Mothers of the Rainforest: A series of micro-blogs
The antihero-motherhood reading group started as a project to expand theoretical horizons, exchange methodological practices, and build a community around a somehow silenced topic amid social distancing fatigue. The following series of micro-blogs are the reading group’s response to the Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec (FIFEQ)’s invitation to the Concordia Ethnography Lab to write about the films premiered during their 2022 edition last May.
By Alexandria Hammond, Iris Stefani June, Melina Campos Ortiz, Neha Chugh and Alia Nurmohamed.
Mothers of the Rainforest, directed by Patricia Bermúdez from AMUPAKIN, the Association of Women Midwives Kichwas of Alto Napo, was part of the FIFEQ 2022 official selection. The festival website describes it as “a collective effort of resistance from the Amazonian Kichwas, the film is a beautiful statement of identity and the sharing of ritual forms.” Before watching it, we did not know more than what the festival’s website description stated, but that was enough to know that it would speak to us. We watched the film separately, and the result was the five micro-blog posts below. These short pieces denote how the film had a different, yet positive, impact on all of us: it made us reflect on our diverse birthing experiences, family stories, geographic backgrounds, and intellectual interests. These pieces also allowed us to leave our academic mindsets for a while and engage with other ways of being in academia. We invite you to read these pieces as a meta-blog or to delve into each piece individually.
List of contents:
- Red Pandas and the Rainforest: Mothering Across Generations – Alexandria Hammond
- Wise hands / Expert Hands – Iris Stefani June
- Herstories – Melina Campos Ortiz
- The Gift of Knowledge: Resisting the Medicalization of Motherhood – Neha Chugh
- Gifting Power Through Healing – Alia Nurmohamed
Red Pandas and the Rainforest: Mothering Across Generations (By Alexandria Hammond)
Last Saturday, I watched the documentary film Sacha Mamakuna: Mamás de la Selva which follows the Association of Women Midwives Kichwas from Alto Napo (AMUPAKIN), a self-organised birthing centre run by a collective of indigenous Kichwa midwives in Ecuador. The film opens with several frames along the vertical axis of the Amazon rainforest, or as the Kichwa people call it, la selva (the forest). I’m shown water dripping, a lush collection of flora I cannot identify, water falling, a procession of ants, a plant’s pollination, and more ants scrambling on the forest floor. The sequence of the ground level close-ups end with a wide shot pulling upwards, bringing us to a higher place up above the treeline.
On the same day I watched Sacha Mamakuna, I unintentionally also watched the Disney Pixar movie, Turning Red. The feature film is about a Chinese Canadian teenage girl, Mei, who turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets “too emotional.” When Mei’s mother Ming learns of her transformation, it is explained that all the women in her family share the same affliction. The ability to turn into a red panda was once a gift given by Mei’s ancestor Sun Yee; now under the pressure to conform to contemporary Canadian society, it is a curse. The curse of the red panda can be sealed away during a ritual performed on the night of a red moon. It is Mei’s turn to grapple with the choice to keep her red panda or follow the path all her female relatives have taken before her and seal it away in a pendant or brooch.
To my surprise, both films are a stunning portrayal of the cultural weight on mothers, daughters, as well as the burden (and joy) found in generational struggle. In the days after watching Sacha Mamakuna and Turning Red in tandem, I kept returning to this question: Do red pandas live in the rainforest? The answer is no. Red pandas are an endangered species living in the dry deciduous forests of the Eastern Himalayas. Despite knowing this, the question remained with me.
The persistence of the question, I think, comes from the fact that both films tell a universal story: of mothers raising their daughters, and what happens when mothering is cultural revival, passed from one generation to the next. Asking whether red pandas live in the rainforest is not literally applicable. Instead, it is a metaphor that is meant to build solidarity between those who mother against dominant culture from within, and those who mother outside of it. Answering this question requires thinking about mothering across generational, as well as indigenous and immigrant divides such that mothering becomes a mode of decolonization.
