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from the August 2017 issue

The Forest of Midwives

In this excerpt from a book-length work of the same name, Eliane Brum explores the sacred mystery of life via the remarkable tales and intuitions of the indigenous midwives that usher children into the world in rural Brazil.

They were born in the humid belly of the Amazon, in Amapá, a state forgotten by the news at the northernmost tip of Brazil. The rest of the country won’t listen to them, tone deaf to the sounds of their ancient knowledge and to the beat of their song. Many there don’t know the alphabet, but they read the forest, the water, and the sky. They have come from the bodies of other women who also bear the gift for pulling out children. Theirs is a knowledge that can’t be learned, or taught, or even explained. It simply is. Sculpted from the blood of mothers and the water of children, their hands birth a piece of Brazil. 

A wild, female cry echoes out from its perching place at the peak of the map, a reminder that birthing is natural; that it doesn’t require genetic engineering or surgeries, nor the smell of hospitals. For the midwives of the forest, who have kept this tradition alive thanks to the isolation of their birthplace, it’s easier to understand that a dolphin might emerge from the igarapé to impregnate a maiden than to accept that a woman will schedule a date and time for her child to be wrenched out of her. Almost the entire population of Amapá, less than half a million people, were brought into the world by the hands of seven hundred child-pullers. These are women who conjugate in the plural and overuse collective pronouns. In their lives, the I is alien and reserves no privilege.  

Perched on a boat, or feeling their way with their feet, the índia Dorica, the cabocla Jovelina, with her copper skin, and the quilombola Rossilda, a descendant of slaves who escaped long ago to set up free lives, are guides in this journey through ancient mysteries. Their paths meet with those of Tereza and with the indigenous midwives of Oiapoque. They are joined by the lines inscribed in the palm of their hands, each representing a different birth. “Pulling children means patience,” explains Maria dos Santos Maciel, or Dorica, a Karipuna, and the eldest of the Amapá midwives. She is ninety-six, and more than two thousand indigenous men and women have arrived in the world through her small, almost child-sized hands. Dorica—grandmother, mother, godmother of hundreds of pulled children—never even wanted this gift. “This is how the gift works. It’s born in you. And you can’t say no,” she explains. “A midwife doesn’t have a choice. She’s called in the dead of night to populate the world.”

A female specter, Dorica navigates the rivers of Oiapoque with no more than a small lamp. She travels with her sister, Alexandrina, who is sixty-six years old, and whose children—nine out of eleven—she has helped birth. “Woman and forest are one,” says Alexandrina. “Mother Earth has everything, and you can find everything else in a woman’s body. Strength, courage, life, and pleasure.”

As the oars slice the silent river, they are stalked by the lamplike eyes of crocodiles. “They’re not dangerous. All they eat is dogs and sandals,” reassured Dorica. “We opened one up a little while ago and that was all there was.” The midwife recalls her own belly’s sixteen miscarriages; she was prevented from having a child by designs she is in no position to question. “I’m tired,” she says. “I’d like to ask God to let me retire from midwifing.”

But God moves more slowly than a government employee. To this day, her request has been left unanswered. So when she reaches her destination, Dorica digs her heels into the earth and crouches between the woman’s thighs while Alexandrina hugs the pregnant woman’s body from behind with her legs. Dorica does not force anything from inside the female body. She simply waits. She pulls at the mother’s belly, positioning the child. She lathers the belly with tapir, stingray, or opossum oil to hasten the cramps, and recites prayers and incantations to consecrate the mystery. She punctures the sac with her nail and cuts the umbilical chord with an arrowhead. “Pulling children means waiting on the birthing time,” she teaches. “City doctors don’t know this, and because they don’t know, they cut women.”

For eight days, Dorica will leave her cassava plantation. It’s the midwife’s calling to cook and to clean, to draw out the uterus every morning and every afternoon, so that the woman is healthy. It is her duty to brush the mother’s breast with a thin comb and with water poured from a white gourd, so that her white milk will rush into her child’s lips. It is her wisdom to suck air out of the baby’s nose with her mouth until it cries. After this, Dorica hands the wife over to her husband: “I’ve done all I can for your wife. Now you have to take care of your family.” The husband responds, in thanks: “I’ll give you whatever you need.” To which Dorica replies: “God pays.” So the dialogue comes to a close. That is how it goes. And how it has gone for over five hundred years.

