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.

Advertisements




A sand bank in flames

17 02 2011

The Arabic Revolution has crept eastward, to Bahrain. The tiny island in the Persian Gulf is now also caught up in the wave of anger sweeping across Northern Africa and the Middle East. And here the fight for democracy and social justice has only just begun.

The night before. (Bahrain, February 16, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)

Bahrain holds a special place in my heart even though there is really not much there. Not even oil. My first visit in 1997 was for fun and for fun only….to visit Ironic Mom long before she became a mom. Fortunately no digital photographic evidence exists. (Hmm…. come to think of it…. where are those negatives?)

The second time I went to Bahrain it was as a working journalist, to wait for a war.

Between October 2001 and April 2003 I spent almost six months on the island on four different occasions. After a while, the tiny, friendly monarchy earned itself the sub-title: “Your favorite sand bank in the Persian Gulf”.

My Bahrain adventures started four weeks after 9/11. While Marines stormed the Hindukush about a thousand miles to our east, we already suspected the Bush administration was desperately trying to find an excuse to go after an old nemesis just north of us, Saddam Hussein. By September 2002, there was no doubt the powder keg would soon explode and the question was no longer if, but when. And because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet, it was the logical place for journalists to congregate. And wait.

I will admit, the life of a waiting journalist in the field is a rather comfortable one, with editors safely in bureaus a couple of time zones away. Our days in lovely, warm Bahrain usually started with a breakfast buffet in the Diplomat Hotel, followed by a quick call to London to let them know the coast was still clear. Afternoons at poolside included  hummus and iced tea, served at my lounge chair. And for dinner it was either “Fiddler’s Green” Irish Pub, a fabulous Asian restaurant called “Monsoon”, and on really special occasions we went all the way to the Ritz Carlton to feast at Trader Vic’s.

This was, after all, a time when we all still had corporate credit cards and generous expense accounts.

The international appetite for news from Bahrain was rather limited and any remotely exciting event drew a disproportionately large western media crowd. An anti-U.S. march here, a Chess tournament between a human and a computer there, and – our biggest story while on the island – the first fair and free national election in which women had the right to vote and stand as candidates.

I still bathe in the glory of that day in October 2002, when we got the Emir’s only quote to a western media outlet. (But please don’t ask me what it was.) For my efforts in that scrum, a resentful Arabic television journalist speared me in the ribs with his microphone pole.

That's us on the left: Western, blond and female. Eye candy for the Emir and his entourage.

Fun and games aside, the pictures coming out of the Gulf state in the last couple of days – of demonstrations and protesters camped out under the Pearl Monument in the center of Manama – I guess surprised me more than they should have. I remember Bahrain as an exceptionally peaceful place (except for that MBC cameraman), with an autocratic but mostly harmless, benevolent ruling family and a couple of drunk obnoxious Saudis on the weekends.

What disturbed and shocked me to the core was the news this morning that the government broke its promise and used violence – teargas, rubber bullets and buckshot – to attack sleeping men, women and children in the middle of the night on Pearl Square. Six Bahrainis died and hundrends were injured.

But the voice of the people is getting louder even in Bahrain. And the royal family would probably be wise to listen up. Inshallah.

The morning after. (Bahrain, February 17, 2011 - KEYSTONE/AP)

********

Here is a New York Times opinion piece – worth reading – about the protests in Bahrain.





Happy Anniversary, ladies.

7 02 2011

Today is a very, very important 40th anniversary. It is the 40th anniversary of womens’ right to vote in Switzerland. Fortieth, you ask? Only the fortieth? Yes, folks, women in Switzerland have had the right to vote for less time than I have been alive.

Shocking, is it not? I certainly think so.

In the run-up to this anniversary, there have been a number of news reports about the referendum that took place forty short years ago. The vote was, of course, open only to men. Swiss men, not usually known for their progressive, open, liberal nature, had to decide if, in the future, women would be allowed to take part in the political process, or if 50 percent of the population would continue to live in silence. Fortunately, a majority of these men noticed that the times, they were a-changin’ (only seven years after the song was released) and voted “yes”.

