Monday, March 10, 2014

Women's Liberation

I wrote this blog post in January, but it got lost in the shuffle of my move and parents' visit.  It seemed appropriate to post in honor of International Women's Day:

Upon arriving in Mandama in December 2011, I discovered that I had inherited an unfinished project from the last volunteer, an incomplete house that was to become a Women’s Center.  The Maison des Femmes soon became a bugbear, embroiling me in the worst sort of proprietary village politics.  Petty power struggles dominated any communal goodwill, and my ignorance of the details of the project (sources of funding, management) left me powerless to intervene appropriately.  I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow—it was frustrating and tedious to live through, and could only be more so anecdotally—but suffice it to say, I washed my hands of the project for a good six months, so stymied was I by local bigwigs’ transparent attempts to hijack the completion of the project for their own self-aggrandizement.

Eventually I got back around to it, as time passed and tempers cooled.  I urged the old volunteer, Megan, to pressure her professional counterpart, Boubakari, with whom I had an antagonistic relationship at best.  With a careful combination of wheedling, coaxing, flattery, and (only occasionally) outbursts of anger, all the involved parties were induced to work together enough to complete the construction.  It was finished over a year past the expected date of completion—but it was finished, and that was enough.

After holding successful open elections for the executive board, we chose a date for the opening ceremony, to be held in January after my return from Yaounde for mid-service training.  It was during midservice that it was decided Mandama would no longer be a Peace Corps post, and that I would be moved.  The opening, then, would also serve as a closing; it would be a celebration not only of the Women’s Center, but of the end of my time in my first post.  It would be my last hurrah.

I take a break from event prep the day of with the women of the executive board.

The day of the ceremony arrived.  As was widely expected, we had invited the mayor and sous-prefet to come from Mayo Oulo; this meant, however, that instead of being able to say my farewells to friends and colleagues in a relaxed environment, I would have to spend the day in the rigidly proscribed world of protocol, the unwritten rules that govern any interaction with traditional or elected leaders in Cameroon.  If I haven’t made this clear enough in previous posts, I despise protocol.  I find it archaic and elitist.  I would posit that it gives unmerited and disproportionate power to a few, while robbing many of dignity and autonomy.  Furthermore, it is entirely chauvinistic; traditionally, a young girl will greet visiting elites, escorting them to their seats and serving them water or refreshments, and older women will literally grovel before the dignitary, debasing themselves in a way that horrifies and offends me.

This was why I found myself in a heated battle, fifteen minutes before the ceremony was slated to start, over seating arrangements.  After a year of putting up with Northern Cameroonian culture, this was not just a question of where to put chairs.  This was a question of where we, as a community, put our values.  Emboldened by the fact of my imminent departure, I cared far less about causing offense than I did about taking a stand.

To set the scene: I had left the setup of chairs to Boubakari, Megan’s counterpart, who was the emcee for the event.  When I came to check on his progress, I noticed he had put nametags on the first three rows of chairs, reserving them for invited notables and grands and their entourages.  As I scanned the names, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  The only two women in the entire first section of chairs were Howa, the female mayor of Mayo Oulo, and me.

I looked over at Boubakari, speaking calmly at first.  I knew this could only escalate, as I could feel a year’s worth of frustration boiling up.  Steady, I thought to myself, as I asked where the executive board was to sit.  I had envisioned, I added, that they would occupy the front row.
Boubakari waved a hand vaguely at the back rows of chairs, still unoccupied—rows of chairs jammed in between trees and market stalls, where the view would be terrible and the speeches barely audible.

I clenched my hands into fists, trying to breathe deeply.  “Surely we can put the women who were elected by their own community as leaders on an equal footing with the grands?” I had aimed for mild, but my voice was sharp.  I plastered on a tight smile, trying to keep things convivial, although I was ready for battle.  “I think some of the names in the first row could be put in the second.”

Boubakari sputtered protests.  “But you’ll upset the protocol!”

And that was when I let loose with a torrent of rapid and piqued French, my accent becoming more Parisian and my grammar worse the angrier I got.

