Friday, November 11, 2005

Woman's Work

November 8, 2005. Tuesday, 7:58pm.

One night last week Kroll and I made spaghetti at my house. I set him to work chopping tomatoes, and at one point I observed that if my neighbors came into the room and saw him cooking, they wouldn’t know what to make of it. The next morning I asked him to help me wash the dishes after breakfast.

“Um, I don’t know,” he said jokingly. “That’s womens’ work.”

Since I don’t have a sink in my house, he took all the dishes outside to wash. I overheard the neighbors commenting on the mzungu man doing womens’ work.

Thanks to Kroll the marathoner, I’ve also hoodwinked Hillary into being my running partner. This morning, after my usual 2km of huffing and puffing to keep up with Hillary while he walks next to me, I invited him over to have an American-style breakfast of Earl Grey tea and banana bread.

Hillary talks a lot about the importance of empowering Kenyan women and girls, and trying to change traditional gender roles that trap women in the home doing all the chores and raising the kids while the husbands drink all day and run around with other women. In general, Hillary is just a really nice guy with a matching nice guy face and nice guy listening skills, so a lot of women in his community come to him with their problems. He encourages high school girls to pursue a college degree and cheers them on with comments like, “When I was in school I noticed the girls were always smarter than the boys.” He also encourages girls in his community to apply for a national identity card when they turn 18, which all Kenyans need to have to apply for jobs and to vote. Most rural women, especially those who aren’t educated, don’t see the value of being able to vote because their husbands or brothers tell them what opinions to have anyway. And in many cases if a woman challenges her husband, she gets beaten.

(On a side note, one day Hillary and I were watching a video for a female Christian singer who sings, “Bwana, bwana, nipe uvumilivu.” Which means, “God, give me patience.” The video is about a woman whose husband beats her and her children. Trying not to get upset about the implication that Kenyan women being beaten by their husbands have no other recourse but to ask God for patience, I asked Hillary how common it is for men to beat their wives. He mumbled something that sounded like 90% but didn’t take his eyes off the video.

He’s a big fan of this particular singer we were watching, so I tried to get his attention by saying, “You mean almost every man beats his wife?”

He nodded vaguely, still entranced by the woman on TV begging God for patience. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard correctly, so I said, “Like what, 90 percent?”

He nodded vaguely again, still staring at the TV. Still not convinced he heard me, I said, “You’re saying most men in Kenya beat their wives?”

He said, “Mm,” one of the vaguer variety of mm’s in his repertoire of vague responses. So the verdict is: I’m not sure but I think domestic violence is pretty normal in Kenya.)

Anyway, over the months I’ve given him a thorough overview of gender roles in the U.S., always to enthusiastic nods and fervent agreement. I told him that Kroll helped me cook and wash dishes, and he said, “I think that’s better. Men and women should share equally in the work.”

So this morning after breakfast, Hillary said, “I’d like to help you wash the dishes but I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean?”

“Men are not supposed to wash dishes,” he said. “What would your neighbors say?”

“You could be an early adopter of equitable gender roles in your community,” I said. “When my neighbors ask what you’re doing, you can say, ‘This is how you can help your wife around the house.’“

“I’ll wash the dishes next time,” he said. “But only inside your house.”

Well, social change is a slow process.


Anonymous phillippa said...

I miss SF days when you were around to throw dinner parties and cook for us, woman!

12:35 PM  

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