Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Balancing (a diatribe on sexism, with a side of humor)

First of all, thanks to Six Senses Resorts and Spas for funding my well project in full. I really appreciate it, and so does my village.

It's been a tough couple of weeks up at site, although there is now water in the well, which changes a lot of things. For one, I no longer carry my laundry a total of around 46 km to wash it--I and my clothes are a lot cleaner these days. Since Mari left, I've been helping Aissatou cook, thus learning a lot about how to cook Senegalese food. Know what that means? It means that when I get back, I can provide nearly-authentic cuisine...for now, though, to business.

Peace Corps feels to me to be largely an exercise in controlling stressors, one long balancing act. The toughest one for me (and I think other women here) to deal with is balancing between cultural expectations of women and having any self-respect: sexism. In any given day, any man I meet--and many that already know me--will ask me within the first two minutes of speaking to me, "Where's your husband?" (the 'polite' ones will ask HOW he is--no answer will let me escape the following exchange). I can deny that I have one, or tell them he's in America, or tell them he's shopping 'over there', it won't matter. The next question (it counts as a question, because culturally, you respond as if it were) is, "So, I'll be your husband." I can say yes, or I can say no, it won't matter. There is no escape until we're several minutes in and I explain that no, it's not because I'm racist, it's not because I don't like black men, it's not for any reason other than I do not like men who treat me the way that they treat me. I'm tired of having to come up with reasons not to marry rude strangers. "Because I don't want to," should be reason enough, but just try explaining that in the American cultural [hetero]norm a man has to woo a woman, convince her that he can make her happy. "I can make women happy--I'll eat the food you cook, give you babies, and make money so you can have lots of pretty clothes," was the response I got when I tried. Of course, any more successful and I'd probably just have Senegalese guys giving me stuff trying to get me to like horrible as it is, it might be easier this way. Yuck.

It's no fun, interacting with men (and a lot of women) who think that a woman's place is in the kitchen and the bedroom (and pulling water, washing clothes, and taking care of kids) only, and have no cultural taboo against expressing this in nearly the coarsest of terms. Why would they be ashamed? That's what women are for.

Female volunteers deal with this all the time, and I think it is probably one reason that it seems like so many more men extend their service than women do. And being in the pervasively sexist culture seems to make the male volunteers--or many of them--forget the extent to which they need to actively be feminists.

Men here (PCVs) have a hard job. They're part of a demographic group that oppresses another one very categorically, and they don't believe that's right. But it's exhausting to do battle over it all the time, especially because there really isn't any cultural space for the kind of rhetoric involved. "Stop hitting your wife, hitting wives is bad/unjust/etc" is all very well, but so much of everyone's identity here (Senegalese) is tied up in sex (which is the same thing as gender in this conservative society). And women have a function, which means you get a certain amount of, "He's my man, you stay out of this, he'll hit me if he wants to!". So, nobody wants to do battle over sexism (especially) all the time every day. I can't blame the men (PCV) for bowing out. I wish I could bow out--I do, sometimes. There are times when I lie and say that I'm married and going to go back to the states and have kids; or I don't speak up when a man orders his wife around. You can't fight all the time--but as women, here, we don't have a lot of choice. For the most part, it's one long fight.

It's really hard to be a woman here--and I hate saying things that reinforce gender stereotypes or exclude anyone from understanding based on a demographic identity. Here is one of the few times it is appropriate. None of the women here like to say that the men (PCV) 'don't get it' because they're men. It sounds mean, and condescending, and bratty. Be that as it may, it's true. So we don't say it, and we try to ignore it when the omnipresent sexism leaks into their brains and they're rude to us. Or they fail to back us up. Or they act in ways that require us to assert ourselves as real people and then are very rude and denigrating when we try to do so. And know what's even worse? That the sexism and assumption of second-class citizen gets into our brains, and we start to act and think as though, because we're women, we should be quiet/not confront/not offer opinions.