The woman will only open the door of her house after she has rested with her child for forty days. Before the baby breathes the forest air, she is blessed with water and salt to ward off evil spirits. Over the course of two thousand births, Dorica has lost only three. There isn’t a day that goes by she doesn’t mourn them. “This child is missing from the community,” she declares. For the people of the forest, no one is replaceable. Or expendable. A life that ends before it takes hold cannot be. It will be lamented forever.

The Amazonian midwife waves good-bye as our canoe vanishes upstream. A macaw watches her from a branch as a flock of parrots cuts through the sky cawing and a girl bathes in the igarapé before she gets ready for school. It’s just another day. Dorica places her hand on her old heart and, mouthing quiet words, pulls out a blessing to those who are departing. Then, turning her back, she goes off to puff tobacco, to pass the time until the fifth child of the village’s last big-bellied woman, the índia Ivaneide Iapará, thirty-three years old, pounds at the gateway to the world, requesting entry.  

Most of the midwives of the forest are Catholic, some Pentecostal. Others are batuqueiras, Spiritualists. Even when they invoke a male Christian God, the Holy Spirit, or the Orishas, they declare themselves the guardians of mysteries that have been passed on by mothers and grandmothers in a chain that stretches back centuries. In this nameless faith, the great godhead is a woman. It is said she rules over the beginning-middle-end, birth-life-death, and present-past-future.

When they row miles and miles down the river, or walk to help another woman consecrate her miracle, childbirth, it is an act of resistance and subversion, proof that each woman has a bit of the Goddess in her. Many midwives burned during the Inquisition; and those who obey their calling today didn’t learn this history in books. But they still somehow carry the memory of that heat in their bones.

At seventy-seven, Jovelina Costa dos Santos is the most famous midwife of Ponta Grossa do Piriri, a sad, scanty little village of a few dozen scattered houses and plantations a hundred miles from Macapá. “God gave me this standing,” she announces from the door of her shack. Her face has more wrinkles than the sky has stars. Cheerful like no other, when she opens her mouth it is as if a piece of the world might break loose. It’s not that Jovelina is happy, exactly—she laughs because she has chosen not to be sad.  That’s Jovelina: complex simplicity. When she wakes up in the morning, she doesn’t even know if she’ll eat before the sun rises again. But to her, she is richer than most. “Children are riches, sister, and so beautiful to look at.”

She continues her philosophizing: “Here, in this faraway place in the depths of this country, we either fill the world with children or disappear.” And this is the only way to understand when Jovelina says, as she hides her teeth, threatening to submerge the world into darkness: “I only had eight.” Only? “Well, yes, only. It’s so good to give birth to them . . .” And then she corrects herself, naughtily: “And even better to make them.”

Jovelina became a midwife when she was still a girl, as if fallen into a trap God laid pointing her to her destiny. When she tells this story, she is joined by so many it might as well have been a ticketed event: “The first one was Isabel, compadre Sevério’s wife, who lived out back by Volta das Cobras. Leave Isabel to us, compadre, my mother told him. That night, Isabel caught a fever and got the chills from the cold, but she didn’t even once cry ow. In the morning, Mom went back to the plantation, and it was just me and Isabel. Jovita, Jovita, go collect water for a bath, she said.” And Jovelina interrupts herself to explain, in a different tone, that she is Jovita in the story. “Here you go, Isabel, I said. Did you know I felt chills from the cold this morning? she asked. Did you, Isabel? I asked. I did, Jovita. I was brushing her hair when the spill came. Jovita, sister, give me a hand. Isabel crawled under the mosquito net, and that’s when I pulled out the boy. He was cold. Dead. When Mom arrived, she asked: How’s it going, Jovita? Fine, mom. Then, she said: good, daughter, from now on you can go instead of me. And I did.”

Simple as that. For help, Jovelina relies only on São Bartolomeu, advocate of midwives, and São Raimundo, Our Lady of Good Birth, and other, more important saints who also support them. But it’s not quite São Bartolomeu, either. To Jovita, he’s “São Bertolamé,” which she says with a touch of a French accent, and much more pizzazz. “At four in the afternoon, Bertolamé rose and his staff arose with him. Along his way, he walked. And that’s when he bumped into Our Lady, who asked Bertolamé where he was going. I’m going to Our Lady’s house, he said. Go on, Bertolamé, for there I will give you great powers, so that women will not die in labor or girls die smothered.” That’s how it goes. Recite this prayer and the baby will slide out and into the forest, right into the midwife’s hands.

