March 16, 2012
Transfixed by Dancing Skeletons
Katherine Dettwyler’s work in the field while she was in West Africa was exciting, filled with humor and even terrifying at times. She dealt with seeing various life-threatening diseases that affected the lives of children her daughter’s age, as well as adults. Dettwyler found that almost all of the people she came in contact with were completely oblivious and uninformed of the ways to prevent diseases such as malaria, Schistosomiasis, malnutrition and other infectious diseases unique to their region of the world. In her book, Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa (1994), Dettwyler discusses tons of the health problems she comes across, in addition to her personal life and the emotions that came with all of the horrible things she saw. The book describes Dettwyler interacting with the people of Magnabougou, Mali asking for them to do various things or asking them pertinent questions that she needed to conduct her research on traditional infant feeding patterns and their effects on children’s growth. She had gone there once before from 1981-1983 with her husband Steven and daughter Miranda and returned in 1989, and made it a point to try and find all of the children she had weighed and measured in her previous visit. She had to leave Steven and her four-year-old son at home because Steven had a “real job” and Peter had Down syndrome, so Miranda would be the only one joining her this time. Katherine made new friends and had the help of Moussa, her old friend, field assistant and interpreter, who she took with her at all times while conducting research. She had spoken the language of Babmara, which shocked the locals, however she could only talk about things pertaining to her research and a few other topics. (This is why she needed Moussa.) She had brought Miranda with again, which seemed a bit foolish to me, given all of the diseases and problems that could arise while they stayed in Mali. Miranda ended up having a close encounter with death when she contracted malaria. Katherine’s worst fear had become a reality. Miranda luckily recovered and I believe this opened up not only my eyes, but also Katherine’s eyes to the terrifying yet wonderful experiences you could encounter in West Africa. Dettwyler told detailed stories about plenty of malnourished children, some of which she saved from the death so many others in their village face. She told humorous stories about fun times and laughs she got from the locals. It was always a shock to them that she spoke Bambara, and she used that to create humor along her journey. In chapter four, she was taking samples of feces and urine from the Magnambougou people to test for various parasites. She would collect the samples and ride the public transportation to the lab that she was having them tested at. Dettwyler would sit in silence and let the locals discuss where the smell could possibly be coming from, not knowing Katherine could understand them the whole time. On her last trip out to the lab right before she got off she blurted out, “The smell is because my bag is full of little bottles of shit!” (Pg. 43) Everyone was laughing, including me, and they were very shocked by not only her admission, but also the fact that she spoke Bambara! These moments in the book were my absolute favorite. She did such a great job of telling her story in the field while constantly making me want to read more! Through her use of humor, Katherine Dettwyler’s book Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa, was wonderful to read and left me wanting more.
While in the field, Dettwyler encountered numerous ethical challenges. The most outrageous one that stuck with me took place in chapter three. While on her way to get some measuring done Dettwyler saw two girls leaving their hut with their father and they were looking very ill. She turned to Moussa and asked what was wrong with them, and he told...