Three women of Africa

11 05 2012

The first woman is cocoa farmer, grasping a rare opportunity to learn.

On this overcast day she joins two dozen men of her community in an educational program that promises to help her grow more cocoa pods, and deliver higher-quality beans that will be used for exclusive foreign chocolate and enjoyed in sophisticated European capitals that she will never see. She hopes to apply the things she learns on her own farm, to generate a higher income, and build a better life. She squats on the ground in her flip-flops and mixes a pile of freshly shucked cocoa beans, up to her elbows in the white pulp that tastes a little like lychee juice.

She sings while she works.

Womens’ work.

The second woman is a villager, grinding manioc on the doorstep of her mud-and-wattle home, to feed her family.

Her settlement is in a clearing in the rainforest, a red dirt piste the only connection to the main road, several miles away. To get there, we drive slalom around potholes wide enough to easily throw out an axle, and deep enough to easily swallow an entire car. These homes have no running water or electricity, and the roofs are made of dried palm leaves.

She tastes some of the chocolate we bring from far-away Europe. It is soft and runny, from the heat, but she takes a handful anyway, and sucks it off her fingers.

Womens’ work.

The third woman is not a woman at all. She is a child of maybe 13 or 15 years old, who has, herself, just borne a child, a few hours earlier. He lies next to her on the plastic-covered bed, stretching his arms skyward, to hug his new world, while she rests. The doctor at the rural health center tells us that the birth took place without anesthesia. “Natural childbirth,” they call it here. To get to the clinic at the top of the hill she had to walk. Her own mother, barely 30, accompanied her. She is now a grandmother.

I did not photograph them.


These are three of the women I met last week in Ivory Coast, a country of 21 million inhabitants nestled between Liberia and Ghana in Western Africa. “Met” is perhaps an exaggeration. I don’t know much more about these women than the basic facts I have written down here, hastily scribbled into my reporters’ notebook at the time. I don’t even know their names. We exchanged a handshake, a “Bonjour madame!”, a smile, and a laugh at something silly. Our worlds touched briefly, with that bond dispersing a short time later, just as quickly.

These are three of the strong women of Africa.

She is the backbone of her community, she is the keeper of her family. Here in the rural communities of the Ivory Coast, she learns from an early age that she must embrace hard physical work to survive. And that she must endure the constant machismo of a traditional male-dominated society, where polygamy is regularly practiced and inheritance usually only passes to her brothers. She bears these lifelong hardships with dignity.

Every day she has a million miles to go before she can sleep.

This was my first visit to Western Africa, and it will surely not be my last. My body returned to Europe this morning. My soul is having a hard time keeping up.

Womens’ work.



9 responses

11 05 2012
Ajay Kaul

Very well articulated – thanks for sharing!!

11 05 2012
Evelynn Starr

Thanks for stopping by, Ajay! It was certainly a very thought-provoking trip. I hope to return soon.

11 05 2012

How amazing! Thanks for sharing the stories of some amazing women. I hope to meet some one day!

11 05 2012
Evelynn Starr

Thanks Christina – it was a real learning experience for me and I wish you too have that kind of experience some day.

12 05 2012

Your story touched me! It is so easy to live our urban Western life mostly unaware of life in other parts of the world, but once we meet with people who endure a much harder life we are helpless in what to do and how to act – can we change something? Probably not on the spot, but very slowly. With trips like yours we change something in us and it is about bringing this change in you to everyone else that keeps me doing what I am doing and hoping that slowly we will be able to change this bitter reality. Thanks for sharing.

12 05 2012
Evelynn Starr

Very true, Swisstiger. I learned so much, but have probably more questions now than answers. There is so much need and one really does feel helpless initially. I wish I could do more than I really can do at the moment. Perhaps, with time, that will change.

13 05 2012
Leanne Shirtliffe

ES, this is beautiful writing. Wow.

And a reminder that while much of the West is relishing in a commercialized Mother’s Day, that women (many mothers too young) are getting on with the task of surviving. And sometimes, just sometimes, singing.

13 05 2012
Evelynn Starr

Thank you Ironic Mom! And Happy Mother’s day to you! I have been back home for a few days now and I just can’t stop thinking about them. And you wonder what you can do to help them, and you come up with no useful and/or realistically realizable ideas.

Surviving is their first priority. Singing is another. And at least that warms the heart a bit.

17 05 2012

Beautifully written. They truly are the backbone of life. It’s amazing what they, what women around the world, accomplish with so little.

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