Katherine Dettwyler wrote Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa according to her fieldwork on children’s health in Mali. It is crucial to note that this book has received an award from the American Anthropological Society (Inside the mind of Kathy Dettwyler). Katherine Dettwyler’s main goal was to draw readers’ attention to diseases and their consequences in West Africa (Dettwyler, 2013). The writer has adopted a biocultural approach; the book’s primary focus is precisely on the biocultural studies of infant feeding and children’s health in general.
It is essential that Katherine Dettwyler raised ethical issues such as female circumcision. In addition, she discusses the problem of the mothers’ neglect of the health of their children. The author describes the events taking place with her own eyes; for example, she explains the complex tasks of anthropometric research while adding personal stories about relationships, conversations, and quarrels with her assistants and Malians. The book tells about the reality of local people and their views on health, death, disease, and well-being.
Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism
The author openly shares his feelings and experiences with the reader. She raises ethical issues and describes conflicts with helpers and her pain when parting with her family. Thus, readers understand that she is not only a researcher but also a person, wife, and, most importantly, a mother who worries about the health of not only her child but also other children. Katherine describes in her book why the symptoms of schistosomiasis are usually not taken into account and why there are not enough nutritious foods for young children (Dettwyler, 2013). The author is shocked by the dance of emaciated children that she calls them dancing skeletons. The children danced to their village’s success in applying good health and hygiene, although they were the physical skeletons of malnutrition.
Combination of personal opinion and academic research
As an ethnography, Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa surprised me with its frankness and combination of personal opinion and academic research. It is important to note that the author demonstrates ethnocentrism; in other words, she expresses an opinion from the point of view of her culture. Cultural relativism is very important for ethnographies, as this method describes the culture in terms of that culture and does not allow the imposition of one’s opinion and hasty judgments (Pérez, 2018). Despite their scientific interests, Katherine Dettwyler describes her personal experiences and culture shock more than scientific interests. The professional anthropologist should focus on studying culture and clearly presenting the observations without emotion or personal culture shock. As a consequence, the author mixes both approaches, using more ethnocentrism.
In my opinion, the main issue that has been raised is the problem of child malnutrition in rural Africa and that it is not enough to address hygiene and health issues. The author highlights one of the critical themes, demonstrating that it is not enough to proclaim the health and hygiene problems of rural West Africa without actively announcing child malnutrition as an extremely important problem.
To conclude, I was surprised at how clearly the author outlined the severity of children and Mali’s residents’ nutritional and health problems. The title of the book is associated with children who suffered from malnutrition and looked like skeletons. Therefore, Katherine Dettwyler tries to indicate how acute the problem is and that children can avoid death from diseases like malaria and measles if the malnutrition problem is addressed.
Dettwyler, K. A. (2013). Dancing skeletons: Life and death in West Africa. Waveland Press.
Inside the mind of Kathy Dettwyler. Curriculum Vitae 2014. Weebly.com.
Pérez, M. A. C., Erazo, M. D. O., Morocho, F. Y., Barreno, P. C. O. (2018). Cultural relativism, ethnocentrism and intercultural education and society in general. International Journal of Current Engineering Sciences, 7(1), 157-163.