Archive for the ‘Chronicles of Africa’ Category

Note to my readers:  All the stories in the Chronicles of Africa come from data I collected when completing my dissertation in the late 1980s.  Sadly, little has changed for the women and girls in the nearly twenty years since I first wrote these stories. This resistance to change is a testimony to the powerful societal and cultural norms that limit the options and contributions they can make. It is my hope that by sharing these stories I can raise awareness and maybe leverage some change.

I consider moneychangers to be a particularly untrustworthy class of people.  I made it a habit to avoid them and generally encouraged visitors to the area to beware of the money changers sleight of hand when trading money.  It was difficult to ignore them totally however,  They around the marketplace in droves and you had to pass through them whenever you went to buy fruit and vegetables or other things spread out in the numerous tables that filled the market square.

One morning as I was leaving to go to a secondary school where I was collecting data I was asked to do a “little” favor for a student. He had received $400 in brand new bills in currency from a sponsor in the United States.  The director of the university where I was working asked if I would be willing to trade the money for him since I was going right past the market where the money changers hung out. I told him I wasn’t used to dealing with the money changers and preferred not to do this. He ignored my pleas and with the parting words of “….make sure you get 120 to 1…” waved me out of the door of his office.

Later that afternoon as I pulled up to the market the money changers pressed in around my car eager to negotiate a trade with me. I reluctantly began to negotiate for a 120 to 1 trade. Most of the money changers lost interest when I refused to lower my demands. Only two men continued to discuss the transaction with me.  Finally, worn down by my insistence that “I know the going rate…” they agreed and handed me the local currency.  After I handed them the bills, 20 new twenty dollar bills, they angrily told me I couldn’t get the 120 to 1 rate for anything lower than a 50 dollar bill.

All the time we were arguing back and forth about the rate I kept my eye on the money clutched in their hands. At no point did I see them move their hands—or the money—out of view.  I had counted the money several times when I was first given it.  I knew exactly how much money I was being asked to exchange.  That represented a great deal of money to a poorly paid missionary so I was very careful to make sure I had exactly the amount I was being asked to exchange.

So, when we couldn’t come to an agreement on the rate and I agreed to take the dollars back, I need something had transpired when I recounted the money they returned and there was $80 less than I had given them.  When I asked them where the rest o the money was they screamed at me I was trying to cheat them and angrily stalked to stand under the awning of a nearby store. Just as they did this, the summer rains began pouring down. Immediately the market place cleared as people ran or cover from the pounding rain.

I considered my options. There was no way I was going to let these two men take advantage of me. After months of collecting data about the situation of women and girls I was completely fed up with the patriarchal system. More than anything I wanted to show them and any man who might be told about me being short changed women could take care of themselves. I had to show them all (and particularly myself) women didn’t have to be victims.

I quickly swung the car around to head in the opposite direction, pulled up to the store where the two men were seeking refuge from the storm, jumped out of the car and grabbed the taller one by the lapels of his jacket. I began shaking him demanding in French he give me back my money. Everyone stopped talking and watched—eyes wide with wonder—as I forcefully shook him and then grabbed his counterpart by his coat tails as he tried to slip past me into the crowd growing ever larger watching the scene before them.

I screamed at them both—“Get into my car—we’re going to the police.”  More shocked than scared they obediently climbed into my car. Despite their compliance I had a problem. I couldn’t go to the police. Even though there was a tacit arrangement over these money changing transactions technically it was illegal. I had to decide what to do. I wanted my money back. Indeed I was determined to get my money back.  Without really thinking about the consequences of my decision I decided to make the drive up the mountain roads back to the university and let the students there get me back my money.

My two passengers knew I had a dilemma too.  Quite frankly I could tell they were enjoying all the attention and seemed to be amused at my decision to head to the gendarme to resolve our little dilemma.  I’m sure they assumed it would end in their favor and until I sped past the police station there wasn’t the slightest indication of any doubt about the outcome. However, once I whizzed past my passengers became much more subdued and hesitantly asked where I was going where I was taking them. When I told them and the other passenger a student from the university who was helping me with my data collection where I was going the two men began whispering in Kinyarwanda.

“We can’t go there. It’s all white people up there. What will they do to us?” The taller of the two men began shouting at me I was kidnapping them and had to let them go.  When his threats didn’t work he began hitting me on my back and arm and yanking at the steering wheel trying to force the car off the road. My anger mounted the more aggressive he became and I began swinging back at him with my right arm eventually landing a hard blow on his face and chest as he leaned forward to jerk on the steering wheel.

