Instructor: Dr. Anne J. Goldberg
Student: Florencia Aguirre
September 19th, 2012
Katherine A. Dettwyler - Dancing Skeletons: Life and death in West Africa (1994) Review
In 1995, Dancing Skeletons was given the Margaret Mead Award by the American Anthropological Association. It is presented to anthropologists whose work was able to interpret “anthropological data and principles in ways that make them meaningful and accessible to a broadly concerned public”, which I consider to be exactly what the book does. Concerned about the relation between nutrition education and child care, the physical anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler travels to Mali for the second time to collect data for her research on this topic. During her six-month stay, she gains an emic perspective on Mali’s culture, which (combined with her inherent etic perspective) is embodied in this book. By describing some of the Mali’s ethnic groups, the author makes the reader get to know an extremely different way of living, that deeply question western beliefs that are thought to be universal, like the “natural” love of a mother for a child. At the same time, when talking about toubab practices, the book gives the readers the opportunity to get to know their own culture from an outsider perspective. Many different life stories (including Dettwyler’s own story) are portrayed analytically on the book. What all of them have in common is how childhood, motherhood and marriage are perceived and experienced by Malian women. This cultural understanding is deeply shaped by death, which is present in Malian’s everyday life. Indeed, Mali’s infant mortality rate is shocking: in 2011, there were 109.08 deaths per thousand live births; almost twenty times as much as in the United States. Generally speaking, the author considers that the lack of (or erroneous) nutritional education, combined with the women’s position in Malian society (in which...