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Brief Lives, Sudden Sadness


new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

Mother and favorite son: Lordes (right) and her 'arms and legs' Ze (Standing left) : 'He was like a mother to me'.
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Brief lives, sudden sadness
Thirteen pregnancies have left Lordes with just five living children –
and even those who escaped death in infancy are not safe...

It was noon when they came to get me, the time when I could pull the wooden shutters closed and fasten the bar against the split doors and shut out the heat, the suffocating push and shove of Alto life. But they got to me this time anyway because it was my comadre Antonieta who was banging on the back door.

‘It’s Lordes,’ she cried, ‘her time has come, and the parteira hasn’t returned from Saturday market. You’ll have to help.’ And then we were running, tripping up the hill, through the litter-strewn backyards, under barbed wire clothes-lines, past exposed latrines, digging our fingers into the moist dirt for leverage, knowing I shouldn’t do that, all the while arguing with Antonieta: ‘Why didn’t you warn old Mariazinha that Lordes’s time was near?’

And I hardly remember saying, ‘Força, força menina’ (push hard, girl), give it all you’ve got, because she didn’t have to, really, and suddenly the slippery, blue-gray thing was in my hands, cold and wet as it slid over them.

I had to pull the tight, tense rope away from its scrawny neck, but the rope resisted and coiled in my hands like an angry telephone cord. ‘Scissors, scissors,’ I begged, but the old neighborhood women shook their heads, looking absently from one to the other, until Biu, Lordes’s second half-sister, arrived sheepishly with a pair that looked suspiciously like the ones that had disappeared from my medical kit some weeks earlier.

The smell of hot flesh and dried blood filled the single room of the lean-to, trapped in by the scrap-metal roof. There was no water in the big clay jug, just the pebbles and slime that gather at the bottom. Valdimar slowly and patiently dug outside. On hitting a rock he stopped to call out: ‘Is it here yet?’ The old women in a semicircle around the fire, bent over a faintly squawking chicken, laughed and called back: ‘Stop digging, Valdimar. She’s only a small woman, you know.’

I am not deaf, gentle Valdimar.
I have heard the bells of
Our Lady of Sorrows.

The cord lay thin and cool, pulsating between my fingers. I needed a strong piece of string. I would have to make do with my knotted and dirty key string. Antonieta stood over me, anxiously biting her lips. My hand didn’t want to cut, but even under the dull edge of the scissors the cord was less resistant than I had expected, and the sensation of cutting hidden flesh was at my fingers and up my spine, and I couldn’t stop the pounding in my ears...

Washing in streams infested with disease and toxins, the women of the Alto face a constant conflict with illness. The old women were gathered around the baby now, tying it up in scraps of satin, ribbon and torn lace. So little I could not look. Outside, Valdimar’s shovel again scraped against rock. My hands forced down on Lordes’s soft belly, while Antonieta tugged. Her mouth was still open, but no sound emerged as the rest finally slid out. I took the baby up in my hands and handed it to the old women, who wrapped it in a cloth, cleaner than what we had used to stop up Lordes’s bleeding, and they passed the placenta through the opening to the waiting Valdimar. As if he were the father, so tender he was for her.

And it was blessedly cool and dark where I finally slid down home to rest. Cool and dark and wrapped up in a hollow, hidden in branches of green and brown. Safe at last...

Valdimar, his black face twisted into a smirking grin, is not really always laughing. He is outside my door, calling softly, ‘Nancí, oh Dona Nancí’. He has come to break the news, to tell me what I already know. Will I come and eat chicken with Lordes and the others? No, I’ll eat later, after we bury the baby in its little patchwork shroud, lying in its cardboard shoe box, covered with purple tissue and a silver paper cross. I am not deaf, gentle Valdimar. I have heard the bells of Our Lady of Sorrows. And they, at least, have touched the void: de profundis clamavi ad te, Domine.

In 1966 I was called on for a second time to help Lordes deliver a child, this one a fair and robust little tyke with a lusty cry. But while Lordes showed great interest in the newborn, she ignored Zezinho (Zé), who spent his days miserably curled up in a fetal position and lying on a piece of urine-soaked cardboard beneath his mother’s hammock.

‘Give me that child,’ I said, ‘for he’ll
never escape death in your house!’

I finally decided to intervene. ‘Give me that child,’ I said, ‘for he’ll never escape death in your house!’ Lordes did not protest, but the creche mothers laughed at my efforts on behalf of such a hopeless case. Zé himself resisted the rescue with a perversity matching my own. He refused to eat, and he wailed pitifully whenever anyone approached him. The creche mothers advised me to leave Zé alone. They said that they had seen babies like this one, and ‘if a baby wants to die, it will die’.

