Thoughts about gender

My next post was going to be about my (unexciting) trip back from Lusaka; Brother Evangelist, traveling; the fact that my teeth have been doing very well aside from an occasional faint ache; the Lwiindi ceremony I attended on Saturday; and perhaps a mention that we’ve had six power outages since Saturday night (the one on Sunday was at least ten hours long) and that the no water situation is currently as bad as it’s been since I got here (I suspect that this may be related to the power thing. I haven’t noticed a direct connection between absence of power and absence of water, but I assume that there must be electricity involved in the pump situation somewhere). That post requires getting pictures off of my camera, though, and the unreliability of power/internet during not-work time makes it difficult to do things like upload pictures. Though if you’re impatient, Dan-the-radio-DJ promised that he would put the videos he took of the Lwiindi ceremony on youtube, and while I’m not in a position to look at the actual videos at this point in time, it does look like there’s some stuff up there.

And yesterday Catherynne Valente wrote about gender, inspired by a Dorothy Sayers quote from, I believe, the essay “Are Women Human?”

The stuff Valente is seeing, perhaps even what Sayers saw, is nothing compared to daily life in Zambia. The messages and beliefs and attitudes that are quietly and insidiously whispered to children and college students and grownups in the United States are blatant and overt and almost entirely unquestioned here.

Now, I’m not working directly on gender equality issues, aside from the obvious fact of being a woman in a technology field. Although I was pleasantly surprised to discover that half of the students in my ICDL classes are ladies (Not women, because they aren’t married. Womanhood is a class reserved for wives and/or mothers. I am not a woman, either.) and close to half of the teachers and staff at LITA (LinkNet Information Technology Academy) are women, the A+ Engineering class is strictly guys only, and only one of my coworkers over here at the hardcore computer-blood-and-guts building is a woman. And Machaworks (Macha in general, really) is unusually westernized. And I’m never sure to what extent being white allows me to move in spaces that I would not ordinarily enter if I were a Zambian woman (race is a topic for another day). Which is to say that not all of this is from firsthand experience, and I’ll try to identify my sources as much as possible, and that this is not so much a cohesive essay as a collection of impressions.

Alison, who works in schools, says that when something comes up at home, or there’s extra work to be done, it’s always the girls who are kept home, not the boys. (And based on what else I’ve gathered here, it’s probably the live-in niece before the daughter. The service worker term for these children is OVCs, Orphans and Vulnerable Children, and it’s a constant struggle to keep them from falling through the cracks.) She says that there are girls who are late to school every day because they’re washing dishes, or their brothers’ school uniforms. Chris and Matt are teaching, too, and I haven’t asked them if they see it, but they’ve mentioned the way girls in their classes don’t dream of becoming a doctor, or even a nurse or a teacher; they’re going to get married and be a mother and housewife, because that’s what girls do.

Jonathan told me that there’s been research done (maybe he participated in it?) that 45% of girls drop out of highscool (10th-12th grade) because they’re pregnant. And this in a country where HIV/AIDS is a rampant problem. No statistics on what portion of those relations were consensual. One of the women who works at the innovative school told me that when she’s done gender equality work with girls, the idea that one can fight back, or even just try to say no, in an abusive situation is a radical concept. A guy at Macha hospital collected data that the hospital sees something in the range of 90 women who have attempted abortions per month (abortion is illegal here), and that’s just the ones who make it to the hospital. I’m told that in many Zambian marriages, there is no concept that a woman can tell her husband no. (According to one of the books I read before coming here, probably the Gender and Power one, although it might have been the Countries of Africa one, even if a woman knows her husband is sleeping around, if she refuses to sleep with him, that’s grounds for divorce, which means she loses status and support and of course it’s her fault. And even if a woman somehow won a marital abuse case, she would still lose the security and support of having a male breadwinner, so who’s going to even try?)

