Nancy Scheper-Hughes provides the best known and most thoughtful critique of Ruddick’s work in anthropology her ethnography Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. She explores the meanings of motherhood, morality, and emotion in her investigation of the normalization of infant death. Because the definition of mothering, including the emotions associated with it, vary according to circumstances, there can be no universal definition. Emotions are culturally constructed, according to Scheper-Hughes, and they are also shaped by economic and political contexts. “Part of learning how to mother on the Alto includes learning when to ‘let go’.” (1985, 295) Maternal practice consists, at least in part, of gauging a child’s survivability. If a child is seen as having little or no potential, due to an infection of “child sickness,” it will be neglected. “No one blames a mother for turning away from such ill-fated infants and babies. Neither does the mother hold herself responsible for the deaths that are hastened by a reduction in food and liquid.” (1992, 383) While Ruddick’s concept of maternal practice stresses the act of holding on (78-79), the women of the Alto must necessarily learn to let go; that is, let children die (1992, 359-364). Clearly, preservation and nurturance are not ascribed the same value universally.
Both Ruddick and Scheper-Hughes make valuable points in their analyses that are significant to research on mothering and motherhood cross-culturally. The concepts that they elaborate are also advantageous for understanding the intersection of economic circumstances, social norms, beliefs, and practices in Tanzanian women’s lives. Most Tanzanian women would recognize and agree with the core features of Ruddick’s concepts of maternal practice. When discussing mothering, Tanzanian women often talk about responsibility (lazima and wajibu) and the work they do to care for (kutunza) and raise (kulea) their children. In Tanzania, it is commonly accepted that women are principally responsible for insuring the survival and physical well-being of their children. A 53-year-old divorced man outlined women’s responsibilities in the following manner: “Women do all the work, men just go to their jobs and return, but women do everything. Women care for the family and raise the family.” Most people I spoke with saw this disproportionate allocation of responsibility as a natural result of the close ties among mothers and children, and the gendered division of labor. However, they also agreed that it had been exacerbated by increased competition for scares resources in the city.
Maternal practice demands the preservation of children, but this can be extremely difficult in many such places as Tanzania. During my first major fieldwork period (1995-1996), Tanzania was named the world’s poorest country based on a per capita income of UD$ 90. When I returned to Tanzania in 2006, the national economy had improved substantially and per capita income had increased to approximately US$ 340. However, these improvements had not necessarily “trickled down” to the squatter settlements as 58% of the population was still living on less than US$1 per day. Mama Zolfa, a young divorced mother of two young children illustrated the planning and decision-making required of mothers living under such difficult circumstances.
Women have a very difficult time of it. For example, [the children’s] Father gives you 500 shillings [approximately 1 USD in 1996] and then leaves for the day. It is your responsibility to make it through the day with that: to feed the children, send them to school, feed the family, everything on 500 shillings. One hundred for pastries (mandazi), twenty for each child to go to school with… Then you go to look for vegetables and food, cheap, to get you through the afternoon and evening meals, like sardines for fifty shillings or okra for fifty, and a half liter of kerosene.
Women often criticized men for their failure to provide financial support to them and their children. One middle-aged divorced mother described her treatment in this way: “Baba Fadhili [her ex-husband], he threw me and his children away. Don’t laugh, that is the way it is. Men treat us badly and they don’t care about their children. I speak the truth.” Her friend readily agreed, “My children don’t have fathers. As soon as they found out I was pregnant, they ran. These men, they plant a seed [impregnate a woman] and they leave. They only know how to leave a burden.”
Insuring the survival of their children remains a significant challenge for Tanzanian mothers as “one out of nine Tanzanian children dies before the fifth birthday” (Bureau of Statistics, 2006). Malaria, cholera, diarrheal diseases and malnutrition are just some of the health hazards from which mothers attempt to protect their children. High child mortality rates encourage parents to have many children to ensure that at least some survive to adulthood.
I was often instructed on the necessity of having many children. My friends and informants were thrilled to learn that I had finally had a child, but they were also quick to ask when I was going to have more children. They were deeply uneasy about the fact that he was my only child. I received the following, very candid lesson in family planning from one of my close friends who had three living children, a child who died in infancy, and plans for a very large family. “I got [my daughter] and I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, perhaps she will die. Wait, I have to get another one.’ I have already lost one child. Truly, aren’t you worried that [your son] will die and then you won’t have any children? What would you do then? ” When I revealed that I was not planning to have any more children, people were dismayed that I would consciously make such a risky decision. As with the Brazilian mothers Scheper-Hughes described, death was an everyday and inescapable reality for the Tanzanian mothers with whom I work.