Friday, April 22, 2011

Gender and Gardens

Gender and Development Context
In the literature on gender relations in Africa, men and women are very often presented as inhabiting separate, almost antagonistic, social spheres.  Men are very often portrayed as dominators, and women very often as subservient victims.  This has been identified as a problem that hinders development, and, thus, in need of a remedy so that development can take hold. 
It is popular in the international development community to say that women are the foundation of development and that development ‘happens’ by supporting women and girls like this. It is my perspective that, though there is probably some truth in there somewhere, this view tends to oversimplify the way men and women relate, and to dumb down the complexity of what is really required for development.  Women are often assumed to be subjugated, while at the same time possess a heroic potential. In my opinion, this view essentializes women and perpetuates a view that women everywhere are victims, which I find downright offensive and, possibly, racist. 
My Research
Part of my research had to do with studying how urban gardens are implicated in household well-being.  In M’Bour, men are typically responsible for market garden production, so that when gardens are integrated into the daily lives of the household, they are considered the domain of husbands.
Gardens represent many things to the household.  Most obviously, they are a source of food and income.  But, what is also emerging from the data is that gardens represent a physical space in which husbands and wives cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and a shared goal of improving overall household well-being.  Not only do they improve the well-being of the house through material enrichment, but they also provide the opportunity to cultivate the marital relationship.  For example, husbands have expressed to me a number of times how they feel encouraged and grateful to their wives when their wives help out in the garden.
Of utmost importance to household well-being is peace and harmony (jamm ak dego).   Peace is cultivated between husbands and wives through honesty and communication.  It is also cultivated by each person fulfilling their socially determined, and personally negotiated, household roles and responsibilities.  Generally, men are regarded as the ‘kelifa’, or the authority.  This means that a good wife will defer to her husband in a number of ways.  Men, on the other hand, have the responsibility of providing for the household.  In an urban environment, women are increasingly sharing in household costs, and, presumably, in decision-making.  Though wives clearly defer to their husbands, in no case did women present themselves as subjugated victims.  Indeed, the relationships I saw between husbands and wives were clearly mutually respectful. 
There was a time I would have looked at these households and would have interpreted the relationship between husbands and wives as one of dominance and subservience.  I would have interpreted that as ‘bad.’  I would have seen it as indicative of non-modern, backwards, and in need of a remedy.  But, here’s the thing:  I don’t get to say.  My task was to understand how gardens are implicated in local notions of household and individual well-being.  I have tried to represent voices and perspectives as they have been told to me, not based on a previous or universal notion of what they should be.  Whether they do, or do not, accord with my view on what a relationship should do and be is irrelevant.
Had I not taken a gendered approach, I would not have discerned the gardens as a space for cultivating household relationships.  Furthermore, had I not been familiar with, and influenced by, feminist literature, specifically standpoint theory and postmodern feminist theory, I may have not come to the conclusion that women are not subjugated.  I listened to what women were telling me was important to them; my responsibility to the feminist part of my research agenda is to attend to the well-being of women as they themselves see it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

T-minus 3 Weeks

Life has been busy the last several weeks as I’m wrapping up and I haven’t had a whole lot of time to reflect on what these eight months have meant.  Here’s a first attempt.

I’m pretty sure the work has been great.  I say ‘pretty sure’ because I don’t think I’ll know what I really have until I get back to the States and begin sifting through my data.  I think I’ve got the makings of a dissertation, though I’m sure I’ve missed some glaring issue.  Luckily, there’s a fabulous Peace Corps Volunteer in M’Bour who has agreed to help collect any missed information.

