7 April 2013
Last night one of my host mothers, Diara, was cutting a piece of mosquito netting into segments for the women of the house to use as wash clothes. I’ll leave the improper use of mosquito nets to the health volunteers–the fabric was chosen for its rough texture, good for scrubbing. Diara was cutting pieces and handing them out as she went. When she finished she looked over at me and said with a laugh “I didn’t get one!” If food were the scarcity I think a Mandinka woman would respond with the same tendency towards humor. In fact, Jaabou Tourré, an incessant jokster, regular tells me no one gave her lunch or dinner with a grin and giggle ready to go when I tease her about how thin it’s making her. Jaabou is not under-fed, but is thin from years of working in the rice fields and garden, caring for countless children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I have seen women rip a strip of clothe from their skirt to wrap a child’s cut, literally sacrificing the clothes from their back.
Mandinkas interpret the Koran as saying a husband holds his wife’s key to heaven. This means the wife must follow her husband’s demands, in essence slaving for a man (not Allah) in this life to make it into the next. And somehow this excuses men from doing their share. The men say they do the same (if not more) work than their wives, but I rarely see a woman sitting idle. If she has found time to sit, she is cracking peanuts for dinner or tending to the needs of children clambering around her; meanwhile her husband is in the middle of village playing checkers, drinking tea, chatting with friends, and shooing their children back towards the women’s area when they become to needy.
I have noticed that funerals rally more women than any other social event and I have a theory (based on my observations alone) that funerals are the most well-founded reason women have for a day off. Weddings and baptisms, while significant cultural events and much more prominent in other areas of Senegal, seem to be less essential milestones in Mandinka culture. In the twenty months I’ve been in Fodé Bayo there has been one wedding ceremony and only intimate naming ceremonies when children are born. Women, however, more than men flock to the traditional funeral events, including the burial within twelve hours of death, prayers said at a week, forty and 100 days after death. Generally, they will say it is their “father” or other relative who has died, but that often means the father of their half sibling’s cousin. Guests are highly regarded; no matter their status in their own villages guests are given the best food, not expected to help work unless they volunteer, and can request whatever they wish from their host. I have seen women visit my village and order around my host brothers, 40-year old men. These two observations attest to the extensive kinship valued in Senegal and a respectful culture, but also might hint at an injured value system if one sex in particular uses funerals as an escape, an opportunity to leave their villages, where they can socialize and relax as a guest.
Three times since the rains stopped, when the women take on watering vegetable beds instead of weeding rice fields, the garden I share with Fanta has been broken into and nearly destroyed by cows. Two days ago the same thing happened to my host-mother, Aminta. That very morning I’d peeked over her fence and complimented her on how pretty her garden was looking. She told me she intended to sell the okra, bissap, and broad leaf Amaranth at the lummo market the next day. When both Fanta and Aminta had their gardens raided by under-fed cattle, they did not curse as I would have; instead they prayed, endless blessings rattling off their tongues. I heard the word for cows in several of these blessings and was not sure if they were invoked sarcastically or with genuine hope for the well-being. I do know that Fanta believes “its is not a problem with the cows, but a problem with people” but you ask the men, she says, and it’s up to Allah. So Allah is punishing them despite their hard work while their husbands pat them on the back (metaphorically, of course) and tell them to keep on keeping on. I tell them to stand up, ask whose cows they are, demand compensation. So far, Allah speaks louder.
I’ve talked many people’s ears off about the importance of animal husbandry and all the ways in which it could improve the Senegalese agricultural and cultural system. With just a little extra input as they adjust the routines of providing water and food to their cows, they could have healthier animals, more readily available manure for their fields and gardens and protection for the crops they live by. But what use is it and how can we improve animal husbandry when the system of human husbandry is out of balance?
At this point I hope that my battering reminders will kick in a few years down the road and someone will experiment with fencing in and feeding animals regularly. Perhaps this will be a project I can encourage my replacement to work on. It’s a hard place to be: committed in thought and word to a life I will not be a part of in six months, not having time to put the action behind my thought and word. The people of Fode Bayo, their treatment of women and livestock, their access to food, will likely never leave my thoughts even as I begin to realize I will have to leave the home they’ve made for me. And a big part of this is due to the fun they find no matter their condition in life. Occasionally, at night or when an important guest comes to town, the women cross-dress and have a dance party. They cheer each other on, challenge friends to a dance off, and respect old women, who step into the circle to show they can still get down, worn but never defeated.
MaryCad., cow-curser, woman-whisperer