I was happy when I looked across the compound yesterday morning and saw Carine walking toward me, her small frame engulfed in a billowing West African boubou. I had thought of Carine and her sister, Berenice, often since I left CAR in December. Two of twenty-eight siblings, they were due to give birth within days of each other.
I asked first after Carine’s baby, who I’d heard had been sick last week. He’s doing better now, thankfully. Then I asked after Berenice. I’d only met Berenice a few times, but she’d quickly won me over with her vibrancy, generosity, warmth and smarts. I’d brought some baby board books for her and hoped to meet up with her soon.
“Elle est morte.”
Carine’s response made no sense to me. My first thought: she’s joking. My second thought: “morte” must have some alternate meaning that I’m not aware of. The idea that such a strong, healthy woman could just die seemed absurd.
Once I’d sat down, Carine explained. Berenice had gone into labor. At first, it seemed things were OK. But the doctor said she would need an operation. Sometime while she lay there, her abdomen gaping wide, she and the baby passed away.
I suppose I’m naive to be so shocked. CAR has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. But I realized that I had thought of those statistics as the statistics of other people, of people without access to doctors or people unable to take various precautions during pregnancy. When I last saw Berenice, a professor of geology at the University of Bangui, she explained how she was watching her diet and avoiding sugar and caffeine and visiting her physician regularly, all for the sake of her baby-to-be.
I had met her at a workshop of political “fragility”. Of the few women present, she spoke with the most passion. I’ll always remember her heartfelt monologue on the challenges of living with pervasive witchcraft. She joked comfortably with even the most senior people present. She had not just confidence, but confidence back up by intelligence. All that energy. Gone.
I went through the day with half a brain. The rest had clouded over, preoccupied and foggy. When I discussed Berenice’s passing with friends, many responded with some variation on “Si elle est morte, c’est que Dieu l’a voulu” (“If she is dead, it’s because God wanted it to happen”). I don’t buy it. But if I wanted to pull a shred of personal meaning from what was essentially a meaningless death -- that is, an unncecessary, preventable one -- I might take it as a stark reminder of the limits of anthropological values of relativism. I often find myself trying to explain -- to frustrated aid workers, for instance -- how people here aren’t just irrational or backward, and how their ways of life make sense if only you stop to try to understand the world from their perspective.* But deaths like this one are not to be understood. They are to be decried and abhorred and mourned.
* This is something of a caricature of both the aid workers’ and my own perspectives. For instance, recent anthropological work both important and fascinating (such as that of my adviser, Charles Piot) has tried to take the experience of radical uncertainty -- including the fragility of life in a place like Bangui -- seriously as a mode of sociality and understand the struggles it engenders.