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To Be Delivered: Pregnant and Born Again in Nigeria


Religious conversion has long paralleled development schemes in Africa with reproductive health interventions being a particularly dense node of interaction. However, only recently have mission homes, designated spaces within Pentecostal churches for women to receive perinatal care and deliver their babies, brought church and state into confrontation over how and where women should deliver. As global health agencies pledge to decrease maternal death by aiming to increase access to biomedical interventions in the form of Safe Motherhood initiatives, mission homes offer women prayer and the promise of divine intervention as their own means of ensuring maternal survival. In Ondo, a state in southwest Nigeria, the government linked persistently high rates of maternal death to a protracted process of secularization and created legislation to condemn birth in mission homes as an act that was “too religious.” This contemporary conflict occurs in the setting of two coinciding developments: a dramatic expansion and transformation of Pentecostal Christianity in the 1980s on one hand and an increase in global humanitarian concern for rates of maternal mortality on the other hand. Based on several years of fieldwork, To Be Delivered is a sustained historical and ethnographic study of the lived experiences of Nigerian women seeking pregnancy care under a government bent on modernizing through secularization.

I mobilize conceptual tools provided by medical anthropology, secular studies, African studies, comparative literature, and critical race studies as I examine Nigeria’s problem of maternal mortality. I approach secularism, not as the neutral space left when religion is removed, but as a pattern of political rule that necessarily intervenes on the religious. If modernity is a project, secularism entails the specific construction and distinction of categories of “the secular” and “the religious” that purportedly nonmodern people must strive toward. In Ondo, a woman’s reproductive body is configured as a public space that the state seeks to sequester from what it deems to be “too religious.” In tracking this national project of creating and sustaining a modern state through the intimate realm of lived experience, I ask: how are secular bodies made? What are the specific disciplining techniques and practices that attempt to render the religious body secular, and the forms of resistance and conflict they come up against? I attend to the cultivation of dispositions to understand how distinctions between “the religious” and “the secular” are constituted and undermined from intimate to national realms by studying how Nigerian women, their caregivers, and government officials enact their understandings of and assumptions underlying this binary as it relates to maternal health. Paying specific attention to the role of gender in state-building projects as women are routinely framed as indicators of success, I show how women’s bodies and reproductive processes are a contested site for postcolonial states aspiring to what international funding and governing agencies construe as modern. Mission homes and the women who seek care in them call for renewed thinking around African women in relation to the project of secular modernity.

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