored volume is but one of many, this trend permits us to recognize and try to account for the inextricable ways in which our so-called private lives conspire to shape our scholarly decisions and agendas—including the topics we choose to pursue, the field sites in which we come to feel at home, even the theoretical orientations we embrace. In keeping with this scholarly move toward disclosure rather than concealment of how the work and nonwork aspects of our lives are mutually implicated—a move I heartily endorse—let me now acknowledge: I came to Beng babies through my own. Given the theoretical rationale for identifying such connections and the fact that so few anthropologists choose to focus their intellectual energies on infants, I start with a bit of autobiography so as to situate the current study of Beng babies in an ongoing life and career. Then I move on to enumerate my field methods.

The Anthropologist as Mother

As is the case with the vast majority of work in cultural anthropology, my previous field research among the Beng (conducted in 19791980 and 1985) overwhelmingly concerned the lives of adults (e.g., Gottlieb 1996b; Gottlieb and Graham 1994). Then, not long after my second field stay, I became a mother. The event changed my life—not just my family life but also my career. Being pregnant, undergoing childbirth, and embarking on the awesome project of raising a child raised for me countless questions, practical and emotional to be sure, but also intellectual. Entering this new stage of my own life cycle bestowed on me a double gift. Most important, of course, was the gift of a child. But along with that came a second gift, the gift of becoming an anthropologist of motherhood—and more generally, an anthropologist of parenthood, of caretaking, and of the object of all that affection and work, children themselves.

From the beginning, my first pregnancy and delivery were shaped decisively by what I had observed in Beng villages. Without romanticizing our Beng hosts, without ignoring the extraordinary hardships attendant on their grinding poverty, I still felt I had much to learn from many of their practices and the intellectual premises behind them. Having observed a regime of reproduction limned by contours radically different from those that surrounded me in the United States, it was easy to see the pregnancy and birthing practices of my countrymates as peculiar at best, and in some cases troubling.

For instance, while I was pregnant I became increasingly disturbed that in my native country adults, especially those who are not parents of young children, simply don't see children very often. I came to realize that although we lack the formal age grades for which many East African societies are known, American society segregates people by age quite systematically. Children typically inhabit different social spaces from those populated by adults. Moreover, youth are separated from each other by increments of merely a year beginning as early as one or two years old, when they start at day care.

While pregnant, I began to notice small people in public places where I had previously overlooked them: restaurants, malls, waiting rooms. But their new visibility only confirmed what I'd already observed after our first return from Côte d'Ivoire: that even when older people and children occupy the same spaces in the United States, they rarely intermix. Instead, parents spend much public time disciplining their young sons and daughters to conform to adults' rules of politeness so they will be less conspicuous and will conform to the old Puritan adage, Children should be seen and not heard. "Don't shout!" "Don't run!" "Sit up straight!" were incantations I now heard regularly from exasperated mothers and fathers in civic spaces clearly never intended to accommodate the explosive energies and imaginations of children. Why were there no indoor playgrounds in shopping centers, post offices, airports, office buildings? I wondered. Why were children almost never invited to the workplace or to the adult parties we attended, whether gatherings with academic colleagues, artists' get-togethers, or fund-raising soir‰es for our favorite political candidates?

Pondering my upcoming delivery, I turned to my field notes. In Bengland I had encountered a set of childbirth practices that emphasized personal rather than technological connections. My experiences attending and participating in Beng women's births constituted a reference point that shaped my subsequent consciousness of the event. With access to this alternative system of authoritative knowledge, as Brigitte Jordan (1997) would call it, the anthropologist in me was preshaping my perceptions of the moment when my own motherhood would come into being in a tangible way.

Having encountered home as the normal locale of birth in rural West Africa, I was tempted to follow the model of Beng village women and give birth to my child in my own house, and the more I considered the anthropological documentation of childbirth in other places, the more I thought there was much to recommend a home birth. I'd feel at ease in our bedroom and could assume any delivery position I found comfortable—maybe lean back into the comforting arms of a birthing companion as I'd seen my laboring Beng friend Amenan do. And I could avoid all those machines that measure a laboring woman's bodily events while ignoring her state of mind and heart (Davis-Floyd 1992; Jordan 1993). In short, I could relocate birth from a technological event defined by sickness and danger to an intensely emotional experience that might encompass anything from terror to joy.

