Sunday, March 21, 2010

I am woman, hear me... pontificate.

I've been stewing about writing this post since I arrived here. Now that I look back, I should have written many posts instead of waiting for a "conclusion" or "synthesis".

Gender, I think, is more basic to human beings than almost any other characteristic. I'm convinced that there are things about gender that are true the world round. But each culture has some special ways of showcasing the differences between men and women.

In Senegal, men are more forward than they are in the States. I've been told by a 5, 10, and several 20-something year olds on the streets here "Tu es belle, je t'aime." or "You're pretty, I love you". The other day I talked with 20 minutes with a university student who told me that he liked America, then later American women, and finally he said that he loved me from the bottom of his heart, "I'm almost sure." I told him to tell me when he was sure. Two minutes later he said, "Okay, I'm sure, I love you with all my heart." I told him that I might take a bit longer to decide.

For me, the problem of race and culture are mixed into my experience as a woman in Senegal. I'm not sure what a post like this written by a Senegalese woman would sound like. In fact, it's harder to get to know women here because they've got so much work to do. I can sit around and have tea or watch TV with my brother and father, or some young men at the university, but that kind of freedom and time isn't as readily available to girls and women here. My host mother is retired but she's still in charge of the maid, looking after the kids, tries to make money on the side, and looks after her elderly mother. Every night when I go to bed she's still up working on the computer.

The other day, the professor for my music and dance class said "Men in Senegal don't do a damn thing." It felt a little good to hear that coming from a Senegalese man. They go to work, come home, and are served. The social hierarchy also emphasizes age, so my little brother, for instance, still has to open the door when people come to the house, or change the volume on the TV if my father thinks it's too high. But my brother does not have to go into the kitchen, rarely has to clean, and sits in front of the TV just like my father.

You can sense the gender disparity in conversations. At home my little brother somehow gets to voice his 16-year-old opinion more than my sister or me. He's encouraged to be more verbal. In the English classes that I teach at a center near the university, the girls are almost all shy and quiet. Another cultural tidbit I picked up on recently is eye contact. It's rude to look your parents in the eyes when they're talking to you, and it's also rude for women to look men in the eyes when they're being talked to. Women are trained to be quiet.

Well, here I come Senegal! A loud, opinionated, look-you-dead-in-the-eyes American woman who is single and proud of it (usually), a feminist, and not afraid of...

...being beat or killed! Since apparently, that is an option if a woman refuses you! My Senegalese, male friend who overheard my conversation with lovey-dovey university student mentioned earlier told me that I should say no and that he wouldn't beat or kill me.

...being mean or impolite if I don't know you! I've been told plenty of times that I'm mean or impolite by men who want me to stop and talk to them or give them my number. I'm over that now.

...being wrong! I'd rather have a voice and be wrong sometimes than just not talk at all. We saw that it was more devastating for a girl to be wrong or make a mistake in class in Kenya than a boy. I try to stick my neck out and just try to have a conversation. Likelihood is that men are wrong sometimes too.

...telling you I'm single. A lot of Americans who come here wear a wedding ring and make up big grand stories about their strong, big, mean American fiance who would eat you for breakfast. I've never been a good lier and as far as I know being single is not a disease, so I'll own up to it. I get the chance frequently as the second question after "Noo tuddu?- What's your name?" is always "Am nga jekker?- Do you have a husband?" When I say no, they ask if I would prefer an American or an African. I claim no preference and then we're off to the races. Either someone present is willing to marry me on the spot or everyone has someone in mind. This goes both ways- I've had several requests for my little American brother from Senegalese girls.

...tell you I don't know why I'm single. My favorite question is "Why don't you have a boyfriend? You're smart and pretty and have money." The "I haven't found the right man yet" response usually doesn't help the direction of the conversation. (See above.) Trying to explain gender relations in America in French or Wolof usually doesn't help either. I've taken to saying I don't know why.

The best strategies I've found for dealing with the attention and the tension of girl-guy interactions here are joking and asking good questions.

In reality, Senegalese people joke a lot about dating, marriage, etc. It's a principal topic of conversation and an important part of the society and thus fertile ground for jokes. Understanding humor in another culture is difficult, so sometimes I feel like all Senegalese jokes are based off of making people (read: me) uncomfortable. But, in general, it's more fun and lighthearted if you assume everyone is joking when it comes to this subject. The best responses I've thought up are "Sorry, I don't know how to cook." and carrying around a keychain with a picture of a famous Senegalese wrestler and saying "Sama jekker- my husband". Those responses usually illicit the most laughter, which I'll count as success. Sometimes they also just give me enough time to change the subject or walk away.

Senegalese people, and men, love to debate (with tea if possible). So the next best thing is to start asking questions, feigning ignorance. Questions about Senegalese society, polygamy, laws about marriage, and gender roles will all carry a conversation to more interesting territory. But the question which I love to ask and think about and debate, is "What is love?" I don't think that any one country has a lock on this topic, but each country has it's own interpretation, which usually illuminates cultural differences.

A Senegalese man (apparently) thinks he loves me from the bottom of his heart 20 minutes after meeting me. And many others think that when his first wife gets boring and he sees another woman that he "loves", he should marry her. In fact, for my birthday my friend gave me a shirt that says, "Si tu m'enerves, je prends une deuxieme femme." Which translates, if you annoy me, I'm getting a second wife. That's the topic of the famous Senegalese novel, Une Si Longue Lettre that I finished recently. And for many Senegalese women, that is reality. So, the answer to "What is love?" is paramount in determining the conditions for the majority of women here.

And when you throw a young American woman in the mix, this is what you get- something in between an ego boost and training to be a defense lawyer.


  1. Right on! You are amazing, Emily. (Although I find it funny that this sort of pontification appears as wild feminism here, whereas it's just the ground floor in the US, for the most part). I don't really like having to say I have a husband, and so, boosted by your confidence, here is a conversation I had this morning on the way to my internship [had to get a cab because I was running so late]:
    Driver: So, you have a husband?
    Me: No.
    Driver: Why not?
    Me: Because I'm still young.
    Driver: You should marry a Senegalese man.
    Me: Maybe. But... not right now. I still want to work, to study, to travel. I have lots of things left to do in my life, and I don't need a husband to do them! Once I'm ready, then maybe I'll get married. Maybe.
    Driver: Oh. Okay.

    I was proud of this. It seemed all the more poetic because it was in French. :)

  2. I whole-heartedly second everything that's said in this. Except I'm wearing a wedding ring--it's prevented some questionning, and I appreciate that.