Friday, February 25, 2011

When Cultures Collide

Two years ago, a scene played out at a hospital in Quibdó, Chocó, which has repeated itself many times over the years. Here is what happened. An indigenous woman entered the hospital with a sick baby. Once the baby was being taken care of, the mother got up and in broken Spanish stated, "I no want baby. I no want baby." The baby had down's syndrome and was suffering from malnutrition.

An article in the Colombian weekly magazine, SEMANA, reports that this scene is more common than one would like to admit. According to the author, in several of the Indigenous groups of Colombia there is a belief that having a child with any kind of deformity, a cleft lip, crossed eyes, missing limb or digit, mental retardation, etc. is a punishment of the Gods -- one which they cannot accept. They discontinue feeding the child and, without intervention, it will starve.

In other past cases, prior to ICBF intervention and education, children were simply smothered at birth. Now, ICBF has worked to encourage indigenous peoples to turn these children over to the adoptions social worker rather than commit infanticide. There have been cases where ICBF, the army, and medical support teams have had to go to the Indian Reservation and convince the mother to let the child go with them rather than let the child die.

Unfortunately, this has also led to a flip side. ICBF Chocó reports that they have 50 beds for children suffering from extreme malnutrition and 80% are filled with indigenous children. The head of the Department of Indigenous Health for the region claims that now Indigenous mothers have become accustomed to to giving their children to ICBF.

An interesting cultural side note to this story is that while parents who starve their children in Colombia are typically prosecuted by the legal system, those of the Indigenous community are not. This system has been in place for many generations to help facilitate the life that the Indigenous people live. Caring for children with special needs is difficult for hunter/gatherers, and while it is difficult for us to understand it from our cultural perspective, from theirs, a defective child comes from the devils to destroy the lives of the parents, family, and community. It is in the truest sense, survival of the fittest.

The upside of this story for the children is that there are many families desperately wanting to parent them. Take the example of one child, he was born in Tutunendo. He was born without one arm and with the fingers of his other arm stuck together. The ICBF worker reported that his parents had planned to burn him in boiling water to protect themselves from the devil. He was saved, however, by a local teacher who was able to warn the police, who then rescued the child. This child now lives with his adoptive parents in Europe.

From the article found here:

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