July 14, 2009

Grey Matter

In every way, being here has made the grey gap between black and white much larger. Growing up, I often thought solely in black and white, making pronouncements like, “If my husband ever cheated on me, it would be the end of our marriage.” I’m not saying I have ever cheated on someone. I haven’t. But now that I’m older and have been in several relationships, and more importantly, have observed the relationships of those around me, I see how easy it can be for someone to make a mistake. And I know now that there are other healthy ways to deal with such a mistake besides ending the relationship completely.

When I was younger, I also thought child and spousal abuse were unforgivable crimes and that anyone that beats his wife was a bad person, bottom line. But here I am, living in compound with a host brother that once beat his wife so badly that she took her daughter and left the village for several months. All because, after smelling the laundry he gave her to wash, she threw it back at him saying, these aren’t dirty.

And yet, I really like my brother. In fact, I think he’s a great guy. He actually works, does physical labor. He has taken only one wife and has no interest in taking a second, third or fourth. He is a great father and spends more time with his children than any other Gambian man I have observed.

But, he is still a Gambian man. If he wants a glass of water, he will wake his sleeping sister up to go fetch him one, instead of going himself. He once hit three small girls on the back, extremely hard, who were talking about a rape accusation in the village, because they were “too young to be talking about such things.” It took me about a week to even look at him after that and several more to not be disgusted every time I saw him.
When his 15-year-old sister, who is quite possibly the strongest, most capable girl I have ever met, got into a fight with a boy at the pump, I asked him who won, assuming it would be Matida. But to my surprise, he told me the boy had won. I said, “But Matida is so strong.” “Yes, Mahana,” he replied. “But boys are stronger than girls.”

Were this America, I would hate him and never be able to see any of his redeeming qualities. I do still grapple with being innately irritated by him for no actual reason, aside from the fact that he honestly believes “boys are stronger than girls,” and that girls are dumber than boys. But, because I am living here, in The Gambia, where wives and children are beaten more often than not, and men sit around doing nothing, while women work themselves sick, I see that my brother, Kemeseng, is more respectful of women and children than the majority of his male counterparts. He may do or think some terrible things, but he cares about and loves his wife and his family. In no way is he perfect, but he is a good man.

Being able to like someone that does things I hate is a totally new phenomenon for me. But because I have realized that people are not good OR bad, they are both good and bad, I am able to feel lucky to have him as a host brother. When I learn to love, or even just like, the men in my village who consistently beat the shit out of their wives—even when they’re pregnant and have done nothing wrong—then I can really feel enlightened. But until then, I am pretty content with my progress thus far.

In other news, there’s a pair of spiders having, what appears to be, sex in the corner of this room.