Wise Hands / Expert Hands (By Iris Stefani June)
While watching Sacha Mamakuna my eyes were constantly drawn to the motions of the Kichwa midwives’ hands. Their knowledgeable hands flow with intuitive muscle memory, navigating the unruly landscapes of the Amazon, of birthing bodies, of midwifery politics, despite the precarity that surrounds every aspect of their work. Their movements are firm and knowing, yet gentle and without intent to contain or tame these wildernesses. I see hands that are unafraid to be in contact with dirt and flesh, treating nature with reverence rather than fear or disgust.
Flesh-to-flesh, these hands skillfully massage birthers, easing labour pains and guiding the safe passage of new life. Bodily fluids, sounds, movements,
are permitted to unfurl, mimicking the abundant Amazon jungle outside. These hands offer comfort and safety in the wilderness and mystery of birth, rather than placing instruments or interventions between bodies to eliminate every ounce of risk or uncertainty.
As these wildernesses are altered or disappeared, the Kichwa midwives are steadfast in their daily practices of medicine and food preparation, tending to the pregnant and birthing bodies in their care, and ensuring the passage of knowledge to the next generation. Several of the midwives recall secretly watching their first births as children through a crack in the door. Many birth workers (myself included) begin this way, peering through the cracks of medical enclosures, feeling that something is wrong or becoming irrevocably lost. Wise to how the ongoing severing of flesh-to-flesh connections and intergenerational passages of knowledge quiets and immobilizes bodies… Wise to how these practices attempt to prevent the outpouring of
that may leak through these too-rigid containers.
Medical technologies and expertise undoubtedly carry the potential to save and improve lives. At the same time, biomedical dominance has advanced structures of reproductive injustice, disproportionately aimed at gendered, racialized, and colonized bodies. These structures are apparent through the glaring inequities in quality, accessible, culturally-appropriate care and the widespread experiences of obstetric violence. Sacha Mamakuna provides a critical opening into the politics of midwifery, where birth and birth work are sites of power struggle over who can control and profit from reproduction, with medical expertise acting as an enclosure to limit reproductive accessibility and autonomy.
In the film, we witness the state honoring these midwives with an award for their cultural work despite the refusal to fund or legitimize their expertise in other, more meaningful ways. Midwifery has long fought for its legitimacy and value on the margins, celebrated as tradition or counterculture but rarely given the space to be an obstetrical equivalent or alternative. As viewers, however, our preconceived notions around birthing expertise are challenged as we witness these midwives as contemporary practitioners and political agents pushing for the survival of these timeless practices. We observe the power and legitimacy in their hands-on, intergenerational, flesh-to-flesh practice and the threat it poses to current regimes of expertise.
Herstories (By Melina Campos Ortiz)
Many things intrigued me while watching Mothers of the Rainforest, but there was one scene I still cannot stop thinking about. It was not an easy scene for me to watch; I had to pause the movie at least twice. Towards the middle of the film, the teenage daughter of one of the midwives gives birth to her child. She was in the birth clinic run by the midwife association, a concrete building in the middle of the lush Ecuadorian Amazon. The girl gave birth squatting, her hand gripping a blue metal bar hanging from the ceiling. The child came from underneath her. At least five women were there, her mother among them, sustaining her through birthing.
Paying attention to the “alternative” birthing infrastructure and practices at the clinic with my eyes half-closed, I imagined western “mystical experience” seekers paying thousands of dollars to go to the Amazon to have their kids. I visualized that scene becoming “the ultimate rainforest birth experience.” When I saw the teenage girl wearing her school uniform after giving birth and realized how young she was, I wondered if this person ever asked herself if she wanted to be a mother. Unlike Sheila Heiti (one of the authors we read), I suspect she would never have had the “luxury” of spending years pondering the decision. While a part of me praises Heiti for her achievement in showing how motherhood can be a decision; another part of me feels guilty for finding her experience more relatable than the ones presented in this documentary.