To the male PCVs, I understand not wanting to fight, fight, fight about it all the time. I just want you to remember that some of us do not have the option of bowing out, because just to get away from it a little, we have to totally buy into the culture and say, functionally, "Yes, you're right, I'm property, but I'm not yours." Just as you balance between interfering every second and choosing not to do so, we balance between being treated as if we were property and trying not to sound condescending and whiny. It's difficult for everyone. But yes, it's harder for us.

A lighter note--sort of--is the Senegalese sense of humor. In my village, the sense of humor has been coming across as really judgmental lately. Visitors show up and call out to me, "Mari Keita, where's my breakfast?"
"Where's my breakfast? Didn't you cook? Give me food."
"I didn't cook breakfast for you--the food's all gone."
"You can't cook."
"True, I don't cook Senegalese food."
"You can't cook at all. And you don't speak Pulaar."
"What am I speaking now?"
"I said, 'Where is my breakfast' and you said 'what'--you don't understand anything."
"I said 'What' because you didn't greet me."

And so on. I forget, a lot of the time, that it's supposed to be fun, that they're just playing. Most of the time it seems pretty mean-spirited to me, but fine. Aissatou pulled me aside the other day and reminded me, "They're just making jokes, Mariama."
"But Aissatou, they're not funny."
"They're jokes. So, you should laugh."
"But they don't make me laugh."
"That's because you don't know that they're jokes."
" America, jokes are supposed to make you laugh because...they MAKE you laugh" (there is no word for 'funny')
"Yep. And here it's the same. When someone makes a joke, you laugh."
"Even if the joke doesn't make you laugh?"
"Jokes make everyone laugh."
"Not me."
"That's because you don't know that they're jokes."

Amusingly (and it's amusing to me in an infinitely metarecursive loop), my village thinks I have no sense of humor. Maybe it's telling that there's no word for 'funny'...

In other news, I'm chugging along at grad school applications. Anyone that wants to help me revise my essays, just say so.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

And so we beat on, boats against the current...

Byron and Kenny's adventure
Byron and Kenny were complete heroes on their trip up the mountain. After getting into the Kedougou garage at around midnight (after their car hit a cow), they were up at 7, raring to go. I was not really feeling excited about the ride because I was still physically exhausted from my long ride and subsequent lack of sleep plus more riding. We rounded up what we thought were rideable house bikes for the two of them, grabbed some stuff from the boutique, and set off. We got to the barge to cross the Gambia River, and about halfway across, I realized that what I had thought was a big bundle in the back of the truck we'd squeezed on around in fact was a brown fleece blanket wrapped around a long package. On a stretcher. And then I realized that it looked like feet at one end (underneath the blanket). In one of my celebrated less-than-eloquent, less-than-articulate utterances I turned to Byron and Kenny and said, "Uh, guys? That guy, I think he's dead or something!" Disconcerting experience, but not day-ruining. But nor was it the best of omens.

On the other side of the river, Kenny's bike gave up. We fiddled with it, but after a couple kilometers, it became apparent that there was nothing we knew how to do to fix it. I think I was the one (but it may have been one of them) who suggested turning it into a fixed gear bike by shortening the chain. Over an hour later (just before the self-imposed deadline of "If we can't finish it by 11, we'll go back"), we'd finished fiddling with it, having been the object of fascinated observation by at least six passing groups of Senegalese people and two cows. Everyone commented, everyone would have tried to be helpful had we asked, and we were very glad when each moved on. The cows weren't that disruptive.

I switched to the BFG (Bike of the Fixed Gear), Kenny rode my bike (Blue Nellie), and we went along maybe 5km more. Then Byron's bike's back wheel's rachet started to give out, making the chain tension pretty erratic. We pressed on. I was exhausted, because riding a fixed gear when you're with two people who aren't is a tough proposition. But we made tracks, and I felt bad asking either of them to take the BFG because I don't know how much biking they do and at least I know the path. Plus, in spite of my reputation, I'm a lot nicer than I have obligation to be. At the forage at the base of the mountain, Byron and I switched bikes.

