The United States is known for the “American Dream”, the material items, our breakthroughs in medicine, our employment opportunities, etc. These are just some of the things the United States has to offer, but the United States also has a downfall to all of the “good” things in life: we think our way of life is better than everyone else’s, and we often judge other countries, especially Africa, for their way of living. We often ask the questions, “What if we go to help them? ” or “How can we help them? ” when the real question is: “What can we learn from them?”
Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa is a non-fiction book written by Katherine Dettwyler, who traveled to the countries of West Africa for her field research for her Ph. D. in nutritional anthropology, specializing in infant feeding and child health in Mali, West Africa. Among all the chapters in her book, Dettwyler touches on very important topics that make the West African societies/cultures what it is today. Economics, family size, gender, social status, disease, malnutrition, and poverty all play an important role that makes Mali a different than the United States, but working population.
Economics plays a huge role in the villages and cities of Mali. When Dettwyler returned to Bamako, six years after her first visit, she explains that Bamako, even though it’s in the same country, differs substantially from a village outside of Bamako named Magnambougou. The people of Bamako (close to a million people) live in traditional mud huts along the bluffs and banks of the Niger River (Dettwyler 1994: 18), whereas the people of Magnambougou live in “compounds” along dirt paths surrounding the community center.
These compounds are made of mud bricks and topped with corrugated iron roofs. A misconception that Americans tend to think is these types of housing automatically makes a third-world country and that they are poor; it is true that they are poor, but not in the same way Americans think. These types of housing units last for years (Dettwyler 1994: 21-22). A huge part of the economics of the people of Mali is the Grande Marche in downtown Bamako. Basically, the Grande Marche is just a big market, where venders of all variety came to sell their goods.
Another thing that plays a big part in the economics of Mali is the no-fixed rates on items. Unlike the United States where everything is not negotiable, in Mali, everything is and is encouraged, unless you’re a tourist without any background on the culture of Mali (Dettwyler 1994: 55). With Mali’s economics very different from ours in America, family size and gender ideas also are very different than ours. Family size in Mali is very important; it is not considered a burden like in the United States where a couple of children is common.
In Mali, it is common for women to have six to eight children by the time they are considered “old”. In the United States, the more children you have, the more you have to provide for, but in Mali, the more children you have measures a man’s status and success, and that’s for each of his wives. The more children you have not only provide those two things, but increases the income of a family because children in Mali, at a young age, may start to work to provide for their mothers and younger siblings.
Unlike in a western society, the wealth flows up in a third world country. In Mali, a man is prosperous when he has a house full of children, and grandchildren who honor him, work for him and support him in his old age (Dettwyler 1994: 77-78). Along with family size, comes gender, and ideas of gender. In a traditional western society, the man was supposed to go to work to support his family and children, whereas in Mali, men and women both help to support themselves and their children. The children even help out financially.
For the women, not only do they have the responsibility of caring for the children, but agricultural responsibilities as well. These include fetching water out of the wells, gathering and chopping firewood, millet or corn to be pounded, fruits and leaves to be harvested from the kitchen garden, meals to be cooked (three meals a day), the compounds or houses to be swept, and washing their clothes. They are also in charge of attending to the fires that are used for cooking and also an important economic chore, which is sorting and roasting karite nuts (Dettwyler 1994: 108).
A very intense-labor for the women of Mali is making vegetable oil from the karite nuts and not only do they have to spend several weeks collecting the nuts, but also extracting the oil (Dettwyler 1994: 124). In a western society, men are usually the ones who are seen as strong and do intense labor, but in Mali, the men harvest the fields and the women take care of everything else. As far as disease and malnutrition go in Mali, it is a major misconception in western societies that there is an overwhelming amount of it. What we as Americans do not realize, is that they do not see malnutrition as a bad thing.
The people of Mali believe that malnutrition cannot be stopped, even though technically it can. Sometimes, malnutrition cannot be stopped or helped. Dettwyler recalls upon a servant of The Fat Lady from Timbuktu, whose son was named Daouda and severely malnourished. Her husband was mentally ill and could not take care of them, which lead to the boy being malnourished. Usually in these cases, the extended family provides help but in this case, the mother did not have that privilege, and since there are no government networks to provide support for malnourishment, the child had to endure being malnourished (Dettwyler 1994: 34).
There is another myth that is frequently accepted in the United States that overpopulation is the cause of malnourishment in third world countries. Sometimes malnourishment cannot be helped, like in the case of Daouda, because of the loss of the epithelial lining of their intestines, which is what helps digest and absorb nutrients from food (Dettwyler 1994: 2). Only a few babies are malnourished in every village for certain numbers of years. One of the biggest reasons for this is because all mothers nurse their babies from their milk up to almost age 3, which contain nutrients and antibodies that is more beneficial than the millet or rice.
Disease on the other hand, is what kills most babies/children in Mali. Aside from malaria, there are parasites and other diseases such as measles, diarrhea, diphtheria, and polio (Dettwyler 1994: 98); Dettwyler points out that diarrhea is a main killer in Mali (Dettwyler 1994: 107). An iodine deficiency was found in the village of Dogo, as the goiter problem was very prevalent. This deficiency can be harmful to the babies if the woman gives birth with an iodine deficiency (Dettwyler 1994: 108).
As said above earlier, living in mud brick housing without electricity is an instant giveaway for the United States to say that someone is living in poverty. What Americans don’t realize is that the way the people of Mali are living is not wrong, it is their culture, their way of life, and it differs from ours. They are efficient in their own ways. Katherine Dettwyler’s anthropological perspective on all of these topics is just what anyone, not just Americans, need who believes the misconceptions of a third world country.
Because Dettwyler has been to West Africa twice for a number of months each time, because she has lived the lives that a West African has lived, because she has done the research first hand, up close and personal, gives her perspective a special realness that others cannot offer us. Through her book, she has offered us an inside look of a culture different than ours; one that we can look at and learn from. One that makes all the materialist things we cannot live without in our society seem miniscule, and almost useless. It’s not what we can do to help the third world countries; it’s what we can learn from them.