What if the moral guardians of West African societies are postmenopausal women? This is the argument that Laura S. Grillo makes in her 2018 book, An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital in Ritual and Politics in West Africa (Duke University Press, 2018).
Drawing on anthropological fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire that spans three decades, Grillo elaborates a revolutionary argument that has significant implications not only for Côte d’Ivoire, but for the broader West African region. Postmenopausal women—the “Mothers”, as Grillo calls them—are the ultimate moral arbiters in society.
They publicly perform their spiritual rebuke by stripping naked, wielding branches or pestles, and slapping their genitals and bare breasts to curse and expel the forces of evil. It is a ritual that has been observed from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, but An Intimate Rebuke is the first work to analyze these powerful displays as part of a connected moral framework. Grillo’s findings suggest both concrete ways to address the trauma of civil conflict and a framework to re-think the fundaments of African studies.
Laura S. Grillo is Affiliated Faculty in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University.
Dr. Elisa Prosperetti teaches African and global history at SciencesPo Paris. Her research focuses on the connected histories of education and development in postcolonial West Africa. Contact her at: www.elisaprosperetti.net.
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