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Traveling Companions: The Burial of the Placenta in Niger

  • Barbara M. Cooper

Abstract:

This article, part of a historical study of childbirth in the Sahel, draws upon oral interviews, ethnographic materials, and studies of midwifery to explore placenta burial in Niger. In the region the placenta is often referred to as the “traveling companion” that ushers the new human from one world to the next. Only through proper respect toward the placenta by means of careful burial can a woman’s future fertility be protected. The importance of protecting a woman’s future reproductive capacity accounts for both the centrality of this ritual to childbirth and for the appeal of the ritual expertise of elderly “traditional birth attendants” despite access to bio-medically trained midwives. Protecting a vulnerable parturient mother from the envy of those (such as co-wives) who might “tie up” her womb is an integral part of the process of childbirth. Appropriate placenta burial orchestrated by a woman’s therapy management group makes good on the cyclical intergenerational entrustment through which ancestors and descendants endure in a cycle linking birth and death, planting, and burial. “Traditional” rituals bear marks of major shifts in the agricultural economy, rapid urbanization, and ongoing adoption and reinterpretation of Islam. Multi-generational interviews reveal that across a broad range of ethnicities, status groups, and educational profiles, women in Niger share a concern for proper placenta burial. This approach to preserving women’s reproductive health and fertility is shared by adjacent neighbors, generations, and ethnicities.

Cet article fait partie d’une étude historique sur l’accouchement au Sahel. Il s’appuie sur des entretiens oraux, des matériaux ethnographiques et des études sur les sages-femmes pour explorer l’enterrement du placenta au Niger. Dans la région, le placenta est souvent appelé le « compagnon de voyage », accompagnant ainsi le nouveau-né d’un monde à l’autre. Ce n’est qu’en respectant le placenta au moyen d’un enterrement minutieux que la fertilité future d’une femme peut être protégée. La nécessité de protéger la capacité de reproduction future d’une femme tient compte à la fois de la centralité de ce rituel à l’accouchement et de l’attrait de l’expertise rituelle des anciennes “accoucheuses traditionnelles” bien que nombreuses soient des sages-femmes qui ont eu accès une formation biomédicale. Protéger une parturiente vulnérable contre l’envie de celles (comme les co-épouses) qui pourraient « attacher » son utérus est une partie intégrante du processus de l’accouchement. L’enterrement adéquate du placenta qui est orchestré par le groupe thérapeutique de la femme reflète le mandat cyclique intergénérationnel par lequel les ancêtres et les descendants perdurent, dans un cycle qui lie la naissance et la mort, l’ensemencement, et l’enterrement. Les rituels « traditionnels » portent les marques des changements majeurs qui sont survenus dans l’économie agricole, l’urbanisation rapide et une adoption et réinterprétation continues de l’Islam. Des entretiens multigénérationnels révèlent que dans un large éventail d’ethnies, de statuts sociaux et profils éducatifs différents, les femmes au Niger partagent une préoccupation pour la mise en terre convenable du placenta. Cette approche de la préservation de la santé reproductive et de la fertilité des femmes est partagée par les proches voisins, les générations et les ethnies.

Parte integrante de um trabalho sobre a história dos partos na região do Sahel, este artigo baseia-se em entrevistas, material etnográfico e estudos sobre o trabalho de parto, de modo a analisar a prática nigerense de enterrar placentas. Nesta região, a placenta é muitas vezes referida como “companheira de viagem,” trazendo o novo ser humano de um mundo para o outro. Para proteger a fertilidade da mulher, é necessário prestar o devido respeito à placenta, enterrando-a cuidadosamente. A importância de garantir a futura capacidade reprodutora da mulher explica quer a centralidade deste ritual de parto, quer a adesão aos rituais especializados das “assistentes de parto tradicionais,” independentemente de se recorrer a parteiras com formação biomédica. Faz também parte integrante do processo de parto proteger a vulnerável parturiente da inveja de todos aqueles (como as coesposas) que possam “amarrar” o seu útero. O enterro da placenta, devidamente organizado pelo grupo de gestão terapêutica da mulher, beneficia o processo de criação de confiança entre as gerações, através do qual progenitores e descendência percorrem um ciclo que liga nascimento e morte, cultivo e enterro. Nos rituais “tradicionais” identificam-se sinais das grandes mudanças ocorridas na economia agrícola, da urbanização acelerada, da contínua adoção e reinterpretação do Islão. Através de entrevistas plurigeracionais, percebemos que o enterro adequado da placenta é uma preocupação comum a um espectro alargado de etnias, estatutos e perfis de instrução. Este método de preservar a saúde reprodutiva e a fertilidade das mulheres é partilhado pelas populações vizinhas, atravessando gerações e etnias.

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