This paper reviews the book Dancing Skeletons - Life and Death in West Africa by Katherine A Dettwyler. It charts events in the book and aspects of the work of this physical anthropologist in the field of child nutrition in Mali during 1989 as an assistant professor of nutritional anthropology.
Discussion questions on Dancing Skeletons - Life and Death in West Africa
What were the author's research questions?
During 1989, the author wanted to follow up on children from her research in 1981-1983 to compare their growth and nutritional status between studies. Her questions included: Did malnourished children catch up in growth and did this happen in middle or late childhood?; Were severely malnourished children permanently affected?; Had any children from the first study died?; Did the best nourished children in her first study continue to be taller and heavier and did they survive better than less well nourished children or became more malnourished in later childhood?; Why, with malnutrition and poor growth common in childhood, were so many Malians were tall and well built? The author also wanted to visit new families and acquire data on them, as well as conducting detailed interviews about infant feeding beliefs and practices. In the 1989 study, Dettwyler also examined for the first time whether intestinal parasites contributed to poor growth in Malian children.
Why did she leave part of her family behind in the U.S.A.
Dettwyler left her husband and four-year-old son in the U.S.A. because her husband had a permanent full-time job and could not take six months off to join her in Mali. Her young son Peter (then aged 4) also suffers from the genetic disorder Down syndrome. This means his immunity is lower than most people, and he would therefore be too prone to disease to survive well in West Africa.
Why did she use numbers instead of names for the people?
The author decided to use numbers to identify research subjects for two reasons. The first was confidentiality. The second reason was because of the limited different names given to Malian children. She points out that: "Every family with many children will have boys named Moussa ('Moses'), Amadou, Muhammad... And Seytou, and girls named Aminata, Rookia, Oumou, and Fanta." (7) The author also says that about 20 Bambara lineages make up most family names - so identifying research subjects by both first and family names would still lead to confusion.
What role does speaking the language play in research like the author's?
The author points out that Malians expect white people to speak French, so being able to speak Bambara gave her an advantage. Being able to greet people in their own language and being able to make jokes put those she met at their ease more quickly and helped the author understand Malians better and feel she could 'fit in' better. She asserts that: "You can go a long way in Mali simply by being able to go through the greetings appropriately in Bambara." (9) On a personal level, the author found it frustrating not being able to communicate with people - as shown by her annoyance at having to rely on Diarra to translate from French for her in regions where Bambara is not spoken (10) and frustration at not being able to ask her research questions in Bambara.
How did the Dettwylers end up in Mali?
In 1989, the author returned to Mali to follow up on the research she had done during while studying for her PhD. Dettwyler originally planned to research in Sudan. This plan failed when her family was stranded in Cairo during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and could not get transportation southwards. After returning to the U.S.A., her family was persuaded to do research work in Mali by friends who were already working there. Dettwyler says she "fell in love" (17) with Mali and her husband adapted their research to Mali.
How did the author financially support her research?
In 1989, the author received a six-month Fulbright Scholar Grant that funded her research while she was an assistant professor in nutritional anthropology. She also did odd jobs and worked with other organisations to help pay for her living expenses - one example is her being paid to help Mickey Vakil's family to pack (14).
How did the author live while in Mali?
When she first arrived in Mali she stayed in a guesthouse. She then found a small house next to the American International School and hired someone to watch her daughter during the day, someone to guard the house at night, her field assistant and someone to wash clothes twice a week. She shared the house with researcher Tom Kane for two reasons. First, it is not considered respectable for a woman and child to live alone in Mali and second, having a man in the house deterred burglars.
What is malaria, and how is it transmitted? What diseases affect children in Mali?
Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes that carry parasites. These breed in red blood cells. Common childhood diseases in Mali include measles, malaria, upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhea and polio. The author also saw cases of measles, marasmus and kwashiorkor and heard of diptheria and cholera cases.
What rationales are offered by cultures that practice female circumcision?
The reasons for practicing female circumcision vary in different cultures. In Magnambougou, the author is told simply it is done as a tradition. Whereas for the Dogon in northern Mali, circumcision is a mark of sexual maturity for both boys and girls. In other cultures, where infibulation is practiced, female circumcision is a means of controlling sexual activity in women before marriage.
What were the attitudes of local people when they found out the author and her daughter had never been circumcised (and never would be)?
When the author told a friend that she was not circumcised, nor was her daughter - and they would never be circumcised, she met with surprise. She was told about her daughter: "Don't you know people will shun her?" (28).
What sorts of cultural differences are seen in idolizations of the female form?
In Western industrialised countries in particular, a slender body is seen as the ideal for women. This is not the case in Mali, it seems. The Fat Lady from Timbuktu, for example, teases Dettwyler that her husband Steven "probably wasn't interested... sexually any more because I was too old and not fat enough" (30).
What are baches? How do they operate?
Baches are small pickup trucks with the tailgate removed and with hard wooden benches for people to sit on. These are used as public transportation and are flagged down with hand signals in much the same way as cabs are. The author warns that it takes expert tuition to learn where the baches are headed and how much and who to pay for a ride in one.
Why don't Malian women carry money in purses?
Malian women carry money in the folds of the cloth they use to tie babies to them rather than in purses. This makes it less easy for money to be stolen from them.
How do the Bozo people interpret red urine?
The Bozo people, who are river fishermen, interpret red urine as a male equivalent of girls having their first period (menarche). In other words, as a sign of sexual maturity. Red urine is in fact a symptom of schistosomiasis - a river parasite - that infests most Bozo people when young, and begins to show up around puberty.
What is a typical day like for a Malian woman?
Malian women typically waken before sunrise to prepare breakfast. During the day they draw water from a well using a rope and rubber bucket, chop firewood, go to market and make three meals each day. They are also usually pregnant or lactating and caring for one or more small children at the same time. Daughters are also expected take part in domestic duties from a young age.
How does the determination of an object's sale value differ in Mali and the U.S.A.
In the U.S.A., retail goods have a fixed price determined by the seller. Whereas in Mali, bargaining takes place before buying. Quality and desire to own an item are important in Mali. Sellers are also prepared to lose money to ensure future customer loyalty. The wealthy also usually also pay more for an item than the poor. The bargaining process itself also is vital for establishing or maintaining social ties between sellers and buyers.
What is a 'joking relationship'?
A joking relationship is friendly banter between relatives or between families. The exchanges are not intended as hurtful, but take place in a spirit of fun. An example of this is the way Bakary Traore and the author trade insults when they first meet (59). This happens because the author is an 'adopted' member of the Diarra family, who have a joking relationship with the…