Monday, 23 August 2010

Women in times of Great Hardship

I personally think we all will be better off if women ruled our world. One of the reasons for this is illustrated in Paul Vallely book. “Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt”. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990. He was a Journalist in Africa and “The Times” correspondent in Ethiopia during the great famine of 1984/5, and in his book he writes about the incompetence, corruption and violence he witnessed in those times. So the book is a depressing read but there is one part of the book that different, where we see what is possible if women are allowed to run things. The following is a part of the book I copied out. –


On all sides the baked white desert stretched endlessly into the distance. Within me I could feel a suppressed sense of panic at the utter desolation of the place. We were more than three day's drive from Khartoum. All around, the landscape was utterly featureless except for the occasional euphorbia bush. Its leaves were poisonous, I had been told, as if to underline the relentless hostility of the landscape. There where no roads. Our Sudanese driver had no map. It seemed that he was driving by the sun. One of my companions from time to time furtively checked his direction with a compass. It seemed hopelessly haphazard.

“Surely we are lost,” we said to him, one word at a time as if we were speaking to an uncomprehending child, though it was in fact he who could speak a little of our language and we none of his.

“No, no,” he said, and completed his sentence with a short burst of Arabic. He drove on, gripping the wheel with a constant effort as the land-rover bumped and bucked across the unyielding terrain. And sure enough about an hour later we arrived at Tendelti. I wondered that the place could have had a name at all, for there seemed to be little there to distinguish it from the surrounding desert, little anyone would have felt necessary to dignify a name. In fact it was what, well into the fringes of the Sahara desert, constituted a major landmark. Beyond the primitive refugee camp which had been set up there was a dried up wadi which, on those rare occasions when it rained, turned for a few hours into one of the mightiest rivers on the edge of the Sahara. It flowed from nowhere to nowhere, appearing suddenly and then running into the insatiable sands or evaporation in the desiccating air almost as quickly as it arrived. It also marked the boundary between Sudan and Chad. The ten thousand people in the camp were mainly refugees from that neighbouring country which was troubled by civil war. Of all those registered at Tendelti only two hundred were men. They were old or crippled. All the able-bodied had either died in the fighting or had left their women here at the border while they continued on eastward towards the Sudanese capital where they hoped to find work.

Life in Tendelti was unimaginably hard by Western standards. The water was nauseously turbid and foul-smelling. The food was insubstantial and unappetising. The straw hovels they lived in were little more than raffia mats propped up by sticks, no protection against the torrential rain storms which just at that time were falling every other day. But the women of Tendelti were finding ways to live with the four thousand children under the age of seven.

Women in any case do most of the work in Africa. Almost 80 per cent of the continent's food is produced by women, it is estimated. The men, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the Third World, restrict themselves to a little cash cropping and a lot of sitting around talking politics beneath the broad branches of the baobab trees. It is the women who are responsible for the food crops - which means the hoeing, and planting, and the weeding. As well as being responsible for the children they are also in charge of the livestock. They gather the firewood, grind the corn, prepare the food and fetch the water, which alone can take up several hours of the day. In Tendilti they had also taken over the organisational and administrative work, which normally would have been the prerogative of the men. Fourteen of them had been elected by the camp's seven tribes to run the centre and its feeding program with foreign aid which trickled in unreliably from Port Sudan more than a thousand miles away.

“We have found that they are making a much better job of it than do the men,” said Mhboba Ab-Rahel Ali, a local woman who had once been a teacher but who was then employed by Oxfam to supervise work at the camp. “Other camps are run by local Sheiks, all men, of course, and traditional leaders, and yet we have found they do not run as smoothly as this camp. It is not just that the women manage the children better in the feeding centre. They are more willing to work at problems that the men,”
That day in the camp little boys could be seen with their baby siblings strapped to their backs. In normal times this job would have been done by their big sisters and mothers but now the women were busy with men's work. Older girls were baking bricks. Mothers were building more permanent homes with walls of mud bricks and strong thatches. Grandmothers were preparing thatches of twigs from the scrubby desert bushes for the new roofs. The elected women were talking to foreign water engineers about where the wells should be drilled.

