Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Women’s Work

Sunday, April 27, 2008
Women’s Work

Dear Everyone,

Greetings! I hope you are well.

After a lovely supper of stew, bread, and Melfloquine (for malaria prevention), with chocolate icing for dessert, I’m settling back to watch the termites swarming my overhead light while I write to you. I’m also watching a worm crawl across my rug (it’s a plastic rug, so this isn’t actually that gross). He’s a strange worm with antennae and a body that’s hard, rather than squishy. I think he may have crawled in here and died. The ants are investigating. I’m pulling my feet up into my chair.

With the rain a few days ago and again last night, the bugs are rather more prevalent than they’ve been. Fortunately, with the increase in bugs I’ve also noticed an increase in my house lizards. House lizards are my great blessing. I’ve named them all Thomas.

The rain also means farming time. And farming time means reduced church attendance.

Our church is a one-room building made from mud. We’re Lutheran; other denominational options include Roman Catholic and Assemblies of God. The men sit on the left on rickety wooden benches and the women sit on the right, children in the front. The worship team consists of a few guys with drums and a song leader. We have real live church mice who scurry in the rafters behind the preacher’s head. Sometimes I watch them if the sermon is long and not in English. So that’s pretty much every time. The specifics of the worship service are pretty standard except for collecting the offering, which is basically a conga line. The music is loud and the men go first, singing and clapping as they file out of their rows and snake up to the collection plate, drop their money in, and conga back to their seats. The women fall in at the end of the men’s line.

Church starts when the people arrive. We know it’s time to go to church when we hear the drums calling the people to worship, except that we live so far from the church we almost never hear them. So for us, getting to church on time is sort of like practice for the Second Coming. We know the day, sure; but no one knows the hour. So be ready because church will begin like a thief in the night. Today the Esala womenfold and I heard the drums and were the first ones at church (Nathan was taking a woman from the village to the hospital). We read a Bible story together, but then the babies needed naps so we went back home. Church started later, but we missed it.

I’ve written so much about “man work” that I become concerned it seems my definition of “man work” is “any work that is exciting.” But this is not the case. This week, I participated in the Women’s Work to End All Women’s Work, which, of course, was pounding gravelly dirt into floor. And what’s not exciting about that? Friends, everything is exciting about that.

Houses in the village are comprised of several round, single-room huts arranged in a circle. The huts are connected by a circular wall made of the same mud as the huts to form an open-air courtyard. Functionally, the huts serve as bedrooms for the most part (I think), and the courtyard acts as living room and kitchen. One of the houses (we also call them “compounds”) in the village needed a new floor in the courtyard, so all the women in the village came to pound the floor. It’s a community event—sort of like a barn raising. Each woman has her own floor-pounding tool—a wooden mallet, half a cylinder with a perpendicular, stick-like handle protruding from one end. They grip the pounder by the handle and smack it on the ground like a foot, standing bent 90 degrees at the waist with straight legs and shuffling back and forth over the yard in a great cluster of rows, like a sea of backs and colorful headscarves. They sing and keep in rhythm, sometimes staying always bent over in a quick tempo, pounding on the beat, and sometimes raising up with the pounders high above their heads and bringing them down for a slower beat.

I say “they,” but I mean “we” because I, as a woman in the village, got to play too. Since I’m new, I didn’t have a pounder, of course, but Sarah is not new. She loaned me her pounder because, as she told those around us who were surprised she had one, “If you do not have the tool, then you cannot have the opportunity.” When we arrived at the compound, I was immediately sent home to change my clothes. I’d missed the memo about this work being grubby; I am a rookie. When I arrived for the second time, I was handed over to a teacher to “just follow her.” So I did. In my culture, we bend our knees when we bend over, so keeping my legs straight and folding myself in half was a challenge. Actually, the whole experience was a bit of a cognitive overload. I stepped along with my teacher. Forward. Forward. Don’t pound your feet; don’t pound your face. Forward. Forward. Don’t pound your neighbor’s feet; don’t pound your neighbors face. Backward. Backward. Keep your legs straight; don’t pound your face. Backward. Backward. Keep the rhythm; don’t make divots. Backward. Backward. Keep backing up even though there’s a wall there. Backward. Backward. Wedged behind a hut; don’t pound your neighbor’s face. Forward. Forward.

The whole thing took so much concentration I didn’t notice the huge blister that had formed—and then popped and begun oozing—on my hand until I stopped pounding, at which point it began to hurt rather a lot. Fortunately the floor was mostly finished by that time, and people paused for a little break. Ordinarily, I’m told, this is the part where the pito comes out, but the family of the compound were Muslim (which apparently means no alcohol), so we drank a thin, white, sour liquid instead. On the way home, I learned the mud I’d been pounding was actually a mixture of dirt, a plant product called doua-doua (say “DOW-uh DOW-uh”), and poop. And that’s women’s work.

This week’s mouse count is one small baby, who I accidentally trapped under a book while he squeaked at me. I was going to bash it myself but wussed out and asked Nathan to do it.

Asala the House Girl is feeling better; thanks for praying for her. Falling Star the Chicken (the one hatched on top of the refrigerator) was fatally stepped on the other day, so if you wanted to pray for Karissa’s emotional well-being (since she allegedly did the stepping), that would be appropriate.

Looks like the worm is alive after all. He’s on the move again.


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