The majority of ethnographies focus on the culture of adults or verbal children, babies, if considered at all, are described in the context of their relationships to adults and older children. In 2004, Alma Gottlieb published a unique ethnography, The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa based on Beng people in Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1990s.
“Conducting fieldwork among the Beng on infants and infant-rearing was intense and at times overwhelming, provoking a full range of emotions from the joyful to the tragic. I love babies; I chose the topic for my research in good part because of my personal attachment to the subject. But I do not want to romanticize my research. Even in the best of circumstances, raising children is a challenge that many parents the world over find alternately invigorating, delightful, frustrating, and perplexing. Beng mothers love their babies as much as I have loved my own; yet the contours their love has taken– its boundaries, its shape– look quite different from those mine has taken. For one thing, extreme poverty has made the challenges of rearing children one whose hardships are almost unimaginable for those who have never suffered the frustration and humiliations of material deprivation, the resultant constant threat of sickness, and the all-too-frequent sorrow of holding a baby dying in their arms.”Gottlieb, p 36
Where Babies Come From
The title hints at a core concept of the infant in Beng culture: reincarnation. The Beng believe that babies are recently incarnated from the afterlife, and long to return. Every effort, therefore, must be made to make the infant feel loved, warm, and comfortable so that it will stay in this life. This also means that infants have a rich inner life and though unable to speak, they can communicate through various means, if only the adults are smart enough to understand.
“Beng adults conceive of infants as people with their own sense of desire and their own memories.”
Colic, for example, is seen as a baby wanting something they are not getting. Adults, including relatives and neighbors, will directly ask a baby what they want. While many westerners think that babies cannot be spoiled because they do not have motives, Beng people know that babies have motives and use their behavior to get what they want and don’t see anything wrong with giving it to them.
Newborns come into the world with a high degree of personhood and knowledge, but as infants mature, the knowledge of their previous existence fades, moving into tabula rasa territory.
“Babies are insistently somatic creatures. It is impossible to establish any meaningful relationship with them, any understanding of their being, without seriously taking into account their bodily orientation to the world and without engaging that bodily presence directly. Thus, working ethnographically with infants means holding infants.”Gottlieb, p 22 explaining her ethnographic methods
Beng infants are typically carried on the back, in a torso-carry, using a simple rectangular piece of woven cloth, called a pagne. Often, the infant is skin-to-skin with the person who is carrying them (see the video, below). They spend most of the day being carried, whether asleep or awake. Considering some people’s attitudes about infants being held and carried too much resulting in clingy children in the U.S., it may be surprising that Beng mothers fear clinginess in their children too.
The Beng dread having an unsociable baby or one that has stranger anxiety. They have a special term for this type of baby, gbanɛ. This kind of baby is considered difficult, and mothers actively discourage the behaviour of clinginess and social anxiety. Even small amounts of stranger anxiety that American parents would find normal, the Beng would consider emotionally unhealthy. Gbanɛ babies, because they cannot be left with other people (or other people will refuse to babysit them) inhibit the mother’s ability to work, risking financial hardship and/or reduction of the family’s food supply.
As with the people of 1960s Taira, Okinawa, mothers often find other people to carry the baby while they work when the baby is around two to four months of age. The Beng believe that it is not good for the mother’s health to work in the fields with a baby strapped to their backs, especially if they have to walk a long way to the field or care for older children.
“The little one spends much of the day in a vertical position on someone’s back, often napping. Sometimes this back belongs to the baby’s mother, but undertaking very demanding physical labor with a baby attached to her back is not considered optimal for a new mother’s own health, and Beng women recognize that it can also seriously reduce their work productivity.”Gottlieb, p137
Beng babies are passed around frequently from caretaker to caretaker. Gottlieb did a quantitative analysis which showed that the most common length of time a baby spent with one caretaker was a mere five minutes. The infant was passed between two and six people throughout the day, being brought to the mother for breastfeeding (ibid., 140-1).
Having a lot of caregivers does not necessarily mean there is a lot of attention paid to the baby, but this was not the case with the Beng. Wherever the baby is, they are the center of attention with all of their caregivers. There is also a great deal of physical stimulation, at the very least from the positional changes of being handed to various caretakers, let alone the body-orientated games and songs used to play with the baby.
The Beng call the “baby-sitter” (literally translated means “baby-carrier”) a lɛŋ kũli, which is typically a young girl (as young as five years old) whose job it is to carry the baby, whether the baby is asleep or awake. Ideally, the mother will have many lɛŋ kũli to choose from. The “prettier” the baby, the more girls will want to babysit, however, if a baby were to defecate on the babysitter she may not come back.
