african woman: matron, farmer, hydrologist, urban planner

In anticipation of working in Central Africa for a few weeks, I packed a small pile of hard and softcovers to keep me busy. And so my usual routine of pouring over google reader and internet articles sent to me by friends has been temporarily replaced with the old fashioned inspiration source – good ol’ books.

Lately I’ve been reading from “Women Development Issues: A book of readings” edited by Ode Ojowu and from the University of Jos, Nigeria. Some amazing African perspectives on women’s rights that I had never really seen before in Western writings, although much of it rings true. As if there was knowledge that I knew deep inside from experience, but had never seen it expressed on a page… the words feel more real to me than most HIStories I’ve read. Some of my favorite tidbits:

“Women cannot determine the number of children they can have. But, because family planning is not very popular and available to rural communities (although the situation is changing), in most communities, the social status of a woman depends on the number of children she has. Therefore, among the Igbo, when a woman has about ten children, a cow is slaughtered and the women are admitted into an elite association of matrons. As a result, most Igbo women try to achieve this, and the practice encourages overpopulation on community resources, with negative implication for environmental resources.” (p.72)

This is a stark lesson for those of us who work in women’s health, and family planning in particular. Not all women want to space their pregnancies – even if they had trees growing birth control pills in every village! We often assume the only problem is access, cost, or that their arrogant, patriarchal-“the condom won’t fit me”-husbands won’t let them rest a year before getting knocked up again. And yet, for some traditional women, having many children is an ultimate achievement. Now, our charge is to think creatively about how to respect that fact – how to balance their opportunity for community admiration (which, for women, we definitely want to support) with keeping them healthy for the next baby on the assembly line. Perhaps encouraging women to applaud one another as “matrons” by the number of children they care for, rather than the number they birth? Or more simply and likely more effective, sitting down with them and the men to explain the dire health problems from 10 births in 11 years, and asking what they prefer to do? Maybe an entirely new elite association will emerge, something like “women who are still alive to care for their 5 children because they didn’t die with complications from the 14th kid like Auntie Grace.”

“Women perform most of the world’s subsistence farming, and their work load grows as men leave the rural areas for paid employment elsewhere… Women grow about half of the food supply in the world… Although men tend to think, plan, manage, and supervise the agricultural process, women tend to perform the actual thing, and thereby produce more in agriculture than men.” (p.73-74)

As we well know, men think they run the house… and of course we do. Well, some of us do. And some of us make our men do. But wherever you land, this is an empowering statement. When I think of a farmer, I inevitably think of a strong, if cantakerous, man holding a hoe and shovel and calling out to his “ma” – “Is lunch ready yet???” I’m not sure how true this is in the United States (it may, in fact, be a throwback from a cartoon of my youth), but certainly in African and other cash-poor (as opposed to resource-poor, which they are not) countries, women do critical agricultural work, and in fact are involved with food and nutrition at every step along the process. It goes far deeper than just being that oh-so-African mom who’s constantly urging you to eat. She birthed that damn food straight out the earth’s womb. So shut up and eat.

“More than any hydrologist or urban planner, it is women in [the] developing world – the drawers, carriers, and household managers of water – who understand what water scarcity is, and what its implications are for families and communities.” (p.76)

When humanitarian agencies come into refugee or displaced persons camps after tragedies with cash assistance to give to families, they sure as hell don’t give to the men. It’s known that women handle money better and distribute it far more equally among the family than men, better than good fathers, even. Because many women in cash-poor countries  understand – NAY! – master the ins and outs of the life of the community – where water and food come from, how to prepare and preserve it, how to survive in emergencies, how to sacrifice oneself for the good of the husband and the children. And most women the world over know this point about self-sacrifice. Whether we realize it or not, we are connected to this odd compulsion to provide and to care for and, when exercised, it gives us immense knowledge that surpasses formal education. Hydrologists may have spent a lot of moolah on their degrees, while women whose lives these issues consume (and the weight of carrying water, let me tell you, will consume you) simply know it like the back of their hand, their family, their community. So as new towns are being developed in the current African urbanization frenzy, I wonder, are all the right informants being consulted?

Great book. If you found this halfway interesting, I encourage you to check it out.

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