What is undoubtedly true, however, is that people here are engaged in a pretty heroic struggle to make ends meet, and very often, the ends don’t meet.  One woman in my study, who tells me she is 27, collects metal and then sells it for 100 cfa/kilogram.  Over a period of 2 to 3 days, she’ll collect 20 to 30 kilograms, and make 2000-3000 cfa.  That’s translates to 4 to 6 dollars for 3 days of heavy, dangerous work and miles of walking.  She estimates that they need, for their family of 6, at least 2000 cfa/day.  All of that is for food.  There’s a long back story about how she and her family have arrived in this place, but that’s not really what I want to highlight.  What strikes me about the people in my study, most of who face challenges that I will never experience, is how little they complain and how they walk into each day with graceful determination to provide for their families.  It seems to me that most people in America think of Africa as a continent of victims, but the people I know are not victims.  They don’t want handouts; they want a fair shake.  I don’t think they’ll get that fair shake as long as non-Africans keep setting the terms and creating the solutions. 

It is hard for me to express how proud I am of my children, and I’ll need to write a longer more reflective essay to dig into what they mean to me and how I see them emerging from this experience.  Suffice it to say, they are amazing people, and they rose to the challenge of being here, even though the rising was often accompanied by kicking and screaming and weeping.  They say they hate it here, though I wonder that they will miss it after a while.  I think they’ve each processed their experience in their own unique way, and they express their opinions in honest, sometimes brutal, ways.  They are both wonderfully loving and, luckily for me, very articulate about what they want from me.  They’ve both made their mark on the corner, and they will be missed.

As for me, I am, today, content.  I like being here and feel grateful for it.  I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do.  But, I also feel like I’ve aged here.  I look in the mirror and am surprised, sometimes, by what I see.  And then I look again, and am still surprised.  I guess this is what on-the-cusp-of-43 looks like, and sometimes I worry about my future of solitude except for the 10,000 cats.  I know that worrying away my days is not really the way I want to spend my life, though.  I’ve got a lot, and it’s high time I started appreciating it more.  If I’ve learned anything from the Senegalese and my children, it’s that worrying is a fruitless activity.  Better just to walk into the day, and do what I can do, knowing full well that it doesn’t matter all that much.  But, there’s no other choice except to do it, and to be grateful for the people I meet along the way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nit mooy garub u nit (things I like best about Senegal)

One of the best things about Senegal is that life is actually lived, by actual people, in an actual place, doing actual things, and actually talking to each other.  Very few people spend much time by themselves on a computer doing virtual things in a virtual place with virtual people.  I feel like some kind of freak when I emerge from my house after spending 4 hours on my computer….oh…who am I kidding?  After spending 5, 6, 7 hours on my computer.  I usually find some folks sitting outside with whom I can chat for a bit.  Or I can walk down to the Art Tree and find someone hanging around in the hammock or having some coffee. I am welcomed, a space is made for me, and I can enter the conversation easily.  Or not.  I can also just sit, and that’s good, too.  Either way, I get a needed dose of people therapy, which brings me back to the land of the living.

There’s a saying in Wolof, ‘Nit mooy garub u nit’--people are the medicine of people.  It seems like a pretty straightforward truth when you first hear it, or at least it did to me.  It even seems simplistic.  Over the years, though, that little self-evident truth has bubbled to the top of my consciousness many times, in many different circumstances.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently—this time in relation to civil discourse, or, rather, uncivil discourse, that I see come across my screen.

I typically try to avoid broad generalizations.  But here is one: it is bad for both the individual and the society for people to spend too much time alone.  Here’s another:  it is bad not to know the names of your neighbors.  And another: it is bad to say things like ‘people are stupid.’  We have become so unpleasantly uncivil in America--so incredibly intolerant, and I think it might be, perhaps, the thing that contributes most to our unraveling as a nation. 

Maybe people say the things they say, and treat each other in the way that they do, because we are isolated and really have no daily functional need for each other.  We have worked ourselves into this situation, I believe, as a result of our constant quest for convenience and ease, and our relinquishing of control over things that were once the responsibility of the community.  The most obvious example of that (at least to me) is the food system, which is now the province of the government and corporations.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I like my alone time as much as the next misanthropic American.  But, it’s nice to be in a place that forces me out of my misanthropy from time to time, and it’s nice to be forced out of my head and off my screen, and into the place where I am.