The problem of widows


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How does an ethnographer inquire about a social categorythat is neither named nor recognized as such? The Ejamat Jola language has no word for widow, even though more than a third of households in the Jola villages ofGuinea-Bissau are occupied by women whose husbands have died. Over years of field work, I have tried to explain why widows were not named or even seen by Jola villagers. Chronicling how each of my explanations was undercut byboth Jola responses and my own critical scrutiny, I recountthe impasses of an ethnographic quest and show thegradual process of gaining insight into experiences thatcannot be encapsulated by either local or anthropologicalmodels. The unspeakable can signal not only profound fragilities in social relations but also openings for new social formations beyond the normative bounds of received cultural categories. [widows, marriage, gender, production, reproduction, silence, ethnography, Jola, Guinea-Bissau,West Africa]