I continued to do battle with the boy, who finally succumbed: he began to eat, although he never did more than pick at his food. Indeed it did seem that Zé had no ‘taste’ for life. As he gained a few kilos his huge head finally had something to balance on. He reminded one of a frightened Brazilian spider monkey. I was proud of my ‘success’ and of proving the creche mothers wrong. Zé would live after all!

But what was I doing? Could Zé ever be ‘right’ again? Would he have been better off dead after all that I had put him through? And what of Lordes? I would soon be returning him to Lordes in her miserable lean-to on the trash-littered Vultures’ Path. Was this fair to her? She barely had enough to sustain herself and her newborn. But she did agree to take Zé back.

When I returned in 1982 Lordes was no longer living in her lean-to but was still in desperate straits, still fighting to put together some semblance of a life for her five living children, the oldest of whom was Zé, now a young man of 17. Much was made of my reunion with Lordes and Zé, and the story was told again and again of how I had whisked Zé away when he was all but given up for dead and had force-fed him like a fiesta turkey. Zé laughed the hardest of all at these ‘survivor tales’ and at his own near-miss with death at the hands of an ‘indifferent’ mother. They obviously enjoyed a close and affectionate relationship, and while we spoke Zé draped his arm protectively around his little mother’s shoulders.

On my next return to Bom Jesus in 1987 I was told the news immediately: ‘Go find Lordes – she has suffered a terrible tragedy. She is mad with grief.’ I found her at home disconsolate, plunged into profound mourning. With tears coursing freely down her suddenly, prematurely aged cheeks she explained that her favorite son, her ‘arms and legs’, had been brutally murdered on the night of the feast of São Pedro by his lover’s ex-husband. Zé had been fooled; he never knew his girlfriend had a husband.

Lordes struck her breast in grief. ‘If only my Zé were alive today,’ she said, ‘my life would not be one of suffering and misery... He was like a mother to me.’


The madness of hunger
No other calamity has quite the shattering effects on personality and behaviour
as the experience of acute hunger.

The madness of hunger. I have seen deaths from hunger and they are not very pretty. The people of Bom Jesus sometimes refer to them as doença de cão – literally dog’s disease. They are referring to rabies, which in Portuguese is called raiva – literally rage, fury, madness. The madness of hunger is indeed very much like rabies and it is truly a dog’s death.

References to the delírio, the madness of hunger, can be found as early as the sixteenth century in the writings of Portuguese navigators, and it is still a recurring theme in Brazilian literature now. It is the subjective voice, the primary experience of hunger.

Since 1964 I have been seeing starvation: a host of children of one and two years who cannot sit up unaided, who do not or cannot speak, whose skin is stretched so tightly over the chest and stomach that every curve of the breastbone and ribs stands out. The arms, legs and buttocks of these children are often stripped of flesh so that the skin hangs in folds. The buttocks are often discoloured. The bones of the face are fragile, the eyes prominent, the hair thin and wispy. The eyelashes can be extraordinarily long. Some children take on an unnatural waxen appearance that their mothers sometimes see as a kind of death mask.

At first one’s ear is jarred by the way hunger and nervos (‘nervousness’) are interchangeable in the language of the Alto. For this poor and hungry population many of the physiological symptoms of which they complain are also symptoms of chronic hunger. And during the past two decades of my involvement with them I have seen a discourse of nervos and sickness replace a discourse on angry hunger.

Because the people of Alto do Cruzeiro suffer, truly suffer from headaches, tremors, weakness, tiredness, irritability, angry weeping and other symptoms of what people call nervos, they look to the doctors, pharmacists and political bosses and patrons from Bom Jesus for a ‘cure’ to the ‘sickness’. They line up in clinics, in drug stores, in the municipal dispensary and they want powerful medicines to make them ‘strong’ and ‘lively’. They do not leave without these magical, potent prescription drugs: vitaminas, fortificantes, sôro, but also antibiotics, painkillers and sleeping pills. And they get them, if they’re lucky, even without paying for them.

Why medicine? If it is power that the leading families who supply them want, why not simply distribute food to hungry people? Medicalization mystifies. It isolates the experience of misery and it domesticates people’s anger. There is power and domination to be extracted from the defining of a population as ‘sick’ or ‘nervous’. To acknowledge hunger (which is not a disease but a social illness) would be tantamount to political suicide among leaders whose power comes from the same plantation economy that produced that hunger in the first place.

The determination to see malnutrition and dehydration as something other than what they are, as a nervous condition to be treated with painkillers, tranquillizers, tonics and elixirs, represents the worst instance of collective bad faith in Bom Jesus de Mata. This, too, is the madness of hunger.

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