“C’est madame ou bien c’est mademoiselle?” is most often the first question I am asked when I get into a taxi. Madame or mademoiselle? Are you married and if no, why not? (If you are, where is your husband and why isn’t he here with you?) At market last week, in my (very) broken Bambara, I explained to the inquiring woman that my husband was at home. Because her question didn’t allow for the possibility that I don’t have one.
Every afternoon I get a phone call in my office from Lala, the accountant, telling me that lunch is here. I grab whatever I’ve brought for the day (usually some sort of avocado mixture); the rest of the staff orders food from a local resto. We all settle in and Lala serves it up. There is a kind of dance in the daily lunch-time ritual, which extends beyond the walls of the office, and reflects (pretty accurately) on the relationships between men and women in this country in general.
tôh - classic malian dish of millet and okra
The men come downstairs at their leisure, wash up in the kitchen, and sit down around the table. The women (I don’t know how things would work if a woman weren’t around, because my presence always obviates that situation..) serve out plates of rice and sauce, themselves last. We all dig in. And then the women clean up, clear the dishes, wipe down the table, take care of the leftovers, and organize the kitchen a bit before the femme de ménage comes to clean.
The past couple of weeks at work, I’ve been feeling a little snarky. That’s not to say I want to pick fights, but, ok, I’ve sort of been picking fights. The conversation about men and women and the role of each one in the house is a delicate one. I don’t really know how to have a discussion about gender roles with someone who probably thinks it’s ok to beat his wife, or wives. And was raised in a culture where maybe 95% of his male counterparts are of the same mind.
I don’t know how to address an audience of men, one of whom has two wives, and another who insists he is going to take Lala as his second wife. In a country where a man has the right to up to four if he can afford it, it’s hard to talk about consensual relationships of mutual respect – monogamous or not. The choice to marry is more a cultural one than anything else, and a woman without a husband is like a car without wheels.
one month old baby and back to work
One of my colleagues (admittedly one of the more chauvinist men I’ve ever met) insists that, because he is the one who brings home the paycheck, his wife’s contribution to their household is nil. I asked Bourama how he would qualify the work she does in the house – taking care of their child, cooking, cleaning, shopping – and he intoned that this was not real work, and that she spent most of her time at school anyway. I asked how much it would cost if they were to hire someone to do all that work for them – a cook, a housekeeper, a full-time babysitter – and was told that to hire a bonne* in Bamako only costs 7 500fca (about $16US) per month. Granted, most people acknowledge that this is exploitation bordering on slave labor. But I was not winning this argument.
When the conversation turns to women in the workforce, there are certain jobs that a woman just can’t do. And certain things that a man won’t do either. A man doesn’t answer phones. A woman doesn’t drive a taxi. (Granted, that’s pretty rare in the States too, but there has only been one female taxi driver in Mali since independence. And I think she was Lebanese.) It is inconceivable that a woman be the primary breadwinner for the family, because the man would be completely emasculated. In conversations with female cooperatives, where women are ostensibly the decision makers and running their own business, it is often some man (perhaps the husband of one of the women, or a member of another co-op) that does most, if not all, of the talking.
gender mainstreaming training
Bara, another male colleague of mine, had my back. His wife and children live in Mopti, about a ten-hour drive north of Bamako. He sends money to the family, but all of the responsibilities of ‘running’ a household fall on her. She’s the chef de famille, as opposed to most families where it is incontrovertibly the man who is the haut responsable. He argued that things are changing – slowly, indeed, but undeniably. The cost of living is going up in Bamako, less families can afford a bonne, more women are working, and the chores of the household will inevitably fall on men as well.
When talk of change – or dare I say revolution – in Mali was on the table, Bourama said that he welcomed change. As long as it was nice and slow. I retorted that most people who insist on change being slow don’t really want things to change at all. His response was that he would be happy to “allow” his wife to work, and that he always plays with his son when he gets home from the office. (So I can’t say he doesn’t help around the house.)
Alas, catalyzing a shift in mentality might take more than a couple of lunchtime conversations.
*Possibly derogatory term to refer to the (usually very) young girl who keeps house for a family. In most cases, she lives and eats with the family she works for.