Cabocla Jovelina is haunted by only two things in life. When speaking of them, she even allows herself the luxury of sighing. One is her first husband, for whom a deep passion blazes inside her to this day, even though he has passed away. “I was crazy about that man. But I had to let go. There was me, and three other wives. Ugh!” The other is doctors, to whom Jovelina attributes an extraordinary ignorance. “The things these women suffer in the maternity are a blow, my sister,” she says, appalled. “Here, if the baby’s settled in awkwardly, we go on and turn him. I put my hand in and pull and pull until he’s been set right and his head’s in place. That way, you don’t need to cut anything. Doctors, the poor things, they don’t know how to turn children.”

Before she says good-bye, Jovelina calls to her “umbilical children” so that she can show them off to the guests. The only reason the entire village doesn’t show up is because most of them are at a soccer tournament in the next town over, where members of both teams were brought onto the field by Jovelina’s hands. The midwife plants her legs—crooked like Garrincha's, the soccer-playing angel with bent legs—on her doorstep, places her blessed hands on her hips, and belts: “Come on now, you little band of brutes! Oh, if only my mother had sent me to school, I wouldn’t be breaking my neck to get by.” She smiles wide again, lighting up the sky, then warms up and says: “Oh, but they’re a beautiful bunch, aren’t they?”

Giving birth is women’s mystery. Performed by women and between women. It’s their affair. It’s beyond the comprehension of the midwives of the forest that life could come into existence in a hospital, a cradle of death, as if childbirth were an illness. For each midwife, pain is a sign of the ecstasy of birth. Opposites as inseparable as night and day. Giving birth is not suffering. It is celebration. “I’m from a time when you had to be a child’s mother to know the mystery. Virgin girls didn’t speak about sex so they wouldn't feel pleasure in the speaking,” says Rossilda Joaquina da Silva—sixty-three years old, eleven children, twenty grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. “When it’s time for the baby to come, all the women get together and it’s a beauty.”

She is black, as black as the earth of the quilombo of Curiaú, in the outskirts of Macapá. She opens her plump arms, strong and muscular from pulling children, sewing dresses, and blessing the ill: “Inner Curiaú, Outer Curiaú, I helped birth children inside and out. Everything hereabouts was born from my hands.” Rossilda is solemn as she drops her broom to tell her lot, rocking in her rocking chair to the sound of songs that would rush entangled births. “Oh, Lord, glorious São João, who was anchored in the River Jordão. God make me worthy, oh God of mercy, the ropes that hear me will bear me.”

In Rossilda’s Curiaú, they were holding a celebration for São Lázaro, the patron saint of dogs. Yes, explains Rossilda, even dogs have patron saints. As dignified as ever, Rossilda speaks of how lovely the banquet for São Lázaro was. “There was beef, Christian food. We each had our own plate set on the table. There was such respect, such delicacy. It was all very civilized.” In the quilombo’s newspaper, O Sabá, written by the midwife’s eldest son, the headline read: “The sheep Chibé, after many a head-butt, is now this year’s Christmas barbeque.” And on the last page, the following explanation: “Chibé was mischievous, playful, and daring, and never missed an opportunity to run at people and knock playing children to the ground. We all miss the sheep Chibé whose fatal destiny was to become our Christmas barbeque.”

This is Curiaú, a land full of rhymes since the time of slaves who chanted at trees to keep from losing their breath. And like the ground she stands on, Rossilda is a woman soaked in enchantment. For every birth, she is accompanied by another midwife, a conjured spirit, Angelina, who was long ago disembodied. But Rossilda will not speak of the secret of their partnership, one living and one unliving. “Or else,” she says, “it’ll lose its valuableness.”

After nine moons have passed, the men of Curiaú are sent on their way, so that they can’t make a ruckus. Because at times like this, men only know to fuss. Childbirth is a female celebration. Neighbors come from all around, sisters and girlfriends. They fill every corner of the house, brewing coffee, making cassava pap, and telling tales and jokes to distract the big-bellied woman. Laughing a little and praying, Rossilda, dressed from head to toe in white, readjusts the baby and keeps track of the pain. And seeing it, she goes, “Here comes the baby sliding into the world.” Only then is the father called to cock his rifle and shoot into the air—three times for a boy, two for a girl. If it’s a boy, he’ll be another Joaquim or another Raimundo. If it’s a girl, more often than not, Maria.

This is how Rossilda’s children were born: Sebastião, Eraldo, Leonice, Leonilza, Leoneide, Lourença, Leicione, Leodenice, Leodivaldo. . . “Am I missing one? Ah, yes, Lucivaldo.” How her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were born. And how her great-great-grandchildren will be born. Framed by the door and crowned by a wooden acapú cross, which wards off the forces of evil, Rossilda says good-bye with a rhyme. “Clean hands and pure heart, I’m a midwife, bringing children to earth.”

