(this is a blog that started out only about peanut harvest…but has morphed into a blog about women and gender roles here in Senegal. Its long. Sorry. I’ll save talking about FGC for another day)
This has been an exhaustingly good week. My fingers hurt from picking mud off of peanuts. Our Neene Ba is part of a Tostan women’s group in our quartier. And there are 50 women from the quartiers of Sinthiane and Lowa Demba in this group. On the 2nd of October they, along with the other two Tostan groups from other Podor quartiers, are going to present plays to the town about some traditional but harmful practices: female genital circumcism (FGC), forced marriages, and ear piercing (improperly done without correct sanitation precautions). And on the 3rd, the women along with the entire Podor department will take a declaration to end forced marriages, discourage FGC, and encourage proper ear piercing at the local hospitals.
As of today, this group of women has defined my service as a PCV in Podor. They are all such amazing women, insisting on doing work not usually defined as women’s work as a way out of poverty. A woman described it to me, as we are standing in their field: So min liggotiima ɗoo e ngesa, min mbaawi yeeyde e jogaade kaalis. So min liggotiima, sukaɓe amen mbaawi ñaamde moƴƴo, mbaawi janngude haa lycee. Ina waawi wonde haa universite. If we work here in this field, we can sell the food and have money. If we work, our children can eat well and study in school until high school. Maybe even through university.
And so the women have a field where they harvest peanuts, bissap, cassava, watermelon, and corn. I have spent the last week helping them harvest all the peanuts. By the end of the day, there are at least twenty women sitting around buckets of water, pulling peanuts off of the roots. They stay in the fields from mid-morning through lunch until the sun goes down. Last Friday, after prayers, I ate lunch with them. Fish and rice with the best tamarin sauce I have eaten yet, and then ataaya as we worked through the afternoon. They yell at the cars that pass the field on the Route Nationale. Ar soɗde gerte! It is my intention to help the women buy a motor pump. Currently they rent one from the Catholic Mission, but at great cost. So much is the rent that they can only afford to buy gas for the machine once a week. Imagine that—a large field that is only watered once a week in this Senegalese desert. The Sahel. They fill the irrigation ditches with river water and let it slowly spread across the whole field. I hope that if they can water more frequently, they can plant a wider and less destructive variety of vegetables.
At the end of the day, as the sun is setting, the women busy themselves with rinsing the peanuts in the river. Then Fatimata or Penda spreads them out, counting them in volumetric units of tomato pots—Lingere tomato paste. No foti pots hande? They are averaging about 30 pots a day, which is about 60 kilos. Fatimata fills up the can past the lip until no peanuts fall off the mound. One pot. 800 cfa for one pot of peanuts. For a day’s work, 24 mille. Not bad at all.
My favorite part of it all is the women talking and dancing. They break into chanting, drumming, and dancing intermittently. If I go to the field only in the afternoon, I am met with them chanting: Kuumba arii, kuumba arii. Coumba has come. And then the rest of the day is filled with them chatting about Tostan, people, money, work, children. Malick, this adorable baby comes in on the back of his sister to be nursed by mom. His two and only lower middle teeth smile at me as he runs over to greet me, little dirty hand extended. The most beautiful smile I have seen. There is a lot of yelling and fighting too—the women shouting at each other in rapid Pulaar and Wolof, their voices overlapping as they try to make their points. Typically about money and how to split things equally. But in the end. Aɗa yarlo mi. You should forgive me. Peace only. Every single woman must have her say.
I have been realizing as I spend time here that I want my work here to empower women and girls. Like our ancienne, the greatest issues I see here have to do with gender development. Here in Senegal, serving as a married couple, I experience a contrast in how I fit into society. Certain rights as a women, that I took for granted in the US, are few and overlooked here. These differences stem from the Muslim religion and from traditional Senegalese gender roles. A woman here has little say in how many wives her husband will have, as four is the maximum; but most woman have an opinion on this matter. (People are convinced here that there are more women than men in Senegal, which is hard for me to stomach as a biologist. More logically, that men are more likely to be educated and can leave Senegal.). A woman typically may not divorce her husband, but her husband can divorce her. The Pulaar language itself reveals interesting differences between women and men. A woman is married (reseede) whereas a man marries (resde) but cannot be married. A wife is called the jom suude (head of the room) whereas the husband is the jom galle (head of the house). Rewbe liggotaako. Women do not work (work meaning in the fields or outside of housework) except for the few who sell food, goods, or produce. Women pull water from the well, do the laundry, sweep the house every morning, and cook every meal. PC men volunteers who try to do these tasks have often been met with criticism. You are doing the work of a woman. I was told in training by a language instructor that a good wife is one who is last at the lunch bowl because she spends the entire meal throwing her husband pieces of fish and vegetables. Only after he is full does she really start to eat.
Women, especially in rural villages, seldom finish their schooling. They typically finish college and then get married, have kids, and keep house. Most women cook for a majority of the day, especially as a Senegalese meal is a huge affair and takes several hours to cook. Women wake earlier than the men to start sweeping and cleaning the house, then they go to market from 10-12 and then start preparing for the meal at 12 pm. At 5 pm they start preparing for the dinner at 8 pm. Most young girls have little time to study because they spend all their spare time at home waiting over the fire. Empowering women as I see it gives each girl a chance to have a say in how her life plays out. She can choose whom to marry, when, and who she wants to be. These Senegalese gender roles prevent women from having the opportunity to be more than a house wife. In my host family in Ngekhokh, one of the young girls (probably around 15 years of age) Binta is the one who always cooks for the family. She does not go to school anymore unlike the rest of the kids in the house and it made me sad to see that she already knows this is her life. Over the mud stove under the stars she would ask me how I got to Senegal. Avion? Pointing to the sky. Have you ever flown on a plane before? It is something unfathomable to her, but within reach of any student who takes the bac for entrance into a university. And it is something I did at least four times a year during college. The most she can hope for is a lovely husband, nice kids, and a house. Perhaps her kids will finish school and get the chance to choose their path in life.
In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs makes a small statement about how countries begin their path toward development when women begin to work and choose when to have kids. True development of a country away from poverty starts with gender development. The women in Podor are making small strides for themselves. I have talked to several women who take part in family planning through depo injections or birth control pills. I have met college-age girls who are planning to finish high school and teach or work after they graduate. The other day, I entered a house and chatted with four girls who are studying at the university in Dakar. I told them that I was happy but surprised. C’est le nouveau generation. One step at a time, women and girls will get the tools and resources they need to live as they choose.