I had seen her demonstrating “le cours rapid” (a fast run) during gym, kicking up dust as she raced and handily beat one of her preschool students. She gloated a bit. I had seen her saunter through the school gates in high heels, sunglasses and a pressed suit. I have seen her laugh, a lot, and the hope-fear on her face as she explained to me her plans to have children.
But when my co-teacher at preschool, Henriette, invited me to her house for Christmas Eve it was the first time I noticed the wear in her smile and the skirt (was it new?) that looked like it had an apron built in. At work she incorporates her husband into unrelated stories in a way that signifies pride and an undimmed love. But when I met him for the first time he said hello and then retreated to the shelter of the television set while I peeled about a sack of potatoes and Henriette bought another gas stove, burnt herself on a pot, dealt with three electricity outages and persisted in preparing dinner.
We cooked for about two hours and when the meal was ready, an ornate silver platter was placed before him, where he sat regarding the television. “Where is the bread?” he asked, eyes mocking this slip-up on his wife’s part and looking at me for an affirmative smile. I managed to convince them that the bread was not necessary and dinner began. Her husband ate quickly and in ten minutes he excused himself to prepare for midnight mass. He complimented the meal and she moved to prepare a bowl for him to wash his hands. Henriette and I sat eating our dinner and he appeared again to show off the pressed creases of his holiday suit. Then he left for mass, left the pots and pans with a sooty layer of burnt oil, left the sangria he had spilled pooled on the floor, left it all to Henriette and left her too.
After he left, time accelerated. She did a preliminary clean, clearing the area, and mopping the floor polar-bear style, hands palmed to a rag, balancing on tiptoes. She took a shower with bucket and candle (the electricity had departed as well) and got dressed. When we arrived at the mass we stood by the gate; there were no seats left. She surveyed for him, repeating,“Where is he?’By the end of the mass she had found a seat. Fatigued, she sat back to a wall, facing away from the mass, purse serving as a buffer against the dirt.
When mass ended we found him and walked back to the house where the dinner was brought back out. He ate better this time. “You have to come back tomorrow to help my wife with the cooking” he told me, in French.
“And you too,” I added, facetiously. “No,” he responded in choppy English, “the men in Africa not doing that.”
Even though I had been living in Senegal for three months at this point, there was something about that night that pinched me. In part it was watching the untameable Henriette, cowed, and in part I think it was the blunt finality of that single phrase, “the men in Africa not doing that.”
Henriette’s husband , calm, quick to laugh and by no means a villain, highlighted for me the clearly defined spheres of influence here in Senegalese life, spheres that even Henriette cannot surpass. The way I see gender roles here is complicated. On the plus side, there is no belittling pampering here and Senegalese women are far frompassive; tenacity is expected and not apologized for. I have seen my five- year old preschool student Madeleine Cecie barrel down another girl who had offended her and seen a woman cross the highway with a plastic wrapped sack that looked as if it carried a small tree balancing precariously on her head. But the difficulty of the tasks women perform and the strength they display in doing them does not give them parity in the household. Despite the unrelenting demands of women’s work, I have yet to see a man lift a finger to help a woman with the laborious cooking, the violent pounding of the mortal and pestel, the carrying of splish-sploshing buckets of over-flowing water perched atop their heads. When I asked the psychologist at the orphanage about women’s clearly delineated in the household he told me that if a husband and wife are alone he can help her as he wishes but if the community finds out he will feel emasculated and it will be said that she has the upper hand.
The other day at preschool during recess I observed three girls sweeping the matt after snack time. A four-year old boy from my class watched as the girls swept, bent at the middle, with the joy of ‘playing house’. I thought I would teach him a lesson by asking him to help his fellow classmates. He refused and promptly tried to teach me a lesson. “Boys do not sweep”he said. He is four and already learning the rules that will bar him from the backaches of laundry day, secure his manly pride, bind his wife to the kitchen and give him plenty of time to get to Christmas mass on time.
Henriette invited me over again this Saturday. I will make shrimp, she says, tempting me. I am still deciding. I do not dread conversing with her husband, who retains his sweet mannerisms even when he is inquiring about my domestic abilities. I cannot forget, though, that when he needed a razor to shave, it was she who ran off to the boutique. When he spilled his sangria, it was she who mopped up its sticky, sweet traces. When the power goes out, and the faucets become decorative, aesthetic nothings, it will be Henriette who hauls the water back from the pumps on the streets because “the men in Africa not doing that.”
But what gives me hope is that the load Senegalese women carry is unable to lower their regal carriage or proud chins. Henriette listens to her husband but she will also stick out her tongue at him sometimes when she thinks he is not looking. And demonstrate “le cours rapid” (a fast run) during gym, kicking up dust as she runs, untameable.