Still, I was haunted by the story of my Beng friend Kouakou Nguessan. One day her husband came to fetch me while I was working in another village, imploring me to return immediately to drive Nguessan to the dispensary in town, almost an hour away, because she was having difficulty in her labor. Of course I agreed, and soon my husband, Philip, and I found ourselves racing down the gravelly road, Nguessan screaming her agony in the back seat. Perhaps the bumps in the road helped advance the baby down the birth canal, or perhaps the massaging that the midwife's assistant and I administered to Nguessan proved definitive. In any case, Nguessan delivered her baby soon after settling into the hospital bed. But the tiny infant emerged green and was not breathing. Only extraordinary efforts by the midwife's assistant revived the newborn.

At the time, I felt blessed to have been able to help in this event. But a few years later, Philip and I were devastated to learn that the little girl born after that fateful ride, frail ever since her traumatic birth, had died. Later, Nguessan herself, having no access to medical screening or transportation to town, died in another difficult labor.

Nguessan's tragedy warned me not to trivialize the dangers of childbirth. After reading up on further legal and practical complications of home births in the United States and the risks involved in transporting a laboring woman in distress to a hospital, Philip and I reluctantly decided to give birth in a hospital, while forging a commitment to recast the hospital's vision of birth to our own. Having seen a very different system of birth in action in Bengland, we no longer accepted our culture's constructed knowledge as having a unique claim to authority. We hoped to convince the medical system operating in our local hospital to accommodate our model of birth.

When my labor began and I paced through our house and moaned loudly as the contractions intensified, I thought of my laboring Beng friend Amenan. Sitting on her dirt floor, leaning back slightly against her mother, legs outstretched, forehead sweating, she had said calmly to me in her fine French, "Je souffre un peu"—I'm suffering a little. Her stoicism shamed me. I thought too of Nguessan suffering in her bedroom; then of my friend Amenan's mother getting stuck in her labor for several hours before her sorcerer cousin, who had been bewitching her, was finally killed by a falling tree sent by an avenging Earth; then of Amenan herself almost dying during her delivery of her son Kouadio; and finally of Nguessan succumbing during her next delivery. Had my Beng friends ever lost hope, imagining they might never emerge from their ordeal? Or were they always confident that their bodies would cooperate, that the witches could be kept at bay, that a healthy baby would eventually be born?

The theme of my hospital stay became polite but firm rejection: No, I didn't want to be hooked up to machines, or take painkillers, or lie down in bed. My most serious resistance occurred when it was time to prepare for the delivery. The head nurse was adamant about resituating me in bed, but my midwife convinced another nurse to permit me to use the wooden birthing stool we had brought along. The head nurse panicked: it seemed the baby would be born onto the carpet, and what about all the germs? The idea was intolerable. I was too distracted to mention that during my Beng friend Amenan's delivery, not only was the baby born onto the floor, but it was a dirt floor at that.


After the birth, I craved company. Some of my friends called and said they would visit the next day or once we left the hospital or once we had "settled in." Depressed by these delayed offers, I thought back to my friend Amenan's birth. Only minutes after her tiny daughter had emerged into the world, Amenan was greeted by a line of dozens of villagers coming to congratulate her and give her small change as thanks for putting another child into the world (see chapter 6).

By contrast, on the assumption that fatal germs might threaten a new baby's life, my hospital displayed a sign that read "No Visitors while Baby in the Room." We had to make a choice: either we banish our child to the nursery or we quarantine ourselves from our close friends. After living among the Beng, I found this choice unacceptable. I had seen too many newborns, only minutes old, being passed from person to person to believe that healthy babies being held by healthy adults are endangered. We subverted the rule, finding hours when the nurses were too busy to notice our friends sneaking past the desk and creeping down the hall to our room.

Those who were already parents I bombarded with questions. In some I sensed impatience: surely my "mother's intuition" should tell me what to do when my new baby cried. But I had lived in Africa long enough to be convinced that even this sort of "common sense" is culturally constructed (Geertz 1983). The hundreds of parenting books lining bookstore shelves all seemed to dispense advice that was shaped by a cultural, not natural, script. No, I did not put much stock in intuition when it came to raising our new child. Culture seemed to get in the way too much.