As I tried to make sense of four months of discussions on motherhood while watching this film, I realized that the image of these five women sustaining another while giving birth somehow depicts our reading group’s name and ethos: “anti-hero motherhood.” A name inspired by the first article we read, in which anthropologist Emily Yates-Doerr shows how a common accident with her kid during her fieldwork made her refuse the “killer story” of the hero (a.k.a the lone ethnographer myth of the white male anthropologist that goes away for his fieldwork and triumphantly returns to the “civilized world” thereafter). Inspired by Ursula LeGuin, she decides to tell a story based on an anti-hero script, or a herstory, as Isabelle Stengers would name it. For Stengers, “[r]etelling the past, telling herstories, implies we alter the myth that wants us to believe we should be so lucky to no longer live together” (Stengers and De Cauter, 2017, quoted in Yates-Doerr, 2020, p. 240). Herstories emphasize dependency, and recognize failure. However, they are not an aggressive withdrawal from the hero’s individualism but a healing that departs from such individualism. That is precisely what I saw in this film: the herstories of the midwives who refuse to live in the One World World (OWW) -as John Law (2015) calls the world vision modernity has imposed upon us. And instead, show us other, more relational, ways of being and bringing people into the world(s).
The Gift of Knowledge: Resisting the Medicalization of Motherhood (By Neha Chugh)
The film Mothers of the Rainforest challenges my understanding of how knowledge is shared, bringing understandings of medicalized norms and health to the forefront. Traditional Ecuadorian midwives share their stories of the intergenerational cultivation of knowledge and the mementos they pass on into spheres of healthcare, healing, and childbirth. There are no beeping machines, no needles, no blood counts. The opening scene is one of women of all ages working together, singing, tending to the overgrown bush. There is history, knowledge, experience, and land.
In an early scene, an elder midwife is preparing the threads, rubbing them on her legs, the way her own mother taught her. There is a slow and deliberate beauty to her process, the significance of the threads known to her and her community. With intention, with a mindful approach to each task and totem, each memory is a sacred part of a ritual. Later, a woman tasked with gathering plants and roots for medicine skillfully works in the forest, describing each item and its use, working through the forest with ease.
Knowledge is represented as a gift, passed from elders to the next generation. The gift of knowledge is accumulated through experience and cultivation, which stands in stark contrast with the commodification of knowledge in modern Western medicine. The knowledge base of healing and medicine is cultivated intergenerationally, passed on through community, shared with the land and culture.
Modern Western medicine values competing for intelligence through standardized testing, academic rigour, and grueling training processes. Knowledge is an asset that is achieved and secured by the few who have risen to success. Rarely do healthcare recipients question the history of knowledge that informs Western modern medicine.
When I think of the memories of my 3 childbirths, I think of sterility, the medicalization, the appointments, the machinery. Hospitalized child births have changed the mementos from traditional, land-based, cultural, and rich in history, to an empirical and scientific process.
The mementos of my childbirths: sterile pads, intravenous fluids, routine checks and balances, process and procedure. The preparation: monthly appointments with the obstetrician, with an unexpected date of arrival at the hospital, greeted by unknown but knowledgeable healthcare workers. My mementos: a hospital issued bracelet and nametag.
I did not ask my obstetrician, pediatrician, anesthesiologist, general practitioner, or team of nurses where they obtained their knowledge. I assumed, based on their credentials, that their recommendations were sound. I was not involved in my healing process at a cultural level. I was discharged from hospital and my file was closed.
A midwife from the documentary remarks, “Even if it is complicated we want to be proud of our culture.” And thus, the gift of healing knowledge is intricately interwoven in their culture, each ritual being implemented with care and a richness of the mementos of their history.