Kenny and Byron are possibly the most determinedly positive people I've ever gone on a Murphy's Law adventure with. Not once did they complain, whine, groan, bellyache, or otherwise indulge in negativity. Not even when they saw the path we were going to go up, not even when we had to stop and just sit for a while to get our breaths back. I tossed them ORS packets, they drank them, and when they started to smile a bit, we kept going. "We have SO MUCH respect for you right now!" they kept saying. Eventually, we made it to the top, then to my village.

Where my family had not saved us any lunch. We ate raw peanuts, bathed in water we borrowed from Aissatou, and then went to get water. They each scooped a bidon of water out of the spring, carried it up to the bikes, and pushed the bikes back to the compound. In spite of not being used to the biketrek with water, they never complained, not even when the gear of Byron's bike perforated his leg a bit.

Another wonderful thing about having them visit is that far from turning up their noses at my "just weird, but whatever, if you like it" (according to other volunteers) normal village standby of oatmeal, dried refried beans, flax seeds, and hot water, they wolfed it down with me. It rained, with terrific lightning and thunder, and we all slept like dead things. The next morning, I took them to the edge of the mountain, said goodbye, and went back to my hut.

Where I subsequently collapsed. It was, I think, mere physical exhaustion. In any case, it was a controlled collapse--a lot like when you get sick after a period of stress, except without the actual being sick, which was a nice change. I drank water, ate, and slept, reading intermittently. The next day I was less incapacitated, but not operating at full. I built a couple bamboo chairs, seeded my garden a bit, and mulched the bed to which I am planning to eventually outplant my tomatoes.

Mariama leaving
The lowlight (not highlight) of the last week in village was definitely Friday night, when I went out to ask Aissatou a trivial question, and her reply was something like, "Oh, there's a fire for the guest. Mariama is leaving tomorrow."
"What? Tomorrow? For where?"
"Her husband's house."
"In Tambacounda?"
"She's leaving tomorrow and going all the way to Tamba and she isn't coming back?"
I refused to eat, called my mom, sat in my latrine, and cried. It may be the best deal she is going to get out of life, and she will probably eventually like it more than village itself, and it gets her away from her terrible mother-in-law (the one I have taught that "Crazy Old Bat" is a term of respect in English) who refuses to feed her and beats people with large bamboo sticks. But it was still pretty upsetting.

The next day I tried to explain to Aissatou that the reason I was having such a hard time is because they gave me no warning. While I was trying to explain, I was tearing up and my voice got sort of scratchy. Aissatou said, "Don't cry! Don't cry!"

Initially I thought that was just another cultural thing, but she kept repeating it. "Don't cry! Don't cry! If you cry, I am going to cry!" And I saw that she was serious, that seeing me nearly cry was opening up all of the sadness she felt at having her daughter leave home with basically no warning, to live far away and not come back very often at all. So I stopped myself from tearing up anymore, and went to finish mulching my garden.

Three minor observations that are more positive:
Cinnamon rice
Rice with cinnamon and sugar is a wonderful thing to eat when the sauce tastes like rotten fish. Thank you, Aunt Teresa.

Is what it says on the back of one of the t-shirts I have taken to wearing in village. I was hanging out with my 12-year-old brother the other day and he said, "Sauce."
"I eat sauce on my rice."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your shirt. It says 'sauce'"
" it does..."

I am making quite a name for myself as unbeatable at Bananagrams, although often this involves Meera (for example) making much cooler words than I do.'s nice to know that all that solo practice up at site makes a difference...wherever I go to grad school, I will have to start a Bananagrams club.

And with that, it's up to village I go for another ten days or until I can't deal with it anymore. It's a difficult period, but so it goes. Soon, soon, soon, there will be water in the well and vegetables in my garden. And that will be nice.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Well Update

I do not like asking for money, so I'm not going to.

Appropriate Projects funded my well project, though, and they asked me to post the link to the project page on their site.

I appreciate that they are funding this, and there are a couple pictures of my site up there, too, so if only for the photo value (and to boost their hits, which I think helps them in some obscure-to-me way), you might want to check it out.

But I don't want you to contribute money because it's my project. If you think it's a good idea, or for some reason would back it even if I were not involved, then by all means, please contribute. But I hate, absolutely can't stand, it when people hit up family and friends for money.

I guess that's more than enough overclarification.