One of the recent changes at Tendelti had been a decision to end the futile attempt to distribute to everybody a share of what little food arrived. The women had devised a new system to concentrate most on those children who were most in need. Everyone else would live off mokheit and the other scant famine foods to which the desert people turned at times of desperation. Slowly the condition of the children, which Oxfam nurses had described as 'appalling' when the camp was first established, was beginning to improve. “We have organised a special sitting for the children who will not eat on their own so that we can make sure that they do take some food,” said Aleem Hassan Mamadan, who had been elected by more than two thousand members of the Asangor tribe, one of the hardest-hit groups of these cross-border peoples. Her husband and her four children had died in the famine. She and four other children survived. She was finding time to look after them as well as take part in the organisation of the camp. Other women were equally impressive. Fatuma leader of a group of a thousand Arap tribeswomen who had trekked en masse across the desert from Chad to Tendlti seven months before, in addition to her own two children she had adopted a third, a child whose mother had died in the drought and whose father had been killed in the war. Halima Mohammed Hassam, though only aged twenty-two, was the leader of 1,200 Marareet tribespeople and had similarly adopted two children of a murdered family.

'It is not difficult to manage without men,' said Matka Mohammed, a handsome women who led the 1,300 Zagawe tribeswomen in the camp. Her cheeks bore the ritual scars of a warrior family - when there were Zagawe men around the camp they startled Sudanese aid workers from the capital by threatening them with long swords when the worker suggested that the Zagawe should queue for food. Now the food was distributed with a careful eye to the most needy and a methodical fairness alien to local male leaders who would commonly wheel and deal with the food aid in their trust in the small communities throughout the famine affected region.

'We needed men to help cultivate, but the women already did most of the work and can easily take over the men's share. We needed men to dig wells, but at present there is no water in the ground, We needed men to ride horses, but now the horses have died in the drought.'

Was there anything they could not do without men? At this point my interpreter, who was also a Sudanese but a man, stopped translating and began, instead, to answer indignantly himself. Matka Mohammed looked on with eyes twinkling as he turned to me and blustered. Then she confronted him and insisted he put the question, laughed and said: 'We are not happy without men. There is one thing they are good for...' she said, and broke off with a deep mischievous laugh.

There were many terrible and miserable sights to see in Africa in those years. But occasionally there was an experience like Tendelti which cracked the stereotypes and forced a new humility on any foreign observer from the developed world. There in the desert, when deep in my stomach I knew we were hopelessly lost, our driver brought us unerringly to our destination. There amid the starvation were tens of thousands of people surviving, as their mothers and fathers had done for generations, off a meagre diet of desert fruits and withered roots which the Western nutrition experts said could not sustain life. There where normal life seemed to have shrivelled in the heat were a people taking a new control of their lives with new initiative, new senses of priority and even a continuing sense of humour.

Tendelti was the first book. In it were incarnate the truths which we have seen spelled out in that second book, the Bible. [the author is a committed Christian.] Here groups of neighbours had come together to act as a society. What little resources they shared had been allocated with justice and, it had been decided, with a disproportionate preference to those who were most in need. The sharing was not out of the surplus of the controlling elite, but came out of their sacrifice. Those who were normally marginalized by their status, the women, had been enabled to participate in the social process and in doing so had discovered a sense of control which brought them dignity despite their material deprivation. Out of it they were prepared to confront those who challenged them. It had also brought new insights on the ordering of social relations, the structures had been changed. It would be romantic to stretch the parallels any further. So destitute were these people that it was clear that they were not in possession of the resources to provide their basic means of food, clothing and adequate shelter. They certainly were denied any share in the productive resources which the creation ordinances allow is the basis for sharing in stewardship of the planet's resources: there were seeds, tools, and water pumping equipment in the regional capital - but only for those who had the cash to enter the 'free' market of which Sudanese mercantilism offers such a raw exemplar. The empowerment of the marginalized group, the women, had come about only because the men were gone, not because there had been some transformation of social relations resulting from personal of spiritual change within individuals in the group.

(The author then goes on to relate what he had observed in Tendelti to his Christian beliefs.)

1 comment:

  1. *** "(The author then goes on to relate what he had observed in Tendelti to his Christian beliefs.)"

    Well I did not see this part and therefore could not read it... but I am relieved that I couldnt.

    No matter what anyone says, christianity has undermined Women/Mothers since its creation by patriarchy. Christianity has also promoted rampant might is right bloody slaughter of any cultures that did not follow their crackerjack beliefs.

    The christian bible and christian church propoganda has IMO been the singularly most successful weapon of maledom to destroy the Sacred Feminine. Actually again IMO, any Women who support this manmade religion of male-birthing gods, are shooting themselves and their sisters and children in the foot...even worse, they are stabbing them in the back.

    Surprise all you silly peops! Males do NOT birth Life. How COULD you be so brianwashable to buy that???