Claire Wendland

Position title: Resident Fellow (2009-2010)

Anthropology; Obstetrics and Gynecology; Medical History and Bioethics, UW-Madison

Portrait image of Claire Wendland in front of a white wall

Giving Birth to Death: African Mothers’ Bodies and Expert Imaginations

This research project looks at changing concepts and loci of risk in childbirth in southeast Africa, in a setting in which very high maternal mortality rates force professionals and laypeople alike to develop explanations for the link between birth and death. Practitioners who care for women as they labor, birth, and all too often die in Malawi include traditional birth attendants and healers, nurse-midwives, doctors, herbalists and others. I am exploring how the narratives of maternal death they produce reflect experiences of a rapidly changing social, economic, and biomedical context. Their descriptions and prescriptions write upon dead mothers’ bodies their beliefs about the perils and potentials of women’s “empowerment” and the trauma of bearing witness to the lethal combination of poverty, pressure to bear children, and epidemic disease. I supplement their stories with ethnographic material including my encounters with mothers’ deaths in Malawi since 1990, and with historical accounts of interventions into African reproductive bodies.

Claire Wendland, who is an anthropologist and an obstetrician, is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with appointments in the Departments of Anthropology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Medical History and Bioethics. Her areas of active research and teaching center on the anthropology of reproduction, sexuality and the body, and the impact of contemporary global health movements in Africa. Her first book (in press, U. of Chicago) is A Heart for the Work: Journeys Through an African Medical School. At the IRH she will be working on her second book manuscript.