Erica van der Sijpt
Project title: Ambigiuous ambitions. An anthropological study of reproductive ideas, practices, and decisions in Cameroon.
Between 2004 and 2009, I spent 15 months in the village I call Asung,
somewhere in the dense rainforest of eastern Cameroon. I set out to study women’s explanations and experiences of spontaneous pregnancy loss in a
context in which the childbearing imperative seemed to be upheld by all
members of society. I was also eager to find out more about the consequences
of such intimate events for women's reproductive trajectories.
I researched these issues while participating in Cameroonian daily life. In practice, this meant that I visited women at home or accompanied them to their plots of land, churches, markets, hospitals or other places of importance in their lives, while chatting about men, sex, pregnancies, children, losses, and their aspirations for the future. Over time, this talk increasingly turned into first-hand involvement as women started to share their most intimate reproductive experiences with me. They would knock on my door to tell me they missed their period. They asked me to accompany them to prenatal consultations when pregnant, or to traditional healers when their pregnancy was suspiciously disrupted. They involved me in their abortion decisions and practices. They gave birth to their children in my presence. And they invited me to funerals when their babies or children died.
The more I got involved in these different events, the more I came to question the premises about pregnancy, loss, and pregnancy loss that had informed my initial research questions. The distinction I had made between early and late pregnancy loss seemed at odds with local conceptualizations, and there was a constant yet ambiguous connection between intended and unintended losses. I felt I had to broaden my scope to capture a whole range of ‘reproductive interruptions’ in order to fully grasp the dynamics that evolve around any kind of mishap. And so, eventually, I interacted with women who, at some point or another in their lives, had passed through ambiguous reproductive moments such as unexpected missed periods and induced abortions, deaths of newborns and older children, or instances of primary or secondary infertility.
All these reproductive events seemed to have something in common: they left women’s reproductive trajectories hanging in the balance. The uncertainty such interruptions produced required what I came to call ‘reproductive navigation’, through which women reconsidered their stakes, reimagined their aspirations for the future, and redirected their life courses. The longitudinal character of my research – spread over five years – allowed me to follow my informants over time and to observe and discuss the ways in which they navigated the many hurdles in their reproductive lives.
As such, I was able to see that they constantly shifted their interpretations of when a pregnancy starts, what it contains, what is lost in case of a reproductive interruption, and how that loss was caused. Sometimes both pregnancies and losses were framed as important life-changing events, in need of biomedical and indigenous care; at other times they were downplayed as unimportant 'non-events' in one's particular life course. Depending on the context and on their aspirations – be it marriage and motherhood, or rather an educational trajectory, employment, or profitable sexual affairs with so-called ‘big fish’ – women negotiated and manipulated the meanings and effects of reproductive interruptions. Paradoxically, they often did so while portraying themselves as powerless.
Yet, the leeway women had was not unlimited. Involved as I was in their reproductive lives, I clearly saw how their maneuvers were always confined by various social predicaments as well as the capricious workings of their physical bodies. Acknowledging this interplay between individual agency, social connectedness, and corporeality, I developed a novel perspective on reproductive behavior and decision-making. Contrary to the stability that is often attributed to women’s fertility desires, I recognized that reproductive projects continuously change with the hopes and horizons that emanate from women’s individual and social bodies. Likewise, reproductive decisions and their outcomes are not fully under women’s control, but always inherently related to unpredictable socialities and physicalities.
Eventually, I described these and other issues in a Ph.D. thesis and various articles. This year, I also published a transformed version of my Ph.D. thesis. The book entitled, Wasted Wombs: Navigating Reproductive Interruptions in Cameroon was published by Vanderbilt University Press (find more details here).