Gifting Power Through Healing (By Alia Nurmohamed)
At first, I resisted watching the documentary Mothers of the Rainforest about the Association of Women Midwives Kichwas (AMUPAKIN) of Alto Napo, Ecuador. I think, somehow, I knew I would be reminded of my grandmother, who passed away the day I found out I was pregnant.
As I saw Kichwa midwives speak of the gifts of their practices, the security they could provide, the comfort that traditional knowledge brings, the belonging of being part of a collective, I was transported to my grandmother’s kitchen room floor. Sitting at her feet, learning how to cook and brew herbal remedies through the stories she would share about her family, home, and God. The Kichwa midwives, and my grandmother, have a traditional approach to healing associated with reverence and being part of a greater whole. As Geest and Whyte (1989) note, “medicines are ‘charms’ that act as important vehicles for imparting and communicating social messages” (Torri, 2013:816).
As I watched the Kichwa midwives speak of their knowledge and practices, I felt a sense of insufficiency to the academic words “knowledge transfer.” Knowledge transfer is an accurate term, yet holds a transactional feeling that seems at odds with the ethos at AMUPAKIN. Kichwa midwives seem to pass on their learnings as a sacred act. As custodians of Indigenous knowledge, mentoring young girls evokes the bequeathing of power from older midwives to younger hands as an offering to the Kichwa community. As intersectional maternal scholar Patricia Hill Collins (1994) notes, the labor and mentoring of Kichwa midwives supports the growth, survival, and positive identity of the Kichwa people in the face of dominant biomedical institutions that tokenize and create barriers to their birthing practices.
Just as the gifts of healing can be literally passed from older hands to younger hands (Torri, 2013), life seemed to pass from earth, to the Kichwa, and back to the earth through the respectful use of medicinal plants. Healing comes from plants and the Kichwa midwives showed deference to the earth. By planting seeds of medicinal plants, Mother Earth is replenished and thanked. The collectivity of birthing seems to signify being part of a greater life force, of the land itself. Both Canadian Indigenous motherhood (Anderson, 2007), and the Sami of Finland (Kuokkanen, 2007) evoke the power of life as gifts from earth, where “social ties apply to everybody and everything, including the land” (Kuokkanen, 2007: 71).
This larger web of relations that extends to people and the land (Anderson, 2007; Kuokkanen, 2007) evokes the feeling of sitting at grandmother’s feet. I am part of a larger history but I am also in that kitchen, and in my family, oral traditions were passed from mother to daughter. I think this feeling is partly why I wanted to start a reading group on motherhood with Melina. That seems like an odd thing to say. I desired to be part of a web greater than myself that is also here, happening in the Ethnography Lab at Concordia University. For me, discussing motherhood is a collective gift.
Join the conversation!
The anti-hero-motherhood reading group gathers every third Monday at the Concordia Ethnography Lab and on Zoom. We are not all mothers, some of us don’t even know if we want to be, but motherhood has gathered us around a zoom link since the beginning of the year. For more information please contact Alia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anderson, Kim. 2007. “Giving Life to the People: An Indigenous Ideology of Motherhood.” In Maternal Theory: Essential Readings. ed. Andrea O’Reilly, 761-81. Demeter Press: Toronto.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1994. “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing About Motherhood.” In Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. eds. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang and Linda Rennie Forcey, 45-66. Routledge: New York.
Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2007. “The Gift Logic of Indigenous Philosophies in the Academy.” In Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview is Possible. ed. Genevieve Vaughan, 71-83. Innana Education and Publications, Inc: Toronto.
Law, John., 2015. “What’s wrong with a one-world world?” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory. 16(1): pp.126–139.
Torri, Maria Costanza. 2013. “Perceptions and Uses of Plants for Reproductive Health Among Traditional Midwives in Ecuador: Moving Towards Intercultural Pharmacological Practices.” Midwifery 29(7): 809-17.
Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2020. “Antihero Care: On Fieldwork and Anthropology.” Anthropology and Humanism. 45(2): pp. 233–244.