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new internationalist
issue 207 - May 1990



The theft of life
Fear of a grisly trade in organ transplants stalks the
shanty towns, according to Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

Prey to the darkest fears: a poor family in north-east Brazil. A terrifying rumour surfaced in the shantytowns outside Recife in north-east Brazil in 1987 and has been circulating there ever since. The whisperings concern the abduction and mutilation of young people who, it is said, are eyed greedily as fodder for an international trade in organs for wealthy transplant patients.

Shanty-town residents reported multiple sightings of large blue and yellow vans, usually driven by North American or Japanese agents, who were said to be scouring poor neighbourhoods in search of small stray children they mistakenly believed would never be missed. According to the residents' stories, children would be nabbed and shoved into the trunk of the van. Some were murdered and mutilated for their organs (especially eyes, lungs, hearts and livers), their discarded bodies found by the side of the road or tossed outside the walls of municipal cemeteries. Others were taken and sold directly to hospitals and major medical centres - and their eviscerated bodies were said to turn up in hospital rubbish tips.

'They are looking for "donor organs". You may think that this is just nonsense,' said my friend Little Irene. 'But we have seen things with our own eyes in the hospitals and public morgues, and we know better.'

'These are stories by the poor and illiterate,' offered another of my friends - Casorse, the new Socialist manager of the municipal cemetery of Bom Jesus. 'I have been working here for over a year. I arrive at six in the morning, and I leave at seven at night. Never have I seen anything. Where are the bodies or even the traces of blood left behind?'

The stories reached such proportions that my attempts one morning so rescue little Mercea - in the midst of a severe respiratory attack - backfired. As soon as I gave the order to the taxi-driver - 'To the hospital and quick!' - the already terrified little toddler began to choke, scream and go totally rigid. No amount of coaxing could convince her that her tormented little body was not going to be sold to the doctors by her American madrinha.

Even more children than usual were kept out of school during this period, and others were sent away to live with distant kin. Those who were left at home while their mothers were at work in the sugar-cane fields or in the houses of the wealthy, found themselves virtual prisoners, locked into small, dark huts with even the wooden shutters firmly fastened. On several occasions I had to comfort a sobbing child who, through a crack in a door or shutter, would beg me to liberate her from her dark and lonely cell.

The root of these extravagant fears may lie in an actual and active round-up of little street urchins, called meninos da rua (street children), motivated by angry shopkeepers and supported by local police. Some of these children 'disappear' into Brazilian prisons and correctional institutions that are viewed with horror by shantytown children. Others are assassinated by local 'death squads'. Benedicto Rodrigues dos Santos, head of the Brazilian National Street Children's Movement, says that in the last five years his movement has recorded the violent deaths of 1,397 street children.

But more immediate, perhaps, is the possibility that these seemingly farfetched rumours of body- and organ-snatching have their basis in poor people's perceptions, grounded in a social and medical reality, that their bodies and those of their children might be worth more dead than alive to the rich and powerful. Above all, they fear dying in the charity wards of public hospitals where their remains will be 'donated' to medical students to cancel their accumulated medical debts.

Stories like this one, told by a washerwoman from Recife, confirm some of the suspicions.

'When I was working in Recife,' she began, 'I became the lover of a man who had a huge, ugly ulcer on his leg. I felt sorry for him and so I would go to his house and wash his clothes for him, and he would visit my house from time to time. We were going along like this as lovers for several years when all of a sudden and without warning, he died. The city sent for his body. I decided to follow him to make sure that his body wouldn't be lost. He didn't have a single document, so I was going to serve as his witness and as his identification papers. But by the time I got to the public morgue they had already sent his body to the medical school for the students to practise on. So I followed him there and what I saw happening as the school I could not allow. They had his body hung up and they were already cutting off little pieces of him. I demanded the body back. After a lot of arguing they let me take the body home with me. He was only a beggar, a tirador de esmolas who sometimes did magic tricks on the bridge in Recife to amuse people. But I was the one who washed his clothes and took care of his wound, and so you could say that I was the owner of his body.'

Due to stories and incidents such as these there is a fascination and horror associated with autopsy, plastic surgery and organ transplants. 'So many of the rich are having plastic surgery and organ transplants,' offered one older woman, 'that we really don't know whose body we are talking to anymore.' As they see it the ring of organ exchange proceeds from the bodies of the young, the poor and the beautiful to the bodies of the old, the rich and the ugly, and from Brazilians in the South to North Americans, Germans and Japanese in the North.

Shantytown residents can easily imagine that their bodies might be eyed longingly as a reservoir of spare parts by those with money. We in the rich world are far more comfortable - we think of organ transplants as 'gifts' donated freely by loving and altruistic people. But to the poor living on the edges of affluent society, whose bodies are routinely preyed upon by the wealthy and powerful (in economic and symbolic exchanges that have international dimensions), the organ transplant implies less 'the gift' than 'the commodity'. In place of the 'gift of life' there is a suspicion of a 'theft of life' in which they must serve as the unwilling and unknowing sacrificial lambs.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a US anthropologist who has remained in regular contact with the people of the shantytowns near Recife since the mid 1960s.


Churches work together

It is not just the role of the Communist Party that has been thrown into the melting pot of Eastern Europe. The Church, which for decades suffered persecution or looked for an accommodation with Eastern European states, has found its role changed dramatically too.

