Babies' baths, babies' remembrances: A Beng theory of development, history and memory

Alma Gottlieb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Memory is often considered a monopoly of adults and older children: the younger the child, the less significant the capacity for recollecting. In Côte d'Ivoire, the Beng posit a radically different theory of cognitive development: adults say that the younger the child, the keener the memory. Moreover, such recall is of a specific sort - infants allegedly hold strong memories of a previous existence before birth (wrugbe), where people reportedly live harmoniously and there is never material want. Nevertheless, remembering this space of plenitude can prove agonizing for babies, making their hold on life precarious, and a distressing array of culturally shaped diseases threaten their survival. Protecting against illness requires an elaborate bathing, jewellery and make-up routine twice daily that begins at birth and continues for the first year. All this somatic activity is meant to lure the child fully and definitively into this world, and to counteract the strong call of the afterlife that adults say is created by the infant's own memories. Why is wrugbe, as purportedly remembered by infants, envisaged as a place of plenitude? And why is it located in an historically identified past? In this essay - which is necessarily to some extent speculative given its subject of infant memory - I explore the allegorical implications of the Beng afterlife, suggesting that the attribution of heightened infant memory of an idyllic wrugbe serves as an indirect critique of French colonialism and its aftermath. I conclude by discussing the ways in which memory and forgetting are mutually constructed, with the Beng model offering substantial support for the contention that reproduction in general - and babies in particular - are crucial to this intertwined process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-118
Number of pages14
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Babies' baths, babies' remembrances: A Beng theory of development, history and memory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this