Our new son, Nathaniel, cried a lot. None of the advice offered by well-meaning nurses, doctors, friends, or neighbors helped. Struggling to manage the seemingly endless cascade of Nathaniel's tears, Philip and I cast about in our memories of Beng villages, crowded as they are with infants and young children. We wondered: Did Beng infants cry so much, and if so, what would a Beng mother do? Thinking back to the village life I knew, I imagined that a Beng mother of a crying baby might pack the infant onto her back to be carried around all day, tucked safely into a pagne cloth wrapped around her middle. Perhaps that was what Nathaniel wanted too. Philip and I decided to try it: we gathered tiny Nathaniel into a front pack and held him close to our chests. Immediately, he stopped bawling. As long as he stayed in there, he was content. And so it was that our new son virtually lived in his baby pack for the next three months. Beng mothers—at least those I was imagining from my removed position—had offered me good advice. As research by psychologists now confirms, most babies tend to be more content and to cry less the more they are carried.

I suspected I had much more to learn from my old Beng neighbors and friends. During my previous field trips I had studied other aspects of Beng women's lives, especially their place and image in the indigenous Beng religion (Gottlieb 1988, 1990) and the level of autonomy available to them in their marriages (Gottlieb 1986a). Yet I was increasingly appalled to realize that I had largely neglected their lives as mothers. Undoubtedly my lack of direct experience on this front had crimped my ethnographic imagination, denying me meaningful questions to ask and precluding any understanding of which behaviors of Beng infants were problematic and which were normal in comparison to the behavior of infants in my own society. Moreover, for reasons I will enumerate in the next chapter, the discipline of anthropology had not encouraged me along these lines. After becoming a mother, I had come quickly to realize how overwhelming are the responsibilities of parenthood even with one child, let alone six or more, as many women have throughout the "developing" world. Reflecting on this, I realized that I could not possibly begin to understand Beng women's lives without taking into account their experiences as mothers. At the same time, my initiation into motherhood opened up for me the universe of children's culture in my own society. Observing and participating in this world taught me many important lessons about my own community, while at the same time it suggested a vast new repertoire of issues to ponder concerning the world of Beng children. And so I began to imagine returning to Côte d'Ivoire to inaugurate a full-blown inquiry into Beng babies.

I combed my field notes to see what I had previously recorded about Beng childhood. With disappointment I realized that what scanty notes there were mostly catalogued rules, expectations, and beliefs, only rarely recording how actual people did or did not fulfill these. I began to fill dozens of index cards with questions that I had never thought to ask during my previous two trips. What is it like to be a Beng baby, painted twice a day with spectacular herbal paints and loaded down with beaded necklaces and waistbands to ward off diseases? How do infants develop their language? Do older people consciously try to teach them to speak, or do they just pick up the skills through listening to others talk? What do the games that adults and older siblings play with babies teach them about the world? Do Beng babies experience the stranger anxiety that so many middle-class, Euro-American babies exhibit toward the end of their first year? Do they develop the intense attachment to a single caretaker, usually a mother, that middle-class Euro-American babies so often have? Does the Beng notion of reincarnation influence the way babies are treated? Do motor skills develop on the same schedule that they normatively do in middle-class, Euro-American infants?

With these and dozens of other questions that occurred to me daily as Philip and I changed Nathaniel's diapers (conjecturing how Beng mothers manage without them), tried to tempt a finicky Nathaniel to enjoy solid foods (wondering if Beng mothers had discovered tastier concoctions), and endeavored to train Nathaniel to fall asleep alone in his crib rather than attached to me or Philip in the front pack (speculating about whether Beng mothers ever bothered to teach their babies to achieve such independence), I formulated my next research project.


Meanwhile, our baby son grew from a colicky infant into a delightful young child. Soon after Nathaniel's sixth birthday, Philip and I decided that he was ready to be introduced to our African home.

