Published: March 21st 2009February 21st 2009
The Baptism of Thierno Taybou Balde
My friend who goes by 'Super' and his new daughter Taybou
I’m going to try to be as respectful as possible while writing this; however I’m sure that at some point I’ll fail. For this I apologize to whomever I offend.
A year and half ago, if you asked me, I would have told you that hardline feminists annoy the hell out of me. They still do, most anyway. (That is to say women who said the only reason they wanted Clinton for president was because she had a vagina; women who only apply their “principles” to white upper or middle class women therefore excluding the majority of their supposed constituency.)
However, much to my ire, I know find myself constantly talking, thinking, writing, crying, and screaming about gender. (Sorry college friends, there is no difference between “sex” and “gender” here.) It’s with me when I go teach my English class, when I’m home at night, and when I’m hanging out with my friends. It keeps me awake at night. I can’t get over it, and believe me, I’ve tried.
Let’s start small. The school. I teach a class of 14 students in the 11th grade (the highest grade in my village.) I have three female students. They are
The 11th Grade
Mystudents at a rice bar practicing their English with the owner who's speaks English "small, small."
ranked 12th, 13th, and 14th in the class. Tenth grade: 70 students, 20 girls. Ninth grade: 75 students, 17 girls. No one sees any of this as noteworthy; least of all the girls, which is the most painful of all of this.
A little bigger. My village transforms at night like most places in Guinea. Night clubs, movie theaters, and bars open up. Restaurants serving anything but rice (including much longed after dishes with meat, salads, pasta, sandwiches—all never sold when the sun is up) appear seemingly out of nowhere. People stay out until 2 or 3 AM. Or so I’ve been told. I don’t actually know. As the sun begins to set, I’m expected to start heading home. I have to have a specific purpose, and accompaniment of some kind to be out at night. As an attempt at understanding and concillation, male volunteers have told me they rarely leave their houses at night. But they can!
The other night I had to give a letter to someone to send for me. He was leaving at 5 AM, so I decided after a long internal debate to deliver it even though it was 9 PM. An hour earlier,
Modeled by my friend Thierno Idiatou who got married last week, this outfit is particular for my village. They're not supposed to smile while they're wearing it so that they can prove to their new in-laws that they're serious women and no longer a girl.
my grandmother neighbor had told me to shut and lock my door. Now I know the likelihood of something happening to me is slim, but I was petrified. Many women in the US (and possibly men too, although it’s never come up) have similar reactions when walking through deserted areas (like parking lots) by themselves. At some point, for one reason or another, sometimes just for a split second, we assume we’re about to be attacked and raped. We walk faster. We walk straighter. Unconscienciously, we move our keys to our hands: as a potential defense and so that we can more swiftly enter our destination. And this is exactly what I did that night. Except it wasn’t deserted. On the contrary, there were little boys running around everywhere. Even this scared me as I remembered the time a 10 year old accompanying me home one night propositioned me. Halfway through my walk, a male voice behind me said hello. I curtly returned the greeting. The man remained a few steps behind me even though I started walking faster. I changed tactics and walked slower. As I hoped, he passed me. It was a student that I regularly help with his math homework; he was just walked back to the store where he works. I felt silly, but justified. Anything friendlier at night might be perceived as an open invitation.
My best friends here have never been in my house. They’re not allowed. They’re men. Recently a male volunteer encouraged me to retract this rule; he had recently had his friends over and they were so grateful. They said none of the past volunteers (females) had let them in their houses. But this isn’t a veritable option. If a male enters my house, day or night, it’s automatically assumed we’re having sex. Even when the carpenter comes, he brings one or two kids with him. He waits on my porch for them to get there before he enters my house.
All of this is situational, and only really bothers me as icing on the cake. The most frustrating aspects though are my personal relationships. Again, the girls that see nothing out of place at the weddings where the bride is in 5th grade. Lately, the men have been letting me down as well. I found out a month ago that one of my best friends is married. His wife is in the 9th grade. As I write this, she’s 9 months pregnant. He knew I’d be angry, so he tried to keep it from me.
Today I was sitting with a man who’s a couple years older than me. He’s working my my village for a few months, he was friends with the volunteer in his village, so he sought out my company. He comes over to talk on my porch in the afternoons. Today my friend’s 9th grade bride walked by. I told him her story. His immediate comment was, “That’s so good!” I asked him to explain. He said it was great for my friend, because he’s a young guy in his 20’s, and he gets to have kids. I asked, “What about the girl?” She’ll leave school. Her life has been decided for her. In 2-3 years she’ll have another kid. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat, until she hits menopause in 30 years. He blinked a couple of times. He said, being university educated himself, he would never want an educated wife. They’re too proud. And she would question him. She would know if he was wrong. She might disobey him. I blinked back. To see if I was understanding his French right, I offered, “So you’re not looking for a partner, you’re looking for a slave?” He laughed, but didn’t answer my question. He said when he “chose” his wife, he’d make sure she was in middle school. I went on to yell at him a lot, all of which he found highly amusing.
It’s the supposed apathy, the unwritten rules, the objectification, all of this that is daily tearing me apart. I can’t help but think that no matter what I do here, I’m just a walking, talking joke to people. Something to be temporarily tolerated. This is something that is in the back of my mind at every moment. So for this, I again demand your apologies, because I believe I’m now a feminist.