East Germans protesting in Dresden and Leipzig relied on the Lutheran church. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets after each Monday's prayer-meeting for justice in Leipzig. As one East German official said so me: 'How can we stop this? The whole (Lutheran) church is based on the principle of protest.'

A peculiar feature of events in Eastern Europe is, however, the strength of the non-denominational Christian presence. In East Germany, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia everyone, from Pentecostalists and evangelists to orthodox Christians has been combining in sometimes awesome displays of unity.

In Romania it was the people's support for an exiled Lutheran priest that triggered off the revolution and brought down Ceausescu. A stern warning was thereby handed out to church leaders who had previously sided with tyranny.

In Prague, Christian spokesperson Vaclav Maly, the Civic Forum's 'Speaker' for its first ten days, supported the same principles. He stressed that it was essential to admit the moral and spiritual dimensions in any country's Charter. Christians of all persuasions had been imprisoned for their outspokenness against injustice.

The day before the Berlin Wall was opened the West German Protestant Synod passed a resolution encouraging the West German government not to interfere in the affairs of East Germany. The resolution was drafted by a Social Democrat. In East Germany, the Church suffered severely for its opposition to the government. Many church members were arrested and subjected to long-term intimidation. But as with other opposition groups in Eastern Europe, the tide of revolt was not to be stemmed.

George Fisher


Men too
Sterilization in India

It was a time of severe drought when Kela and Shipu, two mothers in their late twenties, heard the news. Anyone who agreed to be sterilized in Rajasthan, western India, would be eligible for a state grant towards building a well.

Happy to see a way to end the annual drudgery of childbirth - and the recurrent anxiety over empty grain-pots - the women went to the sterilization centre. Their husbands were away in the city but Kela and Shipu felt sure their menfolk would approve - once they saw the money.

But the state government never paid up and the angry husbands beat up their wives before throwing them out - declaring them 'barren and sterile'.

Since 1977 over 80 per cent of sterilizations have been on women although the operation for men (vasectomy) is cheaper, safer and at least 20 times more reliable than that for women (laprascopic sterilization). In 1989 at the Najafgarh health centre on the outskirts of Delhi, for example, 486 women were sterilized compared with just 24 men.

Guarai, a family planning worker for 30 years, says people in rural areas are besieged by fears. They are afraid that vasectomy will make men sexually impotent or, at least, physically weak. And in a country where men are still considered superior there is a tendency for women to deify their menfolk and protect them from the surgeon's scalpel.

For example, Shanti is a thin and anaemic mother of three. But she does not favour vasectomy for her husband because 'he has a long distance to cycle to work'. Rani has five children, but prefers to have the operation herself because her truck-driver husband, 'has a tough job'. Women may also fear that if their husbands get sterilized they will be more promiscuous.

Although sterilization remains the surest means, other methods are being promoted. The Government has been distributing free condoms, for example. But condoms are still not popular. Only 20 per cent of the 600 million distributed in 1988-89 were actually used.

Attitudes towards family planning have changed in some respects at least. Family-planning workers used to be stoned and driven out of villages. Today long queues of women can be seen outside family-planning centres - but the men are still staying away.

This has implications worldwide. Unless men can be encouraged to develop a more responsible attitude towards family planning - from the corridors of power to the village grassroots - population growth is bound so put an ever greater strain on global resources.

Usha Rai


Ugly dusters
No hiding place for ostrich

The ostrich is a huge and beautiful creature - the largest bird on earth. It cannot fly, but it can certainly run. Experts have clocked speeds of up to 70 kilometres per hour, making it second only to the cheetah for pace. And it grows fast, too, reaching eight feet in height and 300 pounds in weight in an incredible ten months. This makes the unfortunate bird extremely profitable to rear.

There is virtually no wastage. The feathers are in high demand for dusters or dress trimmings. The skin from a single bird can fetch almost $100 and can be used for handbags, purses, gloves and shoes. Its lean meat is prized by weight-watchers. The rest can be turned into pet food and bonemeal. Infertile eggs can be crafted into ornamental gifts.

Ostrich farming in now growing as fast as the ostrich itself in Zimbabwe. The Ostrich Producers Association of Zimbabwe (TOPAZ) says: 'One does not need a degree to calculate that ostrich farming offers high returns.' Five years ago the Association had six members. Today it has 56. Its president, Kevin Grant, says farming is also saving the bird from extinction.

Fewer than 2,000 ostrich now live in the wild in Zimbabwe, compared with about 10,000 in captivity. In drought areas like Matabeleland and the lowveld of southern Zimbabwe many commercial farmers are moving away from cattle ranching. Ostrich farming offers an alternative.

Now multinational corporations like the London-based Lonrho are cashing in on the demand for breeding stock. The pioneers relied on gathering eggs from the wild but today most farmers are breeding their own. One female ostrich normally lays 12 to 15 eggs during the May to December mating season. New methods have induced them to produce as many as 45. Cattle take three years to be ready for slaughter while ostriches take just 14 months. The aim is to slaughter up to 20,000 birds from next year, which would bring in about eight million dollars in foreign currency.

Japan, the US, West Germany and Switzerland are all interested in ostrich meat, which competes with venison. TOPAZ is carrying out a feasibility study to set up an ostrich abattoir in Harare. The female ostrich can breed for as long as 40 years, but the life expectancy of most of its offspring could be severely curtailed.

Charles Rukuni / Gemini

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New Internationalist issue 207 magazine cover This article is from the May 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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