In mid-January, the Senegal cohort gathered together in the region of Kedougou to partake in our second training seminar- an inspiring week filled with beautiful hikes through the Bedik Mountains, thought provoking discussions, plenty of cultural activities, and of course time to reconnect with our fellow fellows. Together with the three other Nike Girl Effect Champions Jay, Jordan, and Allison, we had the opportunity to facilitate a debriefing session regarding observations on the daily life of Senegalese youth with respect to gender roles.
Expectations-something we’ve all been instructed (at least once in our lives) to avoid building, but something that as humans we inevitably create.
Before landing on Senegalese soil, or more precisely before moving out of Dakar and into our more rural homestays, many of us viewed images such as an African woman with a baby strapped to her back, pounding millet with a log as a symbol of oppression rather than strength. We thought of the African woman’s place in the kitchen as a jail cell rather than presidential administrative headquarters. We saw the men who permitted women wash all the family’s laundry by hand as lazy and misogynist, rather than respectful of set boundaries and requests.
In Senegal, the woman’s role as keeper of the home serves as an absolutely critical component of maintaining both daily rhythms and more broadly supporting a community’s social stability. Using both an agrarian and Islamic social system model, the men protect the home and earn the income, while the women ensure that all internal activities run accordingly while the men are occupied elsewhere. The divide of labor roles works to maximize efficiency and creates a stable base, which allows every individual to easily find his or her place.
Thus it’s often the westerner who protests to the overabundance of household tasks culturally mandated, much more than the Senegalese woman herself. The fact that a woman can prepare a delicious meal for more than thirty people stands as a source of pride for both her and her family. Women don’t view chopping, grating, and boiling as burdens but as sources of power, which grant them decision-making power. Sweeping the sand away until her compound is spotless, chopping onions until they fall in perfect spirals into her large rice pot, carrying water until it falls neatly into her family’s clay canister are truly skills which a Senegalese woman values, skills which we quickly undervalue because as Americans those values clash with every theme which our own society has ingrained in us to believe. A Senegalese woman believes in solidarity and obligation. An American woman believes in independence and individuality. Each system carries inherent value.
One fellow mentioned that a Senegalese wife once told him even if her husband or son offered to help with the cooking, she would immediately force him to leave the typically female only territory. A male fellow noted that when he offered to help a woman in his family do laundry, they seemed hurt and found his offer offensive, intrusive rather than eager, genuine. Upon realizing this, he followed up asking if she found doing laundry by hand challenging she replied that it was merely part of being a woman. When I taught an English vocabulary lesson on professions to my middle school students, I was surprised to find that around 70% of the female students wanted to become housewives. Most female fellows mother’s have been adamant about fellows learning to prepare Senegalese dishes (much more than heading off to their apprenticeships on time), concerned as to how our American mothers would view a woman who didn’t teach her daughter to cook well. It often seems as though us westerners put up much more of a fight than the Senegalese woman in terms of what constitutes happiness and gender rights.
I won’t for a second deny the importance of initiatives such as the Girl Effect and global efforts made to improve the conditions of women, but a critical distinction must be made between western and Senegalese concepts of suffering. Seeing the strength, force, and brilliance of the Senegalese woman has been eye opening. But when exactly does a woman need to be empowered? Can we use the same definition of empowerment in both the west and the east? Should the definition and en suite women’s development programs be tailored specifically to each country? Yes, I’ve seen Senegalese women who are in desperate situations. Then again, when I glance across the compound and see my older host sister commanding the beat of every drum in the Djembe circle with the magnetic way she moves her body I have a hard time viewing her as weak and helpless, just because she spends all day working on domestic activities. One needs only to look to Dakar to view an example of the social chaos which ensues when the worst of both Western and Senegalese values come together to degrade women and increase rates of crime, divorce, etc.… ensue. Some would argue that the view of women becomes even more grotesque.
We expected to find misery, and most of us found a certain degree of comfort and strength built within the current system. It’s not to say that in a culture which values discretion, we might, even after six months, be shadowed from the complete truth. Nor is it to say that we find dropping out of school at 15 to marry and have children truly acceptable. But we absolutely cannot write of the Senegalese woman as a miserable, faceless figure who wallows in the doldrums because she spends her day preparing, cleaning, and serving her family. Thus as more and more women’s empowerment initiatives spring up around the developing world, the bottom line is that it’s imperative to ask what she, the woman in that place, at that time, wants. Not impose what we think, not impose what we know, but ask her what she wants, what she respects. Only through doing so, we will be able to unleash the power of the girl effect.