Tag Archives: work

Conversations with Men : a pas de deux quotidien (or, gender roles à la malienne)

“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.

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Du marché au maraîchage : from the market to the market garden

so much okra

The theme of this week is work. Work, and land, and farming. Admittedly, this has been the theme of my life since January, but in particular this week. I’m working with a group of urban maraîchers – market gardeners – in Bamako, and the training (which takes place in the shade of a mango tree) has basically left me thinking that money doesn’t mean anything: invest in land because that’s all that’s real in this world.

We’ll see. Either way, one of the great benefits of working with farmers is that they love to share their bounty.

strangely, the only thing sold in small quantities

Between a trip to the vegetable market last weekend and a few days under a mango tree, I’ve made out like a bandit.

The best part was a field visit to the former co-op president’s groves just outside of Bamako where I got a bucket filled with succulent pomme de cajou – my beloved cashew fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been here for almost three months now, and have had an average of one existential crisis per week, I think. But the one thing I know is that there is nothing more important than the ability for a community to provide for itself. Cities can’t rely on the countryside for everything, and le contraire holds just as strong. I’ve criss-crossed this city countless times and seen the market gardens and the food production that happens here.

cashew fruit: like a fruit cocktail in your mouth

This city can feed itself, and that is one of the most powerful things I have seen in a long time. That’s not to say there aren’t problems (and I could go on forever on that), but the potential is there. Money comes and goes, but the land is there, and the people working the land are the backbone of any community.

The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

Faces in the Crowd: A Field Visit in Sikasso

This week I spent four days on a field visit in the south in the region of Sikasso. We met with several different cooperatives – both women and men. I took pictures galore.

meeting with women's rice co-op

In the first village, there were over 200 people that came to the meeting.

one of the secretaries

I was seriously impressed by their organization and their eagerness to advance in all aspects: business management, agriculture techniques, commercialization, marketing…

notetaking

They talked about rice seed varieties and the need for more training on seed multiplication techniques.

kids are cute

Having already had training in packing and storage techniques, they store bags of rice for several months, presumably to sell on the market in the off-season when prices are higher. Excellent in theory, but good connections to markets and transportation are challenges.

There is also a desire for post-harvest processing capacity. Without the machine to ‘décortiquer’ – to hull – the rice, the women aren’t making nearly as much money as they could. There is solar power capacity in this village, currently being used to pump water into a water tower. This solar power could also be used to power a hulling machine – I mean, why not?

best rice i've ever eaten

We ate with them after the meeting: rice with a tomato sauce filled with onions, cabbage, locally grown eggplant, and some fish that I conveniently ignored.

the men of n'pegnéss0

The men in N’Pegnésso are involved in potato farming. A barrage – a dam – has already been constructed to allow for flood irrigation of about 30 hectares (out of 600) of the land.

cows get thirsty too

Rice is grown during l’hivernage – the rainy season, potatoes are grown during the dry season (which is now), and whole herds of cattle graze the land.

In Zoloko, the second village we visited that day, about 175 women were interested in starting a co-op with rice culture and maraîchage, market gardening. They are in the very beginning stages of starting this co-op, and to be honest, I left that village a little disheartened. Out of almost 200 women, not a one spoke up. One man spoke for them all. And only three people in the entire village had basic reading/writing skills. Can we empower women, teach people to read and write, impart leadership skills, *and* reinforce capacity on a business level, at the same time that we do agriculture extension and community building? Please.

where's the white girl?

I wonder sometimes if Mali’s current situation – very much at the bottom of the development totem pole – places it outside of practical agricultural development solutions. An irrigation system being implemented in Rwanda, for example, might not have any relevance here, simply because the costs for implementing it really outweigh the benefits. Or because the amount of water available during the rainy season doesn’t add up to what would make it a realistic installation. Just an example.

future rice and potato growers of mali

Anyway, the next day we visited another co-op of women – again rice culture and market gardening. A much more promising venture, and again, really encouraging to see the initiative and drive of so many women. I’m not sure what the point of this post was; to be honest, I think I just wanted an excuse to put up a bunch of pictures. So take from it what you will.

first to arrive, last to leave

90 degrees at 9pm

It’s hard to believe that I am now sitting about 4000 miles away where I was just 36 hours ago. And that when someone says it’s 32 degrees outside, it’s hot enough to walk around in next to nothing.

As the plane was landing in Bamako, I watched the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me that tracks the flight and tells you the temperature and how much farther you have to go. I watched as the temperature went up from 21 degrees Celcius (71-ish degrees Fahrenheit) when we were at 7ooo feet, to 31 degrees Celcius (about 88 degrees Fahrenheit) on the ground. At 9 0’clock at night. Stripping off most of the layers I had been wearing all day, I stepped out of the plane and down the stairs, and it all came back. The reasons I am here and the reasons I know I will love it. The smell of the hot desert air felt like coming home; it made all my tension go away, and, as I breathed out again, made me realize exactly how perfect these next six months will be.

My apartment is incredible. Like I told my colleagues when they dropped me off there last night, ‘je suis trop gâtée’ – I’m way spoiled, to be living there. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a huge living room, and a bathroom. My room even has AC, which is absolutely ridiculous.

mes valises

I unpacked everything (wondering both why I brought about 15 pairs of socks and how/where I possibly could have left my iPod), arranged my clothes in the armoir, stacked my books on the shelf, did a few stretches to undo the last 24 hours stuck in an airplane or an airport, and passed out on my queen-sized extra firm mattress, flicking away the occasional mosquito as I fell asleep. One light sheet on top of me was almost too much.

mes livres

In the morning, realizing I had barely eaten or drank anything over the past day, save for some Glenlivet in the Air France lounge and a few roasted hazelnuts, and simultaneously realizing I didn’t have any bottled water, I walked toward the kitchen to boil some water to sterilize it. Wearing nothing more than a tank top undershirt and the thong I had worn to bed (day-glo yellow, incidentally), and passing by the curtains in front of my front gate to get to the kitchen, I see a woman standing there who turned around and, in turn, sees me. One thing to know: in a very conservative Muslim West African country, a woman’s legs are the most sexual of body parts. Now here I am, I’ve just moved in, and I’m already parading around like the neighborhood whore. I quickly threw on a skirt which would cover my knees, and returned to the kitchen. Turns out this woman is the femme de ménage who will come every Monday to clean my apartment. I’m sure she has already told everyone that she’s working for a foreign hussie without even the courtesy to wear clothes in the presence of others. Bon.

I drank some tea, took a sponge bath, put on my linen pants and a light tank top and a scarf to cover my shoulders, and walked downstairs just as my colleague Bourama was arriving to pick me up for work. The first day is always kind of funny: trying to figure out exactly where I fit in, to listen as much as possible and absorb everything, to watch the interactions between other people in the office.  I have a basic idea of what I will be doing, but still nothing concrete. Tomorrow I will learn more, and the next day and the next after that. Already, though, I feel completely welcome here, and am basking in the warmth of this country. Literally and figuratively.

Having lived in Senegal, I was somewhat confident that I would at least have something of a cultural understanding of Mali. I had no idea just how many little ‘points de repères’, reference points or things that are familiar, there would actually be. The oranges with green skin that people suck on for their juice; drinking attaya (sweet tea that is also incredibly bitter) after lunch; saying “Bissimilah” to welcome someone; a genuine niceness that seems to pervade everyone. It’s comforting in a certain sense.

Anyway, I am going to drink my second round of attaya, (and pray that the third round is as démodée – out of style – in Bamako, as it was in Dakar), look through some documents to bring me up to speed, and try to wrap my brain around the fact that this is all really happening.