Accepted paper:

Ritualizing the Womb: Kañeleng Women's Resolve to Counter Infertility in the Gambia

Authors:

Bala Saho (The University of Oklahoma)

Paper short abstract:

My paper examines how voluntary associations of childless women, or Kañeleng Kafo, shape perceptions of infertility in modern Gambia and how they counter the burden of childlessness and reflect – or help redefine – the cultural construction of womanhood.

Paper long abstract:

My paper examines how voluntary associations of childless women, or Kañeleng Kafo, shape perceptions of infertility in modern Gambia and how they counter the burden of childlessness and reflect - or help redefine - the cultural construction of womanhood. Kañeleng is a woman who cannot bear children, whom society considers infertile, or whose children die at an early age. One of the main goals of the group is to increase the chances of its members to bear children and raise them to maturity. To become a member, the aspirant has to undergo a ritual bath to cleanse the body of any "bad" spirit. In Africa, anthropologists have long studied the subject of infertility and how individual women confront the problem especially in patrilineal groups where the highest duty of a woman is to bear children. Very little is known about the practices of kañeleng groups and how these women confront the problem by using traditional mechanisms. My study introduces the traditional processes and mechanisms (efforts and practices that lay outside modern day hospitals and clinics) by which the kañeleng struggle to cope with and challenge the issues of childlessness in the Gambia by participating in rituals, prayers, performances, songs, thieving, and transvestite role inversions. I examine how these infertile women assert themselves in a social order that rejects them, highlighting the creation and meaning of ritual space. The rituals attain the purpose of redefinition because of the objectionable attitudes that have characterized relationships between kañeleng and the general Gambian public.

panel P145
African Women Interpreting and Redefining Public Health in late 20th and early 21st century Africa