I was supposed to be an observer.
When I first came to the Kalasha Valleys in Northern Pakistan to conduct PhD dissertation research on Kalasha women's culture, I was stunned by the din and buzz of daily life in this small, pastoral place. I taped it on my state-of-the-art cassette recorder, thinking no one would believe me otherwise. But when I came home two years later, and played it to astonish my friends and colleagues, I didn't hear chaotic noise any more – I heard the very particular words and voices of individual men, women and children who had become real to me.
Even though I was especially interested in observing their bashali, the communal menstrual house where women went when they were menstruating and to give birth, I'd never actually held a newborn before.
I waited anxiously for the birth of Taleem Khana Nana's child. When the time came, together with the midwife, we walked the half-mile up-valley to the bashali in the middle of night, our way lit by little torches of resin soaked wood. The birth was quick. The baby boy was big and healthy. The midwife cut the cord, swaddled him up, and then made a special sweet cream of wheat porridge for Taleem Khana Nana. All night, we bashali women, even me, took turns holding the baby around the fire while his mother slept. Taleem Khana Nana said I was his aunt, and said I should have a baby girl, and then we would marry our children and we'd be "khaltabar."
I documented the many rituals and visitations that happen in babies’ first weeks of life, as they are blessed and welcomed into the community.
Then, about a week after mother and child came home, he got sick. With the help of my by now worn copy of "Where There is No Doctor" I decided that he had pneumonia. A penicillin shot would likely cure him, the book said. Boys from the neighborhood raced to find the only young man in the valley with keys to the dispensary. But he had gone to the high pastures and was several hours away. The other women from Chet Guru took turns walking around with the baby. But sometimes I was the one holding him… and in between his heaving breaths, he was so still… so blue.
"Look," I said, "let's take him to Chitral! There's a jeep in the baazar. Let's go." But Taleem Khana Nana said she wanted to wait for her husband to come home, surely he would be home soon and then he would come with me to take the baby. I said we should go now. I said I would pay for the jeep and the hospital. She said, "Surely he'll come. Let's wait."
I was 26, just married, didn’t have kids, didn’t even know how to bake a cake… but I realized that I could have taken that baby, with or without his mother, and gone to Chitral. She would have let me.
They all would have let me.
But I didn’t.
Instead I sat outside, on the ground, and held the baby, as the other women, one by one, went home to tend to their own children.
One last huge gasp for breath ended in stillness.
I don't remember what happened exactly after that, but someone took the dead baby from me and sent me home.
I didn’t write about this, or the funeral that followed, or even the birth, in any of my work. I finished my dissertation, published a book, but after my daughters were born, I never went back to the field.
Wynne Maggi, 2011
Thoughts by Daniel Weinshenker
When Wynne walked into the old hog barn that we use for our workshops in Lyons, Colorado at Stonebridge Farm, I don’t think she had any idea. I surely didn’t. But, as always, I’m open to it.
We went around the story circle, and when it came to Wynne, she said that she used to be an anthropologist and was going to tell the story of a woman she observed in her research in a rural village in Pakistan… talk about her customs relating to menstruation, bathing houses, and post-partum traditions between mothers and babies.
This was part of a training of facilitators, so we had a discussion during a break. We all agreed that Wynne’s process was going to be interesting, since it seemed that she had come to tell someone else’s story. Similar to her research as an anthropologist, she was an observer, not a participant.
When we joined back again for the story circle and a facilitator asked who wanted to go first, Wynne volunteered because, as she said, she was going to make it “easy” on us, because she was just going to tell someone else’s story. I maybe saw a couple facilitators roll their eyes. I maybe rolled mine.
Wynne proceeded to talk about this rural Pakistani woman and her traditions and actions and life. It was research. Pure research… and looking around the room, I could tell that few people were listening deeply. I knew I wasn’t either. She continued on for five minutes or so and came to a stop.
This is a hard place to be in this work. Probably for everyone involved. We teach something. Someone comes to do something other than what we’re teaching. Sometimes they know it, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there’s a nudging or a pulling or a direct discussion about it.
But the facilitators-in-training were new. So nobody said anything. And I usually jump in, but I had an overwhelming sense that all that was necessary was the space. The space (and the silence and the witnessing as part of that space).
It was a group of twenty people sitting around the old wood tables in the hog barn. In the silence we could hear the sound of the irrigation canal outside the back door, the ticking of the timer for the water pump, a tractor, and the horns and the commerce of the Cemex plant across the road – the train cars lugging the heavy around.
Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Half a minute maybe.
And then Wynee broke into tears. Not just tears, but full weeping.
And after catching her breath, said:
“Or there’s this story…”, which became the script you read above.
Sometimes, or maybe even all the time, all we need to do is observe, sometimes all that’s needed is to be listened to, to be known, to witnesses someone telling a story and letting them hear the echo and then letting them become a participant in it for the very first time.
At the end she leaned back on her rickety old chair on the strangely even floor and said: “I’ve never told anyone that story before.”
Now she had.
And it became real to her. It became real to us.