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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

Anthropologist Finds Her Element

by Raymond Rendleman ’06


It was a vexing puzzle. In the farthest reaches of the Ganges delta, hundreds of Bengali villagers were dying each year from arsenic in their drinking water. A UNICEF engineering team had installed filtration systems in the area, but people, especially children, continued to die. The engineers were at a loss to determine what was going wrong—the filters were in perfect working order—so a group of anthropologists, led by Suzanne Hanchett ’62, was called in to investigate.

The anthropologists interviewed villagers and found that more scrupulous parents often prevented their children from drinking filtered water because it was too “cold.” Not physically cold, but metaphysically cold. According to traditional Bengali beliefs, food and drink contain certain principles, or essences, which must be kept in balance. Drinking lots of water that contains too much tanda (the Bengali term for the cold principle) could be very unhealthy.

Suzanne recommended that UNICEF address these concerns head-on and distribute pamphlets explaining that the water’s metaphysical temperature posed no danger to children. At first, the engineers argued that the villagers’ beliefs were nothing more than ignorant superstition and not worth taking seriously, but eventually Suzanne prevailed.

“You do have to take care of the technical side, but there are always going to be larger social questions to address,” she says.

Suzanne’s interest in anthropology was first awakened by professor David French ’39, who was well known about campus for his brilliance as well as for his eccentricities. He and his wife Kay took evening naps so they could stay up all night in intensive research sessions. They focused on reinterpreting the ethnographic standbys such as worldview and society. Living in their on-campus house, Suzanne drank much from the Frenches’ well of knowledge, and she would continue to feel their influence throughout her life. “Dave always used to say, ‘It’s not your performance in a course; it’s your attitude,’” she recalls. “I wanted so much after that to recreate the Frenches’ magic academic environment.”

Suzanne wrote her thesis on Aleutian semantics, taught anthropology at several East Coast campuses during the ’70s, and wrote a monograph on Hindu symbology, Colored Rice, which was published in 1988.

Even after 25 years in the field, she would jokingly ask friends what they thought she should do when she “grew up.” The answer became clearer after she was hired as a consultant for a USAID Bengali flood response study in the early ’90s. This experience showed her that water could prove an even more elastic site of cultural negotiation than the ritual foodstuffs of Colored Rice. In 1997, she participated in a Bengali sanitation study and began to carve out a career as a hydro-anthropologist.

Water is the most problematic of all the Aristotelian elements, she says, because it is essential for life but has become increasingly proprietary. The issues are especially acute in South Asia, where people developed elaborate systems of irrigation thousands of years before the first Roman dreamed of building an aqueduct. One of the worst confrontations of her career arose during the construction of a massive bridge across the Jamuna River, one of the widest and most important waterways in Bangladesh. To reduce construction costs, the government diverted the course of the river, wreaking havoc with the intricate system of distributaries that local people relied on to water their crops—a classic example of the perils of centralized planning.

Suzanne entered the fray to mitigate the damage to the people who lived along the river. Ironically, within a few years a massive flood swept away the levee and more or less restored the river to its original path.

Negotiating cultural sensitivity for the sanitation and irrigation projects of Southeast Asia is now all in a day’s work. And what is her favorite strategy for solving conflicts? Get everyone together around the table for discussion over tea, pastries, and a pitcher of pure, cool water.


Left: Suzanne and associate Rozana Akhter talk with villagers in Bangladesh about the rerouted Jamuna River.

Right: Suzanne displays a statue of the goddess of the Ganges River in her Southeast Portland home.

reed magazine logoMarch 2010