At first glance, one notices little gender dominance in the sandy market town that is Kebemer. Amidst the bustling street stands and boutiques, an outsider can hardly tell the difference between who is the shop owner, the buyer, and the friend stopping by for midday glass of attaya and a chat. However, if there is a more distinguishable sex amongst the general population meandering in the economic core of the market place, let’s just say men have the upper hand. They drive the rickety wuteers, or horse drawn carriages, that jingle down the streets in blue and colorful paint with bouncing passengers, they own the too-old-to-be-vintage cars passing by for some fruit, they walk amongst the channels of people on the streets of the garage, and they stand in packs by their motorcycles that go fast enough to force innocent pedestrians to jump out of their war path. Anywhere you look you can easily assume that the majority, the back-bone, the driving force, is the males.
This assumption could not be more wrong.
Rather it is the women, the overlooked and often-unseen powerhouse of Kebemer, that keeps the entire place from crumbling to ruins. Being here for nearly five months, there has not been a doubt in my mind about the role women play as the discreet members of society. The ones who hold the cards by standing contently in the foreground until their service or opinion, wanted or not, is deemed necessary. Within the economy, the education, and even the political system, they have a profound impact upon the inner and outer workings of Kebemer.
For me, there is no better depiction of this than in three prominent women in my household. Here are just snippets of their stories:
She wears the same clothes every day, a black worn tank top with colored beads beginning to lose their threading on the front. A flowered seur tied in a knot just above her knees so she can more easily go about chores in the household. I see her in small spurts of motion, since never in the time I’ve been here has she sat down for anything besides eating lunch and braiding hair. Alima is constantly on the move. More than a force of nature, the girl no older than mid twenties, is a machine. Grabbing a bucket for mopping. Carrying coals upstairs for smoking the rooms. Lugging a heavy black pot to the kitchen area. Fetching water for the dishes. Never slowing down or stopping to complain. Not even a fleeting signal of emotions like exhaustion or distress across her smooth features. She goes about with a kind of contentment that is astounding. Just watching her go about her daily routine makes me both envious and tired. Envious because of her uncanny ability to go through the motions of unfavorable work without a hint of protest, and tired because of her nonstop on-the-go mentality. She cleans, does laundry, tends to the house, cooks the lunch, braids hair when she finishes, and leaves to go home in the evenings and do it all over again. A continuous cycle that would, in her absence, send my house into a flurry of panic before the hour of 10 a.m.
Her beauty is paralyzing, with big beautiful dark brown eyes framed in thick lashes. A petite waist that accents her perfectly structured feminine curves. An ass that plenty of women would kill for. Whenever I see her she has baby Fatou perched on her hip, going about her housework flawlessly as if the child was merely another article of clothing. Her sense of humor is a little goofy around the other women, enhanced with dramatic facial gestures that give her a confident aura when telling a story. An almost impenetrable mask for the woman who lowers herself when in the presence of a stone faced husband. The change is nearly untraceable to a passing outsider, but painfully obvious to one who pays the smallest amount of attention. A woman who can go from being a force in the kitchen and a leader amongst peers but a timid young girl around the man whom she is betrothed. Bebe, who learned to cook at the age of 8, who can take charge when in a stressful environment but still show a mother’s gentleness and care when dealing with others, doubts who she is by a simple look from the one man she desperately seeks approval. A martyr of woman who holds together the life she built, even if by her fingertips.
The eldest member of the Kebe household, although you can hardly say she has grown more passive with age. All that happens goes through her, the head of the house by a long shot. For any and all of the finances, planning of events, travelling, market trips, meals, she is the deciding factor. A woman with a heart of gold, but a temper you do not want directed at you. Every person she sees receives the same warm greeting, carefully articulated to ensure you know her respect and personal acknowledgement to littlest details of your life, even if it’s been years since you last crossed paths. A grandmother who sits her grandkids on her lap to watch TV, and doesn’t pay a second mind when they crawl all over her during time of prayer. Someone who never forgets about you, and on the off chance she does acts with the remorse equivalent to her running over your family pet. All of this and so much more, with what would for another person be a huge impairment: she is missing one of her arms.
Each of these women, who have gone through so much and yet remained strong and unwavering, have brought me such an incredible sense of admiration I cannot even begin to describe. Women who take life by the reins, and when the going gets tough they stick to their guns not for themselves, but for everyone else. Those who enjoy the precious moments the present has to offer, and find personal satisfaction in happiness and gratitude of others.