He tightly grabbed my wrist and I screamed at him in English, “Let go of me NOW.  Touch me again and believe me I swear to you you’ll be very sorry.” Although I couldn’t see his face I could hear the rage in his voice as he once again demanded I stop and let him and his partner go. He threw my arm loose but continued to swing at me—not quite touching me but threatening to all the same.  While all this was going on my assistant and my attacker’s partner sat bolt upright in their seats amazement mixed with terror as the man and I struggled with each other.  No doubt their fear increased as they watched me in horror struggle to keep the car on the twisting road that perilously clung to the mountain side.

When I was nearly halfway back to the university the money was flung at me. “Here, here’s the $80—you got your money back now let us go.” My answer surprised even me. “No. I won’t let you go until you admit YOU stole the money and apologize to me.” An angry and clearly reluctant apology was mumbled hardly what I wanted but clearly all I was going to get.  I unlocked their doors locked with a child proof lock and stopped just long enough for them to quickly jump out of the car. I could hear them shouting I needed to pay for their taxi ride back to town as I quickly drove off.

I drove a short distance away then pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I laid my head on my arms that rested across the steering wheel. My passenger who’d been silently watching me until this point slowly turned to look at me. He shook his head in amazement and carefully enunciating each word told me, “Madame you were crazy to do that. They could have had knives.” He paused continued shaking his head for another moment and then whispered, “No one is going to believe this one.”

I was warned by a delegation of local teachers (all men) who came to my house later that evening not to visit the market for several weeks because the men I’d confronted might try to damage the car while I shopped.  Even more than thwarting their effort to cheat me I had publically humiliated them and they would be bent on revenge for the way in which I had challenged their manhood.

Three weeks later, when I hesitantly stopped to buy food, it was my turn to be amazed.  Silence slowly spread across the market as everyone stopped bartering and looked at me.  I fearfully recalled my friends’ warnings that even men who didn’t like money changers and their dishonesty would sympathize with them because of the way I had treated them so badly.

Suddenly, an old mama standing near me who sold potatoes and carrots jumped to her feet and began dancing and shouting, intermittently clapping her hands and pointing to the two money changers I had taken on standing on the edge of the crowd of onlookers. “Voleurs, voleurs” (thieves, thieves) she shouted. Soon others joined in her chant dancing and clapping in rhythm to her song.  It was my turn to be amazed when she finished her song and the crowd cheered on what I had done. It was the moment of my triumph.


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My first impressions of the lives of women and girls were of the heavy work load, the endless poverty, the segregation between the men and boys and women and girls. These were the visible manifestations of their status. Other, less visible aspects of their lives, especially the symbols of social relations and the social fabric like kinship ties and bride price were considerably more complex and harder for an outsider to understand. And there was always the threat of domestic violence–a powerful force to control the behaviors of the women and girls. Kavira, a young girl who came to work for me shortly after I arrived in Zaire  forced me to venture into the world of women and girls in a way that left me puzzled, angry and longing to help.

Kavira was eighteen years old when she knocked on my door seeking work. Even today, after nearly thirty years I still remember how she looked, her pungent smell, the way she carried herself and especially the way she interacted with me and my children. She was an incredibly hard worker and taught me how to survive in a world without electricity or grocery stores—a world in which you had to do by hand all the tasks to keep a family clean, well and fed. It was a daunting task but Kavira was a master at it all and deftly apprenticed me as she carried out her daily tasks. Although she spoke no English we developed a form of communication that was the foundation for the French and Swahili I eventually learned over the years.

She told me she had a younger sister who was three years old. Her name was Masika.  Had I better understood the culture and traditions I would have realized Masika could not have been her sister. But I didn’t know or understand these things when I first met Kavira and so I accepted all that she told me.

Kavira lived with her parents in a village seven kilometers from the mission compound.  It sat high on a mountain and by all accounts was located right on the equator. Despite its location in the heart of Africa at 8000 feet in elevation it was cold and wet more than it was hot and sunny. Her walk in the morning coming to work was mostly downhill over the well worn paths that led from Rwese to the mission compound.  But the walk home at night was a grueling trek up and over the mountains between her house and mine. And on days when it rained the path could be treacherous as you’d slip and slide on the paths that barely clung to the sides of the mountains.

I generally let Kavira go home early on Friday afternoons so she could prepare for the weekend. One Friday, however, I gave her a few additional jobs and she left later than usual. When she arrived for work the following Sunday I noticed she had a dark scarf tied around her head which hung low over her forehead covering her eyes. And I noticed she avoided looking at me when I spoke to her and bowed her head down as if to stare at her feet.  Although I found her behavior unusual I didn’t think too much about it.  After all, staying ahead of all the things we had to do kept us too busy to ponder over scarves and unusual behavior.  I was engrossed in my work when several hours later another woman living on the compound came to talk with me.

