13 November, 2013

The Women of My Peace Corps Life

I cried only three times in the days leading up to leaving my village for the last time. Each time, the tears unexpectedly welled up as I walked away from one of the many women of my Peace Corps life, then they quickly passed. They weren’t tears of sorrow but were instead brought by overwhelming gratitude. I was walking away from the women I worked with, lived with, celebrated with, and learned from for the past two years. I owe them my life, as I’m sure it was them who kept me safe when I had no idea how to live here.  My host mother Ulle most especially was patient and kind, and despite being close to my age treated me with the same love and care she gives her own 6 children. When I first arrived and life in village was foreign and often down-right embarrassing, Ulle always put me at ease. She taught me all the names and uses of the trees in the forest. Without judgment she ushered me through the cultural graces in which I was sorely lacking. When she knew it was time for me to move home she gave me a heaping mountain of peanuts; the bigger the pile the more a person will miss you.
My Master Farmer and rice project president being awesome at a training they did together.

My host aunt Fanna

Ulle lives a very typical life of women in central Senegal. She married very young and moved a few villages over from the household of her father to the home of her new husband. She has never been to school so is not literate. She is, however, incredibly clever in a humble genius way. I’ve seen her rewire radios and battery powered lamps using hot coals to solder parts. She had 6 kids by the age of 30 who range from 2-15 year old. She lives daily under the typical gender assignments of Senegal. Cooking, cleaning, child rearing, fetching water, cutting fire wood, and her many responsibilities in the fields. Women take on much of the agricultural labor despite men claiming it is their realm of work. Most of the tasks required of women are by hand and are taken on painstakingly. The harvests are currently rolling in and in addition to hours of labor in the field, the daily household chores now include pounding millet in a mortar and pestle into flour and shelling each and every peanut by hand. They will roast these peanuts and grind them into peanut butter which will be the base of their diet for the next year.
Ulle rarely leaves the village and needs permission from her husband to do so, he generally obliges although many husbands do not. She has very little control over finances and must ask her husband for money if she needs to purchase anything including groceries for meals she cooks and to see a doctor. She owns goats and these are some of her only true personal possessions in a society where all things are shared. She maintains quiet stoicism under duress or pain, as it is expected in Senegalese culture. When she suffered a painful miscarriage on the day of her husband’s wedding to his second wife, I could hardly tell anything was wrong. She never complained about it later.
 I am not writing all of this to make you feel bad for her; she does not need pity. Although her life may sound undesirable from a western stand point she is proud of her work and her family. She enjoys being a mother and with her endless patience it seems to be her calling. She is fond of her husband and he treats her relatively well by the standards of the typical Senegalese marriage. Fondness in a marriage here is adequate since affection and emotional support are not required of a spouse; women and men obtain these human necessities from companions of their own gender. Ulle’s sister wives (wives of her husband and his brothers) are who she spends her days with and on whom she depends. She also has close relationships with her mother and daughters, her female friends, and her female Peace Corps Volunteer. I requested that my replacement volunteer be female for several pragmatic reasons but one aside, and emotional, reason was to be sure Ulle had a new companion in my absence.
My host mom and little sister. Beautiful!

This request was not unreasonable as Peace Corps Senegal tends to have many more female then males in its ranks. In fact, NGO, non-profit, and volunteer work all generally espouse female heavy ratios. For this reason I am not only surrounded by strong, beautiful women in my village but also at most Peace Corps work and social events. In the Kaffrine region I have shared an office with approximately 10 females to every 1 male for my entire service. Here in Peace Corps I have met some of the most hardcore and awesome women from all over America. In their number there are athletes and world travellers, singers, mountain climbers, linguists and farmers, horse-back riders, poets and chefs. My Peace Corps life has been defined by these amazing women just as much as those in my village. From them I’ve learned a lot about the world and life and even more about the power of female companionship. The power to hold each other up even in the hardest times whether her sister-wife is having a miscarriage or her friend is being robbed by a man in the garage.
Two of the lovely ladies I've had the pleasure of working and living with the past 2 years.

In my time here I have also become acutely aware, as never before, that despite great strides made in some places, women are hardly equal or safe in much of the world. Even in Senegal, not the worst place to be a woman, child marriage is common and acceptable. Girls whose bodies are too small to safely handle child birth often suffer dangerous health complications and death. At rural health posts women are often treated with disrespect and are never properly explained what is happening with their bodies. For the lucky girls who do go to school, stories abound of school directors and teachers who blackmail young girls for good grades. (These occurrences aren’t universal as there are meny dedicated health workers and amazing teachers here). That said, these offenses may even be construed as mild compared to what happens publicly, with no punishment, in other parts of the world.

So, I walked tearfully away from the women of my Peace Corps life, but I was only able to walk away at all because of the resolve in my mind and heart that I am not truly leaving them. I will pay them for all they’ve given me by never giving up the fight for equality, the fight my mother taught me the importance of as a child which I never truly understood until now. I will work on their behalf, on mine, and on the behalf of the world’s future daughters and sons to create a global society in which equality and safety are absolute for women; a place where their bodies and minds will be theirs. The women of my Peace Corps life have unexpectedly connected me to all the women of the world. And for this I thank them, and for this I will never be without them.

For some wonderful work being done in women's empowerment internationally check out these awesome projects:
Girl Rising the film:  http://www.girlrising.com/
Half the Sky Movement: http://halfthesky.org/en
International Rescue Committee programming: http://www.rescue.org/womenandgirls

And for a great read about an amazing individual and her work to insight change for women in Senegal check out the book 'However Long the Night': http://aimeemolloy.com/however-long-the-night/