Posted by: reapcanadainternblog | March 30, 2011

A Toubab’s Reflection on West African Gender Roles

By Eileen Jones

Before coming to Africa, everything I read and every conversation I had about Gambia and Sénégal highlighted how hard the women work. And this is about exactly that: the multiple roles that women fill. Women are mothers and providers,  entrepreneurs, farmers, cooks, cleaners, singers, musicians, dancers, teachers, learners, water carriers, community organizers, record keepers, friends, sisters, and daughters (and, for this toubab, West African women are also fashion consultants, cultural guides, Wolof instructors, and unsuccessful matchmakers). They nurture, they provide, and they work very, very hard.

I came to West Africa to work on the Gaining Ground in Gambia and Sénégal (GGIGS) project, which uses the Agro-Ecological Village development strategy to reverse land degradation and enhance food and livelihood security in rural villages. From the beginning, I knew that my work was going to be about much more than seeds and livestock, and that “being a scientist” must take a backseat if I hope to be ever be inter-culturally effective.

As an intern, here for just a short time and relatively inexperienced in all things West African, the best route for me to support an already well established project and build capacity in project participants is to talk to people, share ideas, share knowledge, and use this strategy to gently, gently, ndanka, ndanka, nudge the project forward. This means that I watch, I listen, I try to understand, I observe and reflect, and, as a result, I build relationships and try to feel the daily rhythms of African women.

Women are Hostesses
A woman’s list of daily chores is long: she must clean, cook, garden, collect firewood, fetch water, scrub laundry, and fill all the roles ascribed to her. Amidst all of this, women graciously play hostess to the stream of visitors and strangers that daily move through their compound.
Kai toggal. Kai lekka. (Come sit. Come eat.) Women are so steadfast in this role that very few events can remove a woman from her duties as a hostess.

In late November, one of the women in Njawara delivered a healthy baby boy. The interns were thrilled to learn of the safe arrival of the youngster and I felt the same sense of excitement that I would have if one of my close Canadian friends delivered. When the news arrived at the NATC, the other interns and I discussed the possibility of going to visit her, but our initial Canadian reaction was that she would probably be too tired to receive visitors and could use some space. We quickly realized however that this Western approach, of course, doesn’t apply to Gambian social and family dynamics and we trotted off to visit the newborn.

I felt so privileged to hold the baby, only a few hours old. The most striking thing about this experience, though, wasn’t his full head of curly black hair nor his tiny, tiny toenails, but it was the graciousness in which we were received as visitors. I’m sure that most Canadian mothers would be equally as pleased to show off their new baby, but this woman transformed from new mother to hostess as soon as we arrived. She made sure that we had proper spots to sit and were comfortable, and even tried to get up off the bed and offer her own place to one of us. We insisted that she sit, of course, and gently cut her off before she could enquire about whether or not we’d eaten lunch.

I was surprised by the fluidity with which this woman switched from “new mother” to “hostess.” Or how natural it was for her to adhere to her social graces and fulfill her social role. She had just given birth. Wasn’t she supposed to be exhausted and doted on, rather than the other way around?

While this experience obviously underscored the deeply ingrained social, familial, and gendered roles of women, it was also a beautiful reminder of the importance of looking after one another. “We are together” is a constant refrain, and being together means looking after everyone around you. Even if you just delivered a baby.

Women are Teachers and Learners
Women – old and young – are both teachers and learners. During my village stay, I spent a week living with a prominent family in the village of Tchisse Masse. Compared to other members of the community, this family enjoys relative material comfort but they are still citizens of a very rural, very poor Sénégalese village. There is no school in Tchisse Masse so most of the children are uneducated, save the fortunate few that have been sent to the city or to neighbouring villages to learn.

I befriended a young teenager that lived in my compound, had been sent to school, and spoke a bit of French. During one of our daily afternoon hang-outs in the coolest corner of the compound, she wanted to show me that she is literate and can write her name in the sand. And she did. And then Ndeye proudly wrote her mother’s name. And her father’s name. And the names of everyone in her family.

Ndeye was thrilled to show off her literacy skills and I was so encouraging that we quickly graduated from name-writing to math. We practiced addition and subtraction problems in the sand and her mother, who had been watching this entire lesson unfold, instructed the girl to go get her school books. Upon presenting her dog-eared scribbler, her mother beamed with pride.

After a few minutes of strained Wolof conversation with lots of gestures, it became clear that Ndeye’s mother helped her with her schoolwork wherever she could. An uneducated, illiterate woman has a lot to teach her children but, in this case, math was not one of those things.

And so, enter the toubab. The toubab looking for a way to pass the otherwise placid afternoon, the toubab eager to make a tangible impact, and the toubab that used to tutor high school math. I, unfortunately, had never before tried to teach math in broken French and Wolof, but there’s a first time for everything! And so, with the sand as our chalkboard and peanuts as our counters, I tried to help fill in some gaps in Ndeye’s understanding of math.

West African women are keen to learn and to teach, and that afternoon was just a brief glimpse of this. In this particular scenario, I was the teacher and Ndeye was the learner, but it could have easily been the other way around. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can still learn a lot from each other, and don’t need sophisticated materials to help us.

Women are Entrepreneurs
Working for APROFES means that I am exposed to all sorts of community development projects. I recently accompanied APROFES staff on a whirlwind village tour to conduct program monitoring and evaluation for one of their food security projects. On the last of three days of village visits, I met a creative entrepreneur.

The meeting was in mostly in Wolof and little bits got translated here and there into French. I naturally had trouble following much of what was discussed, but there was no mistaking the story of the great entrepreneur. When discussing some of the steps taken in the village to increase food security, one French-speaking man started wagging his finger at the beaming woman to my left. Elle a fait un petit commerce! Elle a fait un petit commerce! Indeed, this woman had made a small agricultural investment. Months before Tabaski, she purchased two rams. She fed and raised them and, when market conditions were right (right before Tabaski) she was going to sell them and turn a small profit. It was kind of like flipping condos, rural African style.

The men in the community saw this woman as so ingenious, such a shrewd businesswoman, that we took a special visit to the other end of the village to photograph her with her sheep. It’s hard to imagine that fattening and selling two rams could have such an impact on her family’s finances but, judging by the constant exclamations of this woman’s cleverness, it must.

Through diverse experiences, participatory observation, and quiet reflection, my internship has equipped me with a deeper understanding of roles of gender and social dynamics in development. I repeatedly witnessed the community and support systems that come from the sense of togetherness. This social capital drives change, and equips communities with the capacity to better their lives. I learned that everyone can be an entrepreneur, and a little creativity can go a long way in diversifying livelihoods. I saw that women are keen both to learn and teach, despite lacking the many of the literacy and numeracy skills that we may take for granted. We have so much to learn from each other, if only we are open to receiving that knowledge. Westerners need to be equally as receptive to learning from Africans, if we all want to work together to improve lives in rural villages.

As an intern, I am blessed to live with, work alongside, and learn from strong-willed women. Being effective in a development setting requires a host of interpersonal and intercultural skills, and this includes an understanding of gender dynamics. To raise the status of women and to improve the lives for all community members, a development worker needs to understand gender dynamics. And to understand that, they need to feel the rhythm of daily life. And the best way to do that is to watch and learn.


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