It is easy, indeed a cliché, to read Brazilian politics as a bad telenovela—a dramatic and vulgar soap opera about the new democracy in which the rich and powerful engage in intrigues and romances, corruptions and duplicities all leading to an uplifting conclusion by the last episode. The current instalment features the Brazilian federal budget director Jose de Santos revealing a complex payoff scheme whereby line items in the Brazilian national budget were diverted into the insatiable hands of members of congress. Budget committee members were paid a thoughtful consideration (often as high as 20 per cent) to insert such items into the annual accounts. Mr de Santos may not be considered the most reliable witness, since the scandal was triggered while he was under investigation for murdering his wife, but police did find us $1.7 million in cash at his home, and more than two hundred pounds of gold, which thriftiness on a $60,000 a year salary cannot explain.footnote

Mr João Alves, a congressman, head of the budget committee, and a fighting 74-year-old, has risen from a humble two-bedroom house in a modest neighbourhood in Salvador, to become the master of a multimillion dollar real-estate fortune. He claims that his wealth was derived from canny gambling in the national lotteries. As the luckiest man in Brazil, he managed to win more than two hundred lotteries (fifty-six in the first few months of 1993 alone). The national lottery system was soon revealed to house a money laundering scheme of vast proportions in which those who made their money illegally could purchase winning tickets. Other exciting revelations about high jinks in congress included the discovery of a congressional staff worker who ran a prostitution ring from her office. With tvs tuned to Television Globo’s Xuxa—the sexy blonde who is queen of Brazil’s top tv show, which is for children—and the national soap opera of Brazilian politics, the increasingly destitute citizenry press their noses against shop windows and observe yet more methods used by the masters of the land to impoverish them. The sewers, roads, and waterlines paid for but not built, the charities which were mere financial way stations on the journey to Swiss bank accounts—these are the most recent and the most obvious insults of a society committed to distributing its wealth to its wealthy by any and all means.

With one of the higher levels of gnp per capita in the developing countries, Brazil has also the worst income distribution in the world. The minimum wage now fluctuates at less than fifty dollars a month with its purchasing power at almost the lowest level in the postwar period. In São Paulo, the rich centre of the richest state, more than a million people live in favelas—shanty-towns—while another threemillion live in what are called cortiços. These are collective dwellings, basically old houses, which are divided up into small cubicles. Thirty families might thus share a bathroom, kitchen, and washing facilities. In this context, it is valuable to repeat yet another statistic: 54 per cent of Brazil’s children live in families earning less than thirty-five dollarsa month. Of these more than twenty-five million deprived children, some eight million now live on the streets, occasionally returning home. Children have now replaced subversives as the main targets of death squads and policemen who routinely beat up, torture and kill children in order to hamper mugging and petty theft. Last summer, child assassination by death squads hit international consciousness as eight kids were gunned down while they slept. ibase (Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, run by the Catholic church) calculated from very sparse accounts that close to a hundred children a month are assassinated in Brazil’s major cities. Indeed, in the 15–17 age group, 65 per cent of deaths are violent.footnote1

Children abandoned in life are adopted in death. In Brazil, the body of a minor cannot be buried without a name, and so in order to handle the backlog, an ingenious method to circumvent regulations has emerged. With morgues awash in child corpses, families petrified with fear of reprisals, and regulations being what they are, a new form of adoption has come into being: posthumous adoption. The child need not be known by its postmortem parents to be buried undertheir name. While this has effectively moved children from morguesto mortuaries, it has made these kids even more anonymous in deaththan they were in life, and hidden them forever from their families.Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s Death Without Weeping is about those families whose children have become cannon-fodder in Brazil’s class war.

The children who roam the streets are survivors of the sharp winnow of hunger. They may survive only to be tortured and killed but for each that lives beyond the age of five, two to four of their siblings died. Death Without Weeping examines what it means to live in a society whose impact on human survival most closely parallels concentration camps. While child corpses might occasionally make the newspapers (or even international media), the calm statistics on poverty andinfant death that fill development reports effectively obscure the horror behind the numbers. The everyday violence that is the outcome of Brazil’s political economy and recent development trajectory, and reproduces ‘death and sickness at its very base’, is studied by Scheper-Hughes in the favela of Alto do Cruzeiro outside Bom Jesus in the North-eastern state of Ceara. It is also a moral reflection on human society driven to the brink and the forces that drove it there: it is a brilliant, subtle ethnography of mothers in impossible circumstances. This volume challenges paradigms of disease, mothering, emotion, ethnography, and feminism. It shows that there is no substitute for grounded fieldwork, and illustrates how much the field (and those who are courageous enough to engage it) can teach us. This volume tells more about the human consequences of Brazilian development in the North-east than the thousands of books and reports published on the region in the last thirty years.

Most anthropologists view hunger as symbol, metaphor and input to adaptation, and have largely averted their eyes from the role of hunger and want as a determining feature of family and social life. In the Brazilian North-east (and probably everywhere that such levels of poverty prevail—about half the Third World), where scarcity and ‘low level’ famine are the norm, triage determines an allocation of the families’ few resources which works fatally against the survival of those infants seen as ‘poor bets’ in a grim Darwinian world, whose contours are constructed quite directly by the malign buffoons cavorting on tv and stealing Brazil’s national budget.

To write about the society of Alto do Cruzeiro is also to describe how hunger has been transformed by the medical profession from a manifestation of a vicious political economy into the condition of ‘nerves’.