Friday, May 1, 2009

The Upcountry Women of Sierra Leone

As is probably true of all cultures women in Sierra Leone seemed to provide the base for families and especially for children. And as in most cultures men seemed to have it somewhat on the easy side. Women worked hard in Sierra Leone. They bore children, raised them, watched over them closely as they grew up, saw to it that they were provided with the basics (this might even include school fees), and were the foundation for family life. It was the women who might have her baby in the morning - this after a 9 month period in which, despite being pregnant, she would still be working hard to get the food ready or do the many chores that she felt responsible for - but it was not unusual to see that very women who had delivered a baby in the morning to be out helping with a rice planting/or wood gathering/or other physical labor that very afternoon. I was always so very impressed - the newly delivered baby on the mother's back - being carried out to the farm that very day. No break at all. This was perhaps more true of the upcountry women. In Freetown - with less rural influences perhaps women did things differently. But up in Mendeline (as they called it) women had few expectations of being pampered - and thus after the big event - a new baby - they would be right out there and at it almost as if it was no big deal. I certainly was aware that the infant mortality rate in Sierra Leone was high - but I marveled at how the women in our neighborhood seemed to do well. I remember about 5 new babies in our neighborhood in our two years. All of the children seemed to thrive. The babies were delivered at home (no one went to the Government Hospitals for deliveries in those days), and I think that babies were delivered by women from the Bondo society - although I am not sure of this. I do remember one baby from a nearby village who was brought to me as a newborn (I am not sure why I was involved) and I remember that this newborn appeared very distressed - and was taken immediately to the Kenema Government Hospital. I was told later that the baby died of tetanus. So if you look at my statistics 1 baby in 6 died in our general area (16%). It was the women who made the homes - who provided the clothing for the kids for the most part, who saw to it that there was food, and who provided in all ways for the children. In most settings the father was at times away trying to earn money to help out. When home men seemed to play a distant role in the raising of kids. That is not to belittle what men did - it was just what was. The women seemed to provide the foundation for daily life. Young girls closely watched their mothers and mimicked them. Young boys had a slightly separate role - early on they might hang on their mother's "lappas" but by their teenage years many would "feel their oats" and act out. Boys might want to become lorry boys, or head to Freetown for the high life and this might be acceptable. For a young women to do the same - this might be looked upon as very daring and unacceptable. Boys did have their chores and this might include helping on the farm, or many times going to school. During our time - more and more women were being educated. Sierra Leone had always had a rich tradition of education even though school fees were very expensive. With the establishment of Holy Rosary Secondary School (for girls) - this provided for education beyond the primary level. The University of Sierra Leone (Fourah Bay) was perhaps the ultimate goal - this being the oldest established and well-known university in West Africa. Our school girls at HRSS and also at the Kenema TTC were examples of potential leaders for the future as well as examples for younger women all over the country. They would become well-educated and then give back to their own. Sure pay for teachers was much too low - and rural education had its pitfalls - but as more and more women from the hinterland were being educated this was providing women with some options not readily available to them earlier. Secondary education was not universal - since the fees were high and only a small percentage could afford. Fees might run nearly a years earnings for an individual. Those women who survived the ability to pay their fees, and did not get pregnant, and managed to finish their schooling could go on to higher education. We were proud to be a small part of this potential. In those days women did have "outlets" - maybe this was during the Bondo training. This traditionally portion of women's lives was - as I saw it as an outsider - a time for unification - a special time in which women were made more whole - by being taught by experienced elder members. Much of the training was positive. There may have been some that was not. But women who provided for this tradition seemed to enjoy what they were doing - and this did - for them - provide a respit from the daily rhythms of life. It was women - with women teaching young girls the ropes. There seemed to be joy in doing this - at least as I observed from afar. There was a unity that resulted that was independent from men - and the singing, the smiles, the at times near ecstasy that they showed made this a special time. Again, my view of the Bondo was as a foreigner - and clearly I was a very outsider in the happenings of the Bondo - but I did glean from this that this time was special for the elders, and for the newly initiated - and did stand seperate form the mundane and routine of the rest of life. Rumors of negative aspects of the society were only rumors for me - there was little that I found out about this - but much that I found fascinating from my remote perch. Were women happy? yes - I never came across a depressed women. There must have been some but despite the many hardships I was never made aware of unhappiness. Women were proud to be good at what was expected of them, were proud to be good providers and good mothers, were proud to do good parenting, enjoyed what they did this despite the physically demanding nature of what their daily chores were. They also received a certain respect for all of this that when they became older provided them with a stature and position. I do not mean to idealize the plight of women in Sierra Leone because there was certainly a downside to their lives, but I became impressed in this my first venture outside of America, with how it was women who responsibly provided the very foundation and sole of upcountry living.

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