All Beng mothers dread the thought of their baby defecating on someone, yet they do not use diapers. It is considered morally bad for a baby to poo on someone, a sign of poor mothering and/or an ugly baby. Beng mothers start “toilet training” at birth, with an aim to control the infant’s bowel movements, often with the use of enemas.
Ideally, the infant would only defecate twice a day, during its bath times, so that they can be properly cleaned. During Gottlieb’s time with the Beng, none of the mothers claimed to have had any difficulty achieving this end. The majority of healthy Beng infants are toilet trained by the time mothers return to work, between two-four months after birth.
Toilet training in the west typically implies that the child is able to tell their caregiver when they need to urinate or defecate and/or able to take themselves to the appropriate place to do so, remove their clothing and clean themselves (more or less). Toilet training for the Beng means that the infant relieves themselves (a bowel movement) on cue during a specific time of day (bath time)– and not while being carried.
This early “toilet training” is very useful to the Beng because the infant spends the majority of their lives carried on someone’s back, whether awake or sleeping. In fact, the word for carrier translates to “moving bed”, because the infants spend so much time sleeping while carried.
“Developmental psychologists have documented that repetitive motions tend both to lull a wakeful baby to sleep and to encourage a sleeping baby to remain asleep”Gottlieb, p174
Gottlieb’s research found that for 60% of daytime naps, which are never scheduled, babies were in the vertical position attached to someone’s back, and nearly all of the naps recorded took place outside, (p 171-172). Children expect verticality, movement, and connection to another person during daytime naps.
Chantal, an articulate two-year-old, explained how his maternal aunt, Little Mama, carries him for nap:
“Little Mama will carry me on her back later while I take a nap in the afternoon”Gottlieb, p172
However, naps are not sacrosanct among the Beng, rather naps are considered contextually. If the nap is short, it’s short; if the caregiver has to (or wants to) put down a sleeping baby and it immediately wakes, it is not considered a tragedy nor is there an effort made to get the baby back to sleep. In fact, Beng mothers are more concerned about ensuring they get a nap themselves (especially if the baby kept them up at night), than about when or how long their babies nap (ibid., 177).
Beng babies are allowed to crawl but they need to crawl with their bellies up.
“[…] creeping or slithering with the belly on the ground, rather than crawling with stomach raised, is considered unacceptable by Beng parents, who do all they can to reorient a baby who seems inclined to slither rather than crawl”Gottlieb, pg 129
This slithering crawl is considered a bad omen, a “tɛtɛ,” which can include infants whose development is not in line with cultural norms. For example, an infant with teeth before age one, or one that crawls with their belly on the ground or starts crawling later than other babies their age. These kinds of bad omens are associated with the death of an infant’s relatives.
To encourage crawling, a Beng mother may locate a left-handed person who then finds a shrub growing on a mound. Both left-handed people and hills are considered to contain mystical powers, though in opposite directions, inauspicious and auspicious, respectively. The left-handed person uproots the plant and gives it to the baby’s mother, who crushes it well with chili pepper and uses it as an enema for her infant.
“Perhaps their combined powers are seen as having an effect on accelerating a baby’s motor development.”Gottlieb, pg 126
Beng babies get dirty crawling in the dirt but they are bathed twice a day until they learn to walk independently. There is a concern about a sickness called “Dirt Cough” but it’s not from dirt on the ground, but rather, unseen pollution from the touch of an adult who had sex the previous night and has not yet bathed themselves.
If a baby attempts to walk before one year of age, the child is prevented by being strapped to someone’s back throughout the day, being spanked, or through magic: lagba bead on a cord tied around the baby’s waist. However, some young parents these days are rebelling and encouraging walking before one year of age. Tradition has it that if a mother conceives before her last child is walking that the child may never learn to walk and could die from it.
Sex between a couple is taboo before their most recent child is walking independently. By also making it taboo for a child to start walking before age one builds in birth control, however, the age requirement is also for the safety of the child:
“From the time children become competent walkers– usually between 1 ½ and 2 ½ years old– they are somewhat able to fend for themselves and to find their way back to their own compound.”Gottlieb, p 12
They are also expected to watch out for dangerous wildlife, even locating and using machetes. A child being able to remain confident and cope with unexpected developments was a skill highly valued by Beng parents and society.
Gottlieb created a series of short videos that correspond to the chapters in the book, which can be found here in context, through the University of Chicago Press’s page (and on Youtube). Below is the video on Carrying:
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Gottlieb, Alma. 2004. “The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa.” University of Chicago Press.