August 8, 2010

Cultural Differences and Rice Paddies

I’m being dramatic, I know I am. But that doesn’t make me feel less helpless and frustrated. Mamatida, my 15 year old sister leaves for Kombo (the capital, 8 hours away) tomorrow with her husband Amadou, and is not coming back. She no longer lives in my compound anymore—instead of seeing her everyday, I will now see her one day a month, if that. And Kumba (the girl I wrote about before who was married off and hates her husband) is pregnant. Kumba, who is just a child, an immature, headstrong girl, who was married off at 15 is now “having big stomach.”

What is wrong with this place? How can Amadou look at Mamatida and feel anything but shame? How does he convince himself that she likes him when he knows she wouldn’t have chosen him as her husband. She was essentially sold to him by her uncaring mother. I asked her if she wants to go tomorrow. Her response: “He says to go, my mom says to go, my dad says to go. So…” AHHHH! Her obedience kills me. And I know I should be used to the cultural differences by now, but this is something I can never get used to. Amadou told her they will wait three years to have a child, or at least that’s what she told me he said in response to her telling him she’s just a girl and not ready for a baby. Three years, my ass—to him that probably means they’ll start having sex and Allah will decide if she’s still a child or ready to have one. And looking at Kumba, I think I know which one is more likely.

At least she’s on birth control—I got her the Depo injection, but that only lasts 3 months. Then what? It physically hurts me to imagine her pregnant. I can get a glimpse of it for a second and then it’s like my mind changes the channel. And I know I’m bring dramatic, but it feels like shit. I could have stayed until tomorrow morning to see her off (I came to Basse today for a meeting tomorrow), but I didn’t want to deal with crying and all that. Actually, truth be told, I think I didn’t stay because I was scared that there wouldn’t be any emotions, that she wouldn’t cry. And that would force me to stop imagining her hating this situation. Which, I couldn’t handle, because to think of her wanting to be married at 15 to this guy in his 30s not only makes me angrier at the system, but it also makes me feel judgmental and knocks me off my moral pedestal.

Ok, enough. There’s really nothing else I can say about it. It’s a shitty, shitty situation, but it’s life here. I just can’t believe I’m not going to see her face everyday. Ah, ok, I’m moving on. So, it’s insane how strong the women are here. Three hours ago found me shin deep in mud, surrounded by grass up to my waist, sunburned and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. I arrived in Dobong Kunda today (my garden village) to set up a meeting with the village chief about putting a PC volunteer in the village next year. But I found a fairly empty compound. Aside from Sarjo, who was cooking lunch, all the women had left for the rice field (it’s the rainy season now, so all the women are in the rice fields everyday, weeding, planting, outplanting, etc.).

Despite everyone being gone, I was completely taken care of, as is always the case when I go there. Upon arrival, Sarjo immediately brought me a chair and cup of water. An hour or so later, she summoned me for lunch. I had been smelling the peanut sauce and was really excited for rice for the first time in awhile (I always prefer coos, aka millet). But then Sarjo yelled to me, “Futoo” or coos, as I walked over, knowing it’s my all-time favorite and I would be really happy. But actually I was slightly disappointed to not get the rice and peanut sauce. She brought me inside and set up a stool in front of my chair with two bowls (one with coos, one with sauce), a spoon for the sauce, a fan and a cup of water. Amazing. Despite my craving for rice, the coos was delicious. I definitely ate a few more handfuls than I needed to, and as soon as I finished, Sarjo came in with another bowl, this one with rice and peanut sauce. I couldn’t have been happier. “Eat until you are very full,” she told me. And I did.

She was headed to the rice field to bring the women lunch (two HUGE bowls—one coos, one sauce—which she carried on her head) and work there for the rest of the afternoon. After all my royal treatment, I decided it’d be a nice gesture to accompany her and bring a cooler of juice—aka cold water in a cooler with a juice packet and sugar mixed in—to the women who have been out there in the sun working all day. I went to the bitik (corner store, ha) to buy the ingredients, but found it closed. So we tried another one—also closed (it was during afternoon prayer). All the while Sarjo has these huge bowls on her head and never even sets them down once when we stop at the stores. Finally we find a store, also closed, but supposedly the owner is near by. We spend about 10 minutes trying to purchase juice packets and sugar, which included a man saying to me, “My wife, buy me some tea.” And not once did Sarjo take the bowls off her head.

After we get the necessary items, we finally head for the field. It is HOT out, I am sweating sooo much. Sarjo assures me that the fields are not far. Well over a mile later, with my shirt drenched, we arrive at the field. Exhausted from my work in the rice fields yesterday, I hadn’t planned to actually go in the fields today. My village’s fields have paths in between to get to distant plots, so I just thought I would stand on the path and give them the juice, staying clean and dry. But there was no path in these rice fields and the women were about 100 yard in.
*A word about my ‘exhausting’ work in the rice fields yesterday: I went with my brother’s wife, Meeta, and worked for about 2 hours (during which time every single passerby said the exact same thing: ‘Meeta, Mahana has come to the rice fields today? Is she able to do the work?’) and then spent the next three hours napping under a tree while Meeta continued to work (during which time every single passerby said the exact same thing again, but this time it was: ‘Meeta, Mahana is here laying. She is tired.’). I finally got so sunburned that I just went home, leaving her to finish the work alone.

So, Sarjo and I took off our shoes and set out through the shin-deep mud and knee-high water, which was really warm and fetid and made my sunburned legs itch and sting. Soon we go to the waist-high grasses. Starting to think about the possibility of snakes, I thought to myself, this must be what ‘Nam was like, without the rain and all the Vietnamese people, of course. On several occasions Sarjo fell on one knee in the mud and I had to stand next to her so she could push off me in order to get her leg out of the muck and stand up again. There were also numerous occasions when my leg sunk through the mud up to my thigh and I thought I was finished (ie. Stuck in the mud video).

Amazingly enough, we made it to the women. They had gathered under a tree on a patch of dry land and were preparing for lunch. When they saw me they began singing, clapping and dancing in thanks for my coming and for the juice. I was really flattered, but mostly ashamed. I couldn’t even will myself to dance because I was so exhausted and uncomfortable just from the walk in the sun. But these women, after working all morning with no food were dancing it up for me. (I cringed to think that next week they will all be doing the same work, just not eating or drinking anything from sunrise to sunset… Ramadan). They’re so incredibly strong, it just blows my mind. And Sarjo, after carrying those food bowls the whole way was now about to begin working for 3 or 4 hours. And then here I am, so tired I couldn’t even consider working for two minutes.

The best part is instead of complaining, they immediately start worrying about me. Did I eat? Am I full? One woman takes a cup of their drinking water to wash off my feet, which was funny because moments later I was just going to get dirty again; I tried to stop her. As I started to head back, they told me to wait for them to eat so one of them could accompany me back to the other side of the field. I graciously turned down their offer, taking care not to fall on my way out, which would force the entire group of women to run over and come rescue me. I rode home in awe of their strength and their ability to work themselves to the bone and then laugh and dance, never once complaining. They truly are an amazing group of women and I feel so grateful to have them here taking care of me. Whatever person gets put in this village next year is very lucky.

*All this was written in the gele-gele on my way here. Sorry to have started off on such an angry note. I’m feeling a lot less angry now, haha.

1 comment:

Will said...

Marnie, That is such an amazing story, from start to finish. I praise all your care and sensitivity for these people. My son recently told me, that here in The Gambia, it's different from home, because the Black people don't hate you. I can feel the love you return to them and I am touched. Thanks for being our representative, and please keep up the good work.
Sincerely, Will