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Prayers, demons and mother's milk

Blog Post2 min read

When Baby, our research assistant, stopped by around lunch time today, she looked tired. I told her to sit and rest, and that I would finish making lunch. Not one to sit still for too long, she offered to help, but I insisted she rest. Before long she got up, and said, “Well, I’ll just go and say my prayers while you’re finishing lunch.” “Great,” I said.

She finished her prayers, and took off her headscarf just as I was putting out the food. When we sat down to eat, she told me a fascinating story about something that happened to her a couple of days ago.

She said she was sitting at home when a girl from the nearby police apartments showed up at her door; the girl’s mother wanted to speak with Baby. Baby followed the girl home to meet her mother. The woman said that her daughter-in-law had recently given birth, but the baby was not taking to the breast. The woman further said that she had heard that Baby, a practicing Muslim, prayed five times a day. She wanted Baby to end her next prayer by casting out the demons that must be afflicting the infant, it in the hopes that it would then take to its mother’s breast.

Baby patiently explained to the Hindu woman that prayers to Allah and casting out demons were quite different activities and that while it was true that she prayed five times a day, it did mean that she would be able to cast out super natural powers afflicting the baby. The woman pressed further, suggesting that Baby could just do a bit of blowing and broom waving at the close of her next prayer. No, Baby said, if she were to humour the woman, and perform the requested blowing and broom waving at the close of her next prayer (which she was certain would have no effect in any case), then wouldn’t the whole neighbourhood be knocking on her door asking her to cast out demons for them too? She was very sorry to hear about the baby, but she simply couldn’t get herself into that sort of situation.

We laughed for a good while about how superstitious people here can be. But after she left I got to thinking about just how desperate a situation the baby and its family are in. In a place with terrible hygiene practices and without safe breast milk substitutes, babies who are not breastfed face an important risk of dying. One of the 20 odd babies that I was visiting last year was not given breast milk, but instead raised on cow’s milk. The family claimed that breast milk made the new born vomit, and they took it to both Western and witch doctors in an effort to solve the problem. Eventually, the mother’s milk dried up, and the infant, who had barely grown since birth, died around the age of five months.


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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