In the recent news coverage, the media dug up a few classic referendum campaign posters, which I would not want to withhold from my international readership. They range from the simply unbelievable to the simply unbelievably absurd.

For the English-speakers among you, here just a quick German-English mini-dictionary of words used in the posters:

Frauenstimmrecht = Womens’ voting rights

Nein = No

So ladies – look and weep. This is what we would have had to deal with, had we been born a generation earlier, in Switzerland.

Interesting. No flies on my pacifier.

“Is this the kind of woman you want?"

(And… what kind of woman would that be? Possessed? Terrorized? Frazzled? Shell-shocked? Demented? Witch-like?)

"Leave us out of the game!"

(Somehow I can not believe this young woman actually volunteered to have her photo on this poster. And notice the very subtle claws…)

 

This last poster I find particularly disturbing, because it seems to me not only to support the “no” vote, but also to be advocating violence against women. Or maybe it just challenges the viewer to find 101 household uses for a carpet beater, at least one of which surely has to do with female suffrage.

I am simply aghast.

Fortunately, on that fateful Sunday in 1971, a majority of Swiss men had the good sense to decide that running the country alone was a miserable task. So they offered women the opportunity to join them in the political trenches. One lonely backwater Kanton in eastern Switzerland needed 20 more years to grant women the right to vote on regional issues. Today there are more women (4) in the federal cabinet than men (3), and so far, they seem to be rather successful at what they do.

In corporate life, however, there is still a veeeerrrrry looooong way to go. Don’t even get me started on that.





The Neanderthal of Zurich

6 12 2010

A friend of mine is on the prowl for a new job. She is a little younger than me, childless, strong-minded and very well-educated. Her degrees are from ivy league schools and she has spent most of the last 15 years working her way through the corporate landscape on both sides of the Atlantic.

She had a job interview two weeks ago. The company is a service provider in an industry she knows a great deal about, and in which she has a very strong interest. She went into the interview from a position of strength – she is not wildly desperate to leave her current employer, but is kind of itching for a new challenge. The job ad she answered sounded like the perfect fit.

She tells me the interview went great till close to the end. The two (male) interviewers, the head of the Human Resources department and the head of the department in which she hoped to work, told her that the person who did the job previously had to leave the company because of illness. (“Not due to overwork, hahaha,” said the HR manager.) The other guy added, “Yes we haven’t had a lot of luck with incumbents in this job. They tend to leave after three years. And it really would be nice to have some continuity here. We had a lot of problems with pregnancies… and, well then there was that one adoption, but mainly we’ve had issues with pregnancies.”

Over in the corner, the HR dude squirmed uncomfortably.

My friend did what every late-thirties, job-seeking career woman with a brain and a pulse would do. She did not skip a beat and just continued to smile her sweet, insincere corporate smile, perfected by enduring years of bullying in the corporate trenches.Later she told me that she was so stunned at the words that had just come out of the Neanderthal’s mouth she couldn’t even formulate a sentence even if she had wanted to. She wondered if she really just heard what she just heard and it took all her willpower not to reach across the table and strangle the guy.

Though I’ve made it clear in earlier blog entries that I was not born to be a mother, I will violently and loudly defend every woman’s right to decide what she wants to do with her own body and her future – even if I don’t agree – and not be penalized for it. I think that is a basic human right (last time I looked it was, anyway).

So it never ceases to amaze me that in an allegedly advanced, intellectual, highly industrialized country in the middle of Western Europe, which, lest we forget, currently has a female president, two women leading the two houses of parliament and a female majority in its cabinet, such clearly discriminatory and misogynist attitudes seem common among men in positions of power. The fact that this person would even think something like that makes me furious, the fact that he said it to the face of a female candidate and potential subordinate is more than stupid.

They didn’t invite my friend to a second round of interviews. And she is curious to know if that was because she is a woman of child-bearing age, wielding a lethal weapon called a womb, or if she was just plain old overqualified. After all, men really hate being outshone or beat at their own game.

In my lifetime, please.