“Do you know what happened to Kavira?” she demanded.

What do you mean? What happened to Kavira—she’s here—is there something wrong?” I was baffled.  Kavira rarely missed work but on the few times she had she always let me know something was wrong. I was surprised she would be there if she wasn’t feeling well and shook my head as if to say “She’s fine there’s nothing wrong here—why are you coming to me?”

You don’t know about Masika do you?  We really need to talk.” I invited Erna in wondering what prompted her visit to me that morning.

Erna explained how the tribe in the area where Kavira lived had a precise naming system for their children. Erna’s explained how her first child was a son so if they were from that tribe his name would be Paluku.  Her second child was a girl so she would be a Kahindo—a sign to everyone in that tribe—she was the second child, a girl and had an older brother.  And she explained to me that since my oldest child was a girl she was my Masika.  And just like Erna, my second child was a different gender so he was my Muhindo a signal to everyone that he had an older sister and was the second child born in his family.

“Maski’s name means she is a first child in her family. And Kavira’s name means she is the second girl born in her family. Masika is Kavira’s daughter not her sister,”she explained. I was surprised Kavira had misrepresented the relationship and wondered why she might have hidden that fact from me. But even more puzzling was why Erna was there that morning and what this conversation about birth order and names had to do with whatever was wrong with Kavira.

“Kavira got home later on Friday night than her father expected,” Erna hesitantly explained. ’Because she was late he thought she had stopped along the way to meet some boy. When Kavira got home he confronted her.  When she told him she left work late he didn’t believe her and said she met a boy on the way home. So he beat her to force her to tell the truth and told her he didn’t want any more of her babies in his house that he had to feed. He swore at her that he wasn’t going to lose any bride price on her so he’d make sure she never met with a boy again.”

I listened my horror growing as I realized all that passed and the terror Kavira must have experienced.  I was sickened by my role in the events that happened that night.  Shaking her head in frustration and anger Erna told me everyone in the village heard Kavira’s screams. They heard her beg pleading with her father to stop beating her.  Everyone in the village heard Masika’s screams too as she struggled to protect her mother from her grandfather’s rage. But little Masika and Kavira’s mother were overpowered by their fear he would beat them too.  The neighbors chose to do nothing to come to her aide and stop the fury being released. The code of silence and approval were too strong to interfere.

I asked Kavira what happened.  At first she denied everything but I could see the puffiness around her eyes, the bruises, the lacerations.  But the emotional pain was greater than the physical bruising and couldn’t be hidden behind her veil of silence. Eventually, unable to hold it back, she wept in my arms her words barely audible between her agonized sobs.  But eventually the story emerged—her father’s drunkenness and her fear that he would beat her to death.

Bob spoke to her father who was furious we tried to interfere. He shouted this didn’t concern us; Kavira was his daughter and his to do with as he pleased. Bob questioned the others in the village talked to persons of authority in the area.  Everyone said the same thing:  we didn’t understand, this didn’t concern us, we shouldn’t interfere. All our probing made Kavira’s situation more vulnerable and she begged us to let the issue die. When I offered to let her stay with us she refused our help.  All I could do was make sure she never left for home late ever again.

Although we never spoke of this incident Kavira eventually told me about the relationship that ended in the birth of Masika. It was a local boy and although they weren’t promised in marriage the relationship became sexual. Boys anxious to prove their sexual prowess could be very demanding. “There’s not much we can do.  Men are in control.  They won’t listen to what we say.” When it was over she was the one left with a small child to care for and a father who wouldn’t listen to her pleas for mercy and understanding. Although Masika’s birth established Kavira’s ability to bear children—and therefore increased her bride price—a second child born out of wedlock would only be seen as a burden and decrease the value of her worth.

Although I tried to understand bride price within the context of their lives and world it was hard for me to see it as anything but bartering and selling—defining a woman’s worth and how many goats it would take to acquire the fruit of her womb. From birth a girl was raised to believe she would become some man’s wife, live with and labor for his family yet never be a part of them and bear children that would belong to his family and clan and not hers. If she bore sons, they might bring her some measure of status and security as they grew older but if she bore girls they would be married off and move away.  She would then be left alone–barren despite all her labors in life.

Kavira’s father eventually negotiated a marriage for her in a village two day’s walk away. Although she and Masika moved to her husband’s village every now and then we heard news about her new life.  But her story and plight was always with me. And her story was the first of many that I heard over the years that underscored how difficult it was to be a woman in a society where your value and worth was defined by how well you labor.  Several years later when visiting a remote village the chief asked us how many goats we wanted for our daughter, Heather. Disbelief registered on their faces when we told them we weren’t going to ask for any goats–there would be no bride price for our daughter.  The perplexed cry of one old mama underscored the complexity of bride price within their world. “Then how will you keep her safe after she marries and has moved far from your village if you don’t make them pay any goats?”

