Thursday, November 17, 2005

Women Carrying Sticks: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

In today’s Times, Liberian-born journalist Helene Cooper writes about what the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the Presidency of Liberia this week might mean for poor African women continent-wide. (The Times covers the election here and Black Looks weighs in with a reminder that a woman did lead Liberia in 1996-7). Cooper’s is a wonderful editorial, in part because she willingly notes that, traveling the continent
to write about poverty and development ... everywhere I went, from Accra, Ghana, to Mekele, Ethiopia and Kisumu, Kenya, I kept thinking that none of those places, for all of their endemic poverty or corruption, seemed as bad off as my own home country, Liberia.
She finds poverty on a Liberian scale in Bukavu, Congo where the plight of the women seems particularly harsh. In light of Johnson-Sirleaf’s victory, Cooper writes of her desire to “go back to Bukavu to find that woman, and to tell her what just happened in Liberia. I want to tell her this: Your time will come, too.”

You might wonder how bad this poverty is, and Cooper renders it simply and affectingly:
What struck me most, though, in Bukavu were the women. As I drove into the city, I passed women I have known all of my life. There were old women - old in Africa means 35 or so - with huge bundles of bamboo sticks on their back. In most cases, the burdens were larger than the backs carrying them as they trudged up one hill after another.
The parenthetical (old in Africa means 35 or so) is, of course, devastating to her educated American audience where 35 is a good time to start having a family, not old age. And that vision of women who, here, are the subject of “Sex and the City” bent double under loads of firewood reminds us of the global gap. This passage immediately brought to mind a parallel one from Orwell’s essay “Marrakech” (1939):
But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing—that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them…I noticed the poor old earth-coloured bodies, bodies reduced to bones and skin, bent double under the crushing weight. Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on the Morroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it.

Orwell’s antiseptic prose can be hard to take when you get used to writers who present themselves as ethically correct. Where Cooper is sly and generous, Orwell honestly offers an account of his own failing. What seems a failure of eyesight becomes a failure of moral imagining, as Orwell knows and as he bravely lets us see, too. By comparing his own blindness to the women with his outrage at the donkeys’s treatment, he only underscores the plight of these women, so wholly invisible to him for so long, now, thanks to his vision, impossible to forget.

With all of this you might think that I had left old Maureen Dowd and her grim assessment of the blithe willingness of American college students to plan their Stepford-wife futures and all those secretary-marrying educated men (so foolish as not to marry her, I guess) pretty far behind. Well, I have and I haven’t. I find myself more in sympathy with Amardeep Singh, who likes Dowd on the balance, than with the sharp and hilarious Uma, who finds her concerns petty and laughable. I cannot quite put my finger on the link I want to draw, that needs to be drawn—something more than just the observation, true though it may be, that women are nowhere seen as first-class citizens and that women don’t even often see themselves that way. Maybe it’s as simple as this: some of us know that in 2005, in Bukavu, Congo, there is a woman for whom life means carrying “so many logs that her chest almost seemed to touch the ground, so stooped was her back. Still, she trudged on, up the hill toward her home. Her husband was walking just in front of her. He carried nothing. Nothing in his hand, nothing on his shoulder, nothing on his back. He kept looking back at her, telling her to hurry up.” Knowing that, it is hard to imagine how a young American woman could sit in the halls of a great university, living in the bland hope of life as an educated housewife. Perhaps, too, we Americans should think about what it means that the only woman president we can imagine is in a one-hour primetime network slot.


Michelle said...

Hi Anne,
I found your site off Word Munger (I think we had posted under the same entry). Anyway, I thought I'd drop in and say hi. I thought this post was brilliant and much-needed, by the way. The self-absorption of the upper-middle and high classes (and the rest of society's fascination with them--in the form of blogs, TV shows, magazines that cater to that lifestyle) is quite disgusting, especially when placed in context with the everyday struggles of those living in poverty.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Michelle! I'm delighted to find you through Dave (my buddy since we were 11!!) Thanks for your nice words and, most of all, for your great blog which I'm delighted to have discovered!!