One of the women who’s always around The Wooden House 3 is Beauty, who I found very puzzling for the longest time. I’d concluded that she was Claire’s househelp, because she arrived when Claire did, and it’s Claire’s baby she hauls around all day, but she cleans up after the rest of us, too. (I will admit it, even me. I do wash my own dishes, and if I spill something, I clean it up, but I don’t do my fair share of cleaning off counters or stovetops (except for the (nonfunctional) gas stove, which I tend to use as my counter space, so I give it a good cleaning at least once a week, since I’m usually the one who got it dirty) or bending over to sweep the floor with one of those itty bitty brooms, or fetching the communal jugs of water that sit by the sink for the days that the water goes out (I do go out back to fill them sometimes, and I’ll definitely fill an empty jug if there’s running water in the house and the sink is free, but I probably don’t haul as much water as I use). And if I’m cooking and have dirty dishes sitting on the counter when Beauty happens to be washing, she’ll ask me if she can wash my dishes, and I’m never quite sure what to say to that. I mean, I will wash them. But I’m not going to tell her that she can’t.) She’s unfailingly helpful all the time. She gets more water when we’re out, she demonstrated proper handwashing technique on the meters and meters of the dusty hem of my most voluminous skirt, and she holds the water jug whenever someone needs to wash their hands and there isn’t any water, and she’s the one who actually walked me through making my own nshima the first time I really did it by myself (though she took the stirring stick away from me at the end because I can’t yet do it properly). I spent a long time being really puzzled by her, and the way she’s practically always working (and work that shouldn’t be only her responsibility). It finally occurred to me to wonder if this is just what she expects her life will be like, and when she gets married, she’ll keep doing the same things, only it will be her baby and her family’s clothing and her husband’s shoes (or maybe she’s already married and does all those things before 7 hours and after 17 hours, I don’t know).

One of the guys that I’ve found to be very good to talk to, and interested in crosscultural stuff, and really good at explaining Zambia and Zambians, told me (and a group of Zambian women) that when he gets married, he’ll expect his wife to make all his food, even water for his tea whenever he wants it, in addition to tending to all the normal household things. The guy’s thirty years old, and while he’s no great chef, he manages his own meals and his own tea and has presumably been doing so for several years. And while the general consensus seemed to be that maybe the waiting on him hand-and-foot with the tea seemed a little bit much, the rest was just the normal expectations for a married couple here. (And believe me, if I’m ever in a relationship where I’m doing all the cooking, I’d better be getting something out of it work-wise, like never washing any dishes ever.)

Moses does fetch water from the spigot out back sometimes. But in the mornings, it’s always the women filling basins and buckets so that they can wash the children and the clothes and the dishes and make food (and Moses is one of the few guys I see doing any significant amount of real cooking. Unless it’s a braa, because even in Zambia barbecues are apparently Men’s Territory. Though I’ll admit that I don’t really hang out in the kitchens of the other units). I may see a guy watering a garden, if there’s enough water for that sort of thing, but not filling buckets in the morning. Of course, hired gardeners are men.

There is at times an odd sort of chivalry here (though as I mentioned before, it can be hard to tell what is gender-related and what is race-related). When we went to Chikanta for the Lwiindi ceremony, the four ladies squeezed in the back seat while the men piled into the bed of the pickup, and even though Janine wanted to ride in the trackbed, she was gently chivied and guided into the back seat. But at a traditional meal, the order of handwashing and being served is old men, young men, old women, young women (I’m not sure where boy-children fit in. Children may just always eat in another room, and perhaps get only broth, not meat).

The women’s bible study cleans the entire church, a building which holds six or seven hundred people of a Sunday, not to mention chapel for the secondary school three times a week, right down to on their hands and knees cobra-ing (polishing) the floor around the pulpit, before they get to the bible study part, which is about 1/8 bible study and the rest a lesson on household management. I don’t know what the men’s bible study does, because that’s one of the spaces where even my whiteness does not allow me access, but there definitely isn’t any cleaning involved. (I’m going to go to the youth bible study the next Saturday I’m here — thought that won’t be for a few weeks — and I’m curious to know what that’s like.)

One of MCC’s objectives in Zambia is to work towards gender equality (though I don’t remember if it falls under the umbrella of AIDS or Education or just general Development. Probably it was AIDS, since they said that’s one of the things that it’s easiest to get funding for), but at the same time I’m trying to live in this community, not come in from outside and impose my values upon it. So I wear my long skirts and speak when I feel like the moment is right, and never find an answer to whether I ought to help the women in the kitchen or not. And at least once a day it comes home to me forcefully that Zambia is a very, very different place than Smith.


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One response to “Thoughts about gender

  1. Vorindi

    Possibly the proposing to COMPLETE STRANGERS thing is less of a problem from the guys’ point of view because they expect a “yes” to be followed by an unending string of yeses . . .

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