Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gender Roles

It’s difficult to explain the feminine toubak role among Senegalese Pulaar families. But I am going to try to describe the emotional/academic/ego-related ups and downs and thoughts that go through my head as I’m observing, trying to be culturally sensitive, and losing things in translation all at once.

This weekend I was invited to spend the weekend with my Senegalese counterpart at her husband’s second home in a village further west near Podor. I agreed with the hopes of getting to experience a different family dynamic and to witness “Gomon” which is a religious event that happens every few months here in Senegal.

My counterpart is the second wife. She was previously married but her husband passed away and so she remarried very recently. He is a very kind man, and is an official for the department of Matam (something to do with agriculture). Basically this means they’re well off. They have their own car (practically unheard of—like the 2nd house) and so we all piled in for the 4 hour drive to Podor. (We all being myself, the two wives, the two little girls, and their nanny/caretaker, tons of bags, a goat, and a hitchhiker riding on the top of the bags in the bed of the truck). It felt so great to be able to plug into my ipod and feel almost normal. It really was just like any other family trip: a little cramped, we stopped a zillion times (but usually only to greet people in the street that they knew), hot, nothing good on the radio, the parents stopped to buy crap, and by the end the kids were cranky.

When we arrived at the house I was surprised by a real shower (with good water pressure—amazing!) and we napped until lunch. Then after lunch we rested until tea! (Tough life I know. And to boot it’s cooler out here than where I am so I was barely even sweaty all day and actually had an appetite). Then feeling kind of lost and bored, I went out under the shade structure armed with my Pulaar notebook to try and memorize a few more verbs and maybe learn some new words if I could find a willing participant (the best ones are usually under the age of 10). I ventured out and sat with the women preparing dinner. So that you can picture it, the men sit on one side of the structure listening to the radio and drinking tea while the women sit on the other side preparing dinner. This is the typical scene—and I am not trying to be judgemental, just observational. I sat there helping the women prepare the leccere which always brings laughs.

This is how it goes…I sit in the middle of all of them mixing the leccere (couscous) with all eyes on me. They’re laughing and talking about me in a nice way, but mostly teasing me because I don’t know how to cook (at least the very specific way that they do it). Also, it is a novelty that a toubak would be cooking. They assume we have machines or servants to do all of that for us. (Today they asked me if I knew how to cook rice. I didn’t have the vocab to say yeah…put it in a ricecooker!) In these kinds of situations it’s interesting to observe my own ego at work. I find that at first, I laugh at the teasing, then I tire of it as it doesn’t let up. Usually they just keep saying, “no…do it like this” and will keep showing me the exact same thing. Then I get annoyed because I’m obviously not getting any better (according to them). Horrible thoughts tend to fly through my head like “why are you spending a billion hours a day laboring over this couscous when it will taste EXACTLY the same if you just cooked it as is??” or “yeah, maybe I can’t cook exactly the way you do, but I can do lot of other more useful things with my time!” This is the side of me that I hate that I quickly try to ignore or work through.

Eventually one or two of them will get involved and say “no, no” that I’m doing a good job. Inevitably, I take a million times longer to do the same amount of work as the rest of them. Then my counterpart goes and gets my camera because she thinks that I should have a picture of myself cooking. (This is a phenomenon that I have experienced before. Once, at my family’s house in Thies a total stranger passed by and took a picture of me on his camera phone because a toubak was doing laundry by hand and he wanted a picture to show his friends). All this involvement with the women, is silly and just gives me tough skin for the most part.

But when the men start in….it makes me furious. I want to jump up and scream at them to get off of their fat lazy asses and help with anything for once! I mean really. There they are laying around. They have not gone to work today, or yesterday for that matter, and the women are now preparing the third meal of the day for them on top of a million other chores. So to sit there staring at us working and critiquing just makes me nuts.

Because I am a toubak though, I can get away with comments like “I’m not doing a good job? Why don’t you come help me then?” As long as I keep a huge grin on my face and am careful with my intonation, I was getting enough laughs to keep it comfortable. Another one I used that I was quite proud of was when one of them said “I’m really hungry, you better cook really good cous cous tonight” and I came right back with “alright fine, but then you’ve gotta cook a good meal for me.” This is hilarious to them because the idea of a man cooking is about on par with the possibility of a pig riding a bicycle. Laughter really is key. But I hate the steps it takes to get there. The anger that swells up, the frustration, the desire to scream and shake people. I am not an angry person. I generally think of it as a wasteful emotion. But how do you tolerate such blatantly acceptable laziness and disproportionate division of labor? I don’t. But the trick is learning how to fight it subtly—through exposure and knowledge.

This adventure of mine is an exercise in patience, flexibility, and cultural understanding yes…but it is also a lesson in how to walk a fine line to bring change without making enemies. I find that that is the biggest challenge where gender roles are concerned.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I love the way you think Caitlin you are truly brilliant.