Nathaniel and baby Sassandra
Nathaniel playing with baby Sassandra.
Once in the village a scant week, Nathaniel plunged fearlessly into life in rural West Africa, finding social riches that he clearly thought more than made up for the technological lacks. In so doing, he taught me much about Beng society that had previously been invisible to me. In his own charming, childlike way, Nathaniel became my assistant.

From my earlier fieldwork, I had constructed an image of Beng society as thoroughly gerontocratic. Dan Sperber (1975) has wisely noted that in observing foreign cultures, anthropologists tend to be unconsciously drawn to that which is different from their own societies' practices, whereas they tend to gloss over, or even be unaware of, that which is similar. Accordingly, in Beng villages, I had doubtless paid attention to gerontocracy precisely because the principle is so distinct from the way North American society is arranged, with old people frequently cast aside like so much garbage, as a Taiwanese graduate student had once put it after doing a depressing round of fieldwork in a nursing home in Champaign-Urbana (Hwei-Syin Lu, personal communication). At the same time, consistent with my focus on gerontocracy, during my previous field trips to Bengland I had ignored the existence of friendships across generations, as well as the respect that old people often pay children. Thanks to Nathaniel, I now began noticing regularly these patterns in Beng society that had previously been invisible to me.

It started when we remarked on all the attention the adults in our compound showered on Nathaniel. Initially I wrote that off to our son's status as the child of privileged parents—and, as I will discuss below, one accorded a locally venerable ancestral lineage at that. But soon I began noticing that many adults treated their own as well as others' children of all ages with a level of respect that I had not previously observed. They would quietly ask the children's opinions while seemingly issuing them orders. The single case of child abuse that I witnessed that summer was the subject of much continuing criticism by virtually all in the perpetrator's family.

Moreover, although Beng children display marked respect for their elders as long as they are near those elders, that summer I realized that I had not previously paid enough attention to how independent children are a good deal of the time. When they aren't required to work for their relatives, an obligation that varies quite a bit by season and labor schedule, they play in groups—sometimes small, sometimes large, often changing from moment to moment, and usually of mixed ages. Even in a large village, the entire village is potentially children's play space. Indeed, during the day, Beng parents often have no idea where their children are, and unlike their Western, urbanized counterparts, they are not overly concerned on a minute-by-minute basis for their children's safety. I suggest that this is because the village, though by no means homogeneous or conflict-free, is nevertheless conceived as a moral community. Beng parents routinely assume that there will always be some adults, teenagers, or even other (barely) older boys and girls who can look out for their young children as they roam through the village.

After a few weeks back in Bengland, Philip and I found that we had adopted this assumption when we would realize to our amazement that we hadn't seen our own son in an hour or two. Nathaniel, who had previously been somewhat shy and clingy, quickly grew comfortable with the notion that the entire rather large village was his playground. Using impressive investigative skills, he devised a system to locate his parents when one or both of us had left the compound for an interview and, though he'd chosen to stay behind with his friends, he suddenly felt a need to see us. Like an accomplished !Kung hunter, he followed the distinctive tracks of our Eddie Bauer hiking boots on the dusty ground. Nathaniel and his friends soon turned this into a great detective game, romping through the village gleefully in search of those ground-level clues.

Being a good observer helped Nathaniel to remain confident that he could cope with unexpected developments. This is a skill I saw Beng parents value in their children. Not only do villagers take for granted that any adult, teenager, or older child will keep an eye on any young child within sight, they also assume that from the time children become competent walkers—usually between 1½ and 2½ years old—they are somewhat able to fend for themselves and to find their way back to their own compound. Chantal, a feisty two-year-old in our compound, disappeared from sight many mornings only to emerge at noon for lunch and then again around 5:00 for dinner preparations. Though too young to report on her day's travels, others would chronicle them for us: she regularly roved to the farthest ends of this very large village and even deep into the forest to join her older siblings and cousins working and playing in the fields. With such early independence even toddlers are expected to be alert to dangerous wildlife such as snakes and scorpions, and they should be able to deal with them effectively—including locating and wielding a large machete. Toward the end of our stay that summer we realized how acclimated our own son had become to local habits and dangers when we saw little Nathaniel hacking away at unwanted grass in our compound with an adult's machete, almost as long as he was tall, that he had casually commandeered.

