Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Girl Power

I have been wanting to write something about my friends who in the market here, because they are all so nice and they have my back if people try to rip me off or sell me less-than-fresh veggies (“No, no, no…don’t buy this stuff, go over there and get the good ones!”). As I sat down to write, though, it transformed into a testament to the força da mulher, or strength of women, that exists here in Africa. So instead of just the market ladies, here’s a few stories about my female friends in Mozambique and  how they are way stronger than you are (or I am).

First are the aforementioned market ladies. There are too many of them for individual pictures, but they are all awesome. These gals start their days at 2:00 or 3:00 AM by walking miles and miles to their machambas, or small personal farms, where they work tilling, planting and harvesting for about five hours. After that, they walk miles and miles back to the village where they set up their stands in the market selling veggies, fruits, flour, pasta, spices, and goods. Some of them bake or fry things and others buy goods in bulk from the city to sell at marked up prices here. They are business-savvy. They mark up prices when an item is scarce and they establish regular customers by giving bacelas, i.e. a bonus tomato or tangerine. They are also extremely generous. If I’m looking for something in the market that has run out, often times my friends will give me whatever it is from their personal stash mahala (fo’ free). Or they will start up the network of market lady communication that consists of yelling at each other like a big game of telephone until they’ve tracked down the roaming pineapple vendor and told her to come to the other side of the market to sell me a pineapple. Lo and behold, like magic the girl with a bucket of pineapples on her head will appear five minutes later and cut the rind off of one for me to hold by the stem and eat like a chicken leg. This system also applies to town gossip, so you’d better be on your best behavior around these ladies or the whole town will hear about it.

This is Balbina. She has a small shop where she sells goods but she makes most of her living cooking meals. We have a tradition of eating matapa (pulverized greens cooked in a coconut milk and peanut sauce, served with rice) with her every Sunday. She’s also our neighbor and very good friend who enjoys cooking American desserts like banana bread.  Balbina is a single mother of two, one daughter in college and a son in the second grade. Her husband passed away over a decade ago, and she supports herself and her children off of what she makes in her shop. Never have I heard her complain about money or her life here in Panda, nor have I heard her talk about wishing she had a man to support her.

This is Amelia, one of my students. She is in the ninth grade and one of the brightest and sweetest 
young ladies I have ever met. She’s always got a smile on her face. As the oldest girl living in her house, she wakes up early every morning to light the coal stove and make breakfast for everyone. She bathes her younger siblings and gets them dressed. After everyone is fed and the dishes are done, she heads into the market to sell vegetables from her family’s farm. She works until mid morning, when she will rush home to prepare lunch for the household, bathe, and go straight to school. She studies from noon until five and then goes home to prepare dinner, clean the house, get her siblings into bed and do all of her homework before going to sleep herself. The next day it starts all over again. If she’s dedicated and gets good grades, maybe her parents will let her go off to university or move to the city to get a job. More likely, though, she will be expected to stay at home and do domestic work until she finds a husband who will pay her father a nice lobola (dowry) for her. Still, she smiles and tells me she hopes to be a science teacher when I ask her what she wants to do after school.

This is Esperança, my newest amiga. She built this restaurant right across from my house about a
month ago and we have become best friends since then. She’s from the capitol city, Maputo, and she moved here because her husband is from here and as his wife it's her job to take care of the household. She says since she’s from the city it’s hard to make friends here, but we were kindred spirits from the moment we met. She likes to practice English with us and gives us frozen juice pops when it’s hot out.  When I asked about her husband, who works in South Africa and is away most of the time, she said it's hard being apart but only for her because since he is a man he has other girlfriends wherever he is. She said this without a second thought, because that's the way it is here. I asked her why she is okay with that and if it hurts her to know he is unfaithful. She replied "No, what hurts is to see it. Because it's happening so far away I can just not think about it and it doesn't hurt. But that's just the way men are." Unfortunately this is true for almost every single Mozambican couple. It's considered inconceivable to be faithful to your partner, which is one of the biggest reasons that HIV transmission is so high here.

These are a few of my REDES girls. REDES stands for Girls Involved in Development, Education and Health in Portuguese. We meet once a week to discuss issues that young women face in this country, including HIV vulnerability, domestic violence, rape, child marriages and forced marriages, lack of education and employment opportunities, pressure to conform to domestic roles, self-image and discrimination. They are always open and honest in our discussions and they surprise me every day with their insightful questions and observations. They are independent girls with big dreams and visions for their futures.

In addition to facilitating this small group, I have also been serving as the Assistant Coordinator of the REDES project. It’s almost time for me to hand over my position to new leadership, but in my time spent working with this organization I have learned so much about the importance of the empowerment and education of women in a society. The female education rate and involvement in income generation is one of the markers for a country to be considered developed. There’s a reason for this, and it is that in a society where women are empowered and allowed to join the workforce, its economic productivity increases significantly over those where they are not. This has been proven over a number of humanitarian studies, and I’ll reference them below if you are interested in the science behind it. You can also just take my word for it, but the basic principle behind this is that women are extremely hard and resilient workers.

You might have started thinking about some strong women you know, or you may be proud that I’m describing your own gender this way, but let me tell you about the women of the third world, because they blow you and me and every other lady with first world problems out of the water. They don’t make excuses or claim weakness or frailty. They don’t accept lowered expectations assigned to their gender, even in societies where their role in income generation is severely limited. They don’t even complain about being left out of the boy’s club. They rise above and beyond what’s expected of them. They do manual labor in extreme conditions with their babies strapped to their backs. They carry things weighing five times their own body weight. They find a way to make the most out of every day in order to support themselves and their families. Their actions are speaking loudly, and they’re showing us up.

Photo credit: Alex Ernst

So here’s what happens when I see all the sexist jokes and the anti-feminism attitude coming from the other side of the world: I get offended. But I don’t get offended on my own account. I am thinking of these women here, and women like them across the globe. I’m thinking of girls sold or forced into prostitution and traded as sex slaves. I’m thinking of the mail-order brides and the women who are blamed and persecuted for their own rapes. I’m not overreacting here…and I’m not blaming men either. It’s the fundamental idea that women matter less that breeds a society that oppresses women. You may not think anything of the sandwich joke, or the women-belong-in-the-kitchen quip, and I remember laughing at them myself, but the next time you hear one think of Amelia. Amelia is actually in the kitchen making food for her family, and she may very well have to stay there doing that because her society believes that is where she belongs.

There is change in the wind here though, and seeing it unfold is encouraging. This new generation of Mozambican women is taking control of the job market, politics and higher education. They are realizing their worth and demanding the respect they deserve. I can’t wait for the day the women of Africa take over the governments here, because there is nothing more formidable than one of these ladies when they get angry.  One of my friends once told me, referring to her husband, “He may be the boss at work or outside the house, but this is my house and when he walks through that door I am the boss.” Truer words have never been spoken. 

More reading on the female's role in economic development (if you're into that):