I still don’t understand the fabric of bride price in the tapestry of their world.  I still don’t understand how women are able to negotiate the complexity of their lives or the burden of their work and status.  And I still don’t understand how a village can hear the screams of a mother and her daughter and just close their ears and walk away.

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It is said that a journey begins with the first step.  But I’m not so sure about that.

Many years ago I read a book to my children called “The Journey From Peppermint Street.” The main character a young boy named Siebren finds his life in a tiny seacoast village with his family boring and lonely. Things take a dramatic turn, however, when his mother permits him to take a journey with his grandfather to visit his great-aunt who lives in an old monastery in an isolated marsh far from their village. The story chronicles Siebren’s coming of age and powerfully illustrates the way a child makes sense of the adult world.

One of the most profound realizations Siebren has is that a journey truly doesn’t begin until you go past the farthest point that you already know. As Siebren walks beside his grandfather excitedly waiting to find that magical moment he is continually disappointed to discover whenever he turns another bend that he still knows where he is. He is almost halfway through his journey before he finally truly begins it.

I went to Africa in 1978 literally dropping from the sky into a world I had never even imagined. Yet, as strange and even freighting my new world and journey was, my larger Siebren journey had not yet really begun….

The six-seater Cessna broke through the clouds and I could see the ground below me—a patchwork masterpiece in greens and browns. As the plane descended, I watched palm trees wave in the wind.  I watched dug-out canoes skim across the lake and herds of cows graze along the road. I watched as women trudged along the paths that wove in and out of the patchwork, babies tied to their back and baskets balanced on their heads. The scenery below me absorbed me and its power over me gained in intensity the nearer we came to the ground. I had a literal sensation of two worlds colliding as the plane bounced on the grass strip and came to a jerky stop.

Women and children were standing along the edges of the airstrip. Young boys clad in shorts and T-shirts waved sticks in the air and jumped and chanted and shouted. The young girls huddled together, clapped their hands and danced in quick short steps that barely took their feet off the ground.  The pilot spoke to my husband in French. I couldn’t understand what they said and that, combined with the strange environment surrounding me, caused a wave of uneasiness to engulf me. I pulled three-year-old Heather closer to me and held two-year-old Danny tighter in my arms.

Later that evening, as I lay in my bed, I listened to the rhythmic sounds beating in distant villages and women singing a shrill, repetitive chant as they danced in the moonlight through the night. As I listened to the hypnotic, discordant music, my feelings of self-doubt overwhelmed me and I wondered what I was going to do here on this distant continent. How would I fit in knowing neither the language nor the culture? How would my family and I survive in this strange and foreign place?

My own doubts were those of a woman. And the images I remember are those of women and girls. Those images are indelibly burnt into my memory. One which continues to haunt me is of a pregnant mother with a baby slung about her waist. She is bent low over the ground as she carries a heavy load of logs strapped to her back. Sweat is beaded on her bow. A rope woven from elephant grass is tied around the load of wood and pressed across her forehead. Her hands are clasped together behind her neck pushing her forward in an attempt to counter-balance the weight of the wood that pulls her back and weighs her down. After years of carrying similar loads of wood, the flat weave of the rope is permanently pressed on her forehead and hands like a tattoo, a symbolic mark of the beast of burden that she has become.

The life and hard work of the women is a shared experience. They hoe and they harvest with a baby ever present on their backs. They call out to other women in neighboring fields as they work or as they forge ahead in great masses in their race to the market to be the first to sell their goods. They trade stories. They laugh together. They share one another’s griefs. The sun has yet to awaken as each journey begins their day. Thin pieces of cotton material are thrown over their bare shoulders to ward off the early morning chill and to try and protect sleeping babies carried tightly against their backs.

Baskets of goods, precariously balanced on their heads, sway ever so slightly as the women interact with the others in their group. Barefoot toddlers run to keep up with their mothers who confidently rush down the road walking sticks firmly in hand. Even the older mamas with their wooden pipes and their graying hair, carry heavy loads of produce to the market. As often as not, these women too have a small child tied to their back. This common bond of endless toil brings the women together to nurture one another in their shared struggle. It is their acknowledged lot in life and they accept if with courage because they recognize that there is no other way, no release.

Each passing year I spent in Africa helped me to better understand the shared existence of all women. The more I was touched by the lives of these women around me the more I began to realize my journey to find myself was intangibly intertwined in other women’s lives. With this realization, it was then, that my Siebran journey began.

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