independent Beng children
A girl of about 1½ and her older brother, about four years old, walking across the village to buy fried snacks for themselves.
The independence of these Beng children diverged dramatically from that of the Euro-American middle-class children I had come to know firsthand through my own parenthood, subject as they were to constant parental worry. It echoed a pattern I was finding elaborated in my work with babies that summer: Beng adults conceive of infants as people with their own sense of desire and their own memories. What middle-class Euro-American parents might term colic is perceived by Beng parents as a sign that the infant wants something. All relatives and neighbors therefore pay quite a lot of attention to even the youngest of babies, asking them directly what ails them when they fuss and imputing to them motives and wishes that Westerners would likely think could not be present in such small people.

I came to pay special attention to this aspect of interactions between infants and adults after observing the respect that adults accord older children—something I first noticed because of Nathaniel—and this new understanding of the Beng model of infant volition and desire shaped my fieldwork directly. In this way, and apart from his own conscious efforts to help me, Nathaniel became an inadvertent field assistant simply by his presence, pointing me to subtle timbres in relationships that challenged the monolithic conception of power relations that, I realized, I had previously held of Beng society.

Nathaniel also alerted me, if indirectly, to another layer of complexity in Beng society. My new understanding began along a most unlikely path of discovery. Shortly before we had left the United States, Nathaniel had become an enthusiastic whistler using an intriguing curled-tongue/through-the-teeth technique that he had invented; the result was a sharp blast that was far louder and shriller than an ordinary trill. Delighting in his new ability, Nathaniel had taken to whistling gaily whenever he was outdoors, engaging in a musical dialogue with any birds that might be perched in nearby trees.

I worried about the poor timing of Nathaniel's accomplishment. From my previous stays in West Africa, I knew that it is taboo for people to whistle while they are in a Beng village. Beng adults had explained this by reminding me that the alufye spirits who are said to live in the forest communicate with one another by whistling. From this I inferred that if someone were to whistle in the village, it might create alarm that the alufye spirits, who ought to remain in the forest, were now in the village, and this might well cause a dangerous panic. I knew that because the separation between people-in-the-village and spirits-in-the-forest is so basic to the Beng world, the punishment for violating the whistling taboo was a serious one. Before leaving for the field, I dug out my field notes to refresh my memory and was horrified to read my record of a conversation with our friend Yacouba: "Anyone who whistles in the village will be punished as follows: an elder heats a raw egg on the fire until it is hot (though not cooked). He then shoves the whole egg up the person's rectum until it reaches his stomach. With this punishment, `He'll never shit again. His intestines will rot by the next day.' If something drastic isn't done, he'll die." Before entering Bengland, Philip and I had warned Nathaniel that he might have to give up whistling for the next three months. His face fell. How could a six-year-old fully restrain his youthful exuberance?

When we arrived in Asagbe, one of the first questions I asked my friend Amenan was what the consequences would be if Nathaniel, with his childish energy, were to violate the whistling taboo. Happily Amenan reassured me that Beng adults do not deem it problematic for children to whistle in the village since "children don't know anything"—the taboo just applies to adults. Of course, I was relieved. At the same time, I was bothered by my friend's statement. The worldview behind the assertion that "children don't know anything" offended my own middle-classáapproach to child-rearing, which assumes that children craft a sophisticated knowledge base and that this is something to which good parents ought to pay attention.

Still, I reminded myself that I was in Bengland not to challenge but to learn. So I took note of the statement and tried to pursue its implications. To my surprise, these were far from consistent. As I will show in chapter 4, the very youngest of children—newborns —are attributed a tremendous degree of both personhood and knowledge by Beng adults and are seen as far indeed from Amenan's characterization that children "don't know anything." But as infants mature, the knowledge with which they come to this world from their previous existence in the "other world" is gradually stripped from them. They progressively become something approximating a tabula rasa, rather than starting out as one, as some Western folk models of childhood development and socialization suggest. It was Nathaniel's casual whistling that first clued me in to the complexities embodied in the composite relation to knowledge that Beng children are understood to occupy at different points in their childhood.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 3-15 of The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa by Alma Gottlieb, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

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
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