The forest of midwives is a forest of singsong. “Those who say we’re nothing and have nothing are wrong. Look at us, here, well-organized and prepared, with these midwives I’ll stand,” croons Tereza Bordalo—fifty-one years old, five children and five grandchildren, a midwife since the age of sixteen—in the wide-open vowels of the North. As mysterious as the rest of them, she raises her hands to the sky and traces an invisible cross at the woman’s vagina, the crocodile tooth swinging dangerously between her breasts, like a profane Madonna.

Then she prays and fulfills the secret she will never tell a Christian soul. A secret that rose out of the middle of the night in the shape of a woman who wore a trail the color of the sky. In a whisper, the one who was not of this world ordered her to be rid of her husband, the innocent man who snored beside her. She had nights and nights of haunted dreams. She’d barely fall asleep and the lady would appear, all made up in reverie. Tired of arguing with the hereafter, she told João Bordalo to go sleep somewhere else. Only then did the spirit reveal what she was there for, and then vanished forever. But not before she warned Tereza: “Reveal my secret and I will take back your powers . . .” Since then, she’s never been in a tight spot between women’s legs.

Swinging her umbrella—an indispensable tool for an Amazonian winter—Tereza calls the midwives of the forest to participate in a ritual of thanks. She places her foot on the ground, pregnant with the waters of Saint-Georges-de-l’Oyapock, in French Guyana, which is separated from Brazil and from the Oiapoque by no more than a river of the same name. She greets her friends with a “bon soir, ça va bien?” On the other side of the border, the midwives are all madames. Or, more accurately, “madam.” Such as Madam Marie Labonté, an indigenous Karipuna with the poise of a child, who slinks into the bush in search of snakeskin. “If you drink snakeskin tea, the baby will be born without pain, oui?” Oui, merci, who would dare dissent.

From inside the forest, they emerge, shy and silent. Barefooted or wearing rubber sandals. They are poor, they are midwives. Many do not even have teeth. Others only eat tapioca flour. For the task of helping humanity into the world they have never been paid a dime. “What I most want in life is a nice bed,” sighs Cecília Forte, sixty-six years old, who has known no other resting place than a cotton hammock. When hunger strikes, the heart gives in, threatening to stop. Thick-skinned, Cecília resists. She does not even like midwifing much, she confesses. “What I like most is mending old clothing. Why? Well, I think all old people like mending clothes. It’s a bit like mending life. Like mending both, mending one to mend the other.”

Delfina dos Santos, fifty-six years old, raises her hand to trace the path of the children she’s pulled. Her hand is dark, knotted, each palm a tangle of lines leading to the weft of all the lives she has welcomed. “I helped Eremita birth twice, Elvira once, Odete once, Alzemira once, Leliane once, Helena twice, Celina once, Josefina once . . . ” Her trail of sisters is long.

Marie Labonté, now forty-eight, helped her own mother give birth when she was just fifteen. Maria Rosalina dos Santos, fifty-six, was midwife to her daughter. Just like Nazira Narciso, forty-five, who welcomed her granddaughter when the midwife refused to do it, because it was a “strange belly.” “She’s not married,” Nazira translated. Whether the baby was conceived by a porpoise or by immaculate conception, it doesn’t matter, “God was the midwife.” But he did so with a woman’s hand, because childbirth, believes Nazira, “must be done by an equal.” “Indigenous, creole, Brazilian, it’s one pain,” she explains. “It’s the same crying.”

Their hands full of life hold each other, their trail-worn feet planted in a circle in the forest’s uterus. The midwives thank the divinity until dawn. Like all creatures in the world, day rises at a precise hour without anyone or anything having to tear it out of the night’s womb. Day and child follow the same law of nature, each with the same seed. Complementary parts of one single universe.

The midwives raise their candles asking for a light to guide them in their art. They invoke the earth, the river, the forest. This is a conversation between sisters, prose whispered with bated breath. An image that speaks to a society that is deaf and lost to its umbilical cord, with a larger world forged within our world. The voice of Dorica, the oldest midwife in the forest, echoes within each woman when she declares: “It’s time that makes man, and not man that makes time. Childbirth is a mystery. Children are not torn out. They are received.”

The circle is broken and the midwives board the boat on which they will sail the rivers that line the borders of Brazil. To answer a call only they can hear.

© Eliane Brum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Julia Sanches. All rights reserved.

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