“This is a day to honor and support the women of Mandama.  We tell them we will build a women’s center, we elect an all-female board of executives, we ask them to do the work to organize a fete, and when their day arrives, we put a bunch of men who are not from this community and who have done nothing to support this project up front and relegate the women to the back?  What message does that send?”  The boubou-clad grands around me began to grumble, and I held up a hand.  “This is non-negotiable.  The board is sitting in the front row with the sous-prefet and the mayor.” 

Boubakari angrily butted in.  “Here in Cameroon, we don’t do things like that!”  I smiled widely, disingenuously; I might go so far as to say venomously.  “Well, lucky you.  Peace Corps is here for cultural exchange, n’est-ce pas?  Today we do things à l’Americaine.”

There is value to being culturally sensitive, adaptable, and humble.  There is also value, however, in the Quaker tradition of speaking truth to power.  Every Peace Corps volunteer goes through periods of existential uncertainty—what are we doing here, if not some post-modern version of cultural colonialism?  We come stomping in and try to change the way people do things, but who are we to tell them our way is better?  It doesn’t necessarily seem to be working out so well for us; how can we look developing nations in the face and tell them to emulate our mistakes? 

These are valuable questions, and this kind of navel-gazing can be fruitful.  Too much of it, though, is paralyzing—because at some point one loses all sense of relativity.  It is true that some aspects of culture are merely different, and should not be assigned superior or inferior value.  Other things, though, are just wrong.  Oppressing women, although culturally acceptable in northern Cameroon, is wrong.  Limiting education for over half the population is wrong.  Relying on entrenched, classist systems of protocol to determine people’s worth is wrong. 

The grands of Mandama whole-heartedly supported the construction of the Maison des Femmes, because they saw its potential as limited.  It was a place for those women whose husbands gave them permission to learn to sew, dress hair, and maybe even embroider.  None of these professions cross entrenched gender lines.  None threaten the existing male hegemony, economy, or ego.  Constructing the women’s center allowed wealthy men, whose power in this society is both unlimited and unchallenged, to give lip service to progress and modernity, while in fact patronizingly corralling the women of Mandama into strictly defined and gendered boxes.

The battle over the seating arrangements ended in a compromise.  I could see how furious the invitees were when I began pulling nametags off seats, and while I can be fairly bullheaded at times, I try not to be unnecessarily stubborn.  Having made my point, I put the nametags back, and asked Boubakari to add another row of seven seats to one side, perpendicular to the front row.  In effect, we created a second front row, so that no one was evicted from their protocol-determined place, and the elected board was assigned seats of honor, set apart.

After we had settled the question of protocol, the event went smoothly.  The notables arrived several hours late, but so did the population of Mandama.  The speeches were fine, even my impromptu address on women's empowerment; despite having specifically told Boubakari I was not giving a speech, he called me up right after the mayor.  But I made it through, and while I don't think I said anything groundbreaking-- I tamed the fire, having truly spoken my mind before the event-- I got an affirming round of applause.  The reception afterwards was lovely, and the women outdid themselves on the food.  I took pictures with what felt like about every woman in Mandama.  It was a fine going-away party, and more importantly a successful opening for the center.

There is a quotation I came across two years ago while researching my thesis on 19th-century French socialism.  When confronted with the radical behavior of Gustave Hervé, an extremist element in his party, Socialist delegate Jean Jaurès replied, “Every wave that makes it to shore must first break its foam upon the sand.”  I think that day, in a very small and undoubtedly petty fashion, I was that foam.  The women on the board followed my insistence that they take certain seats, but they were uncomfortable doing so; had I not been standing there glaring sternly at everyone, they certainly would have apologized to those who feathers were ruffled and returned to their original places in the back of the audience.  The men were certainly not converted by my passionate soapboxing, at least not to judge by their disgruntled muttering for the next twenty minutes—people often (conveniently) forget that I do have a fair amount of Fulfuldé at this point.  I was not bearing Mandama with me in a wave of feminism.

But perhaps, in breaking myself and the women of the board on the sand, I begin to herald the arrival of that wave.  These were small gestures, and seemingly unimportant battles upon which to spend so much time and energy—but the little things are the things within my capacity to change.  I can’t abolish the protocol system of Cameroon.  I can’t force men here to begin to respect women and value their education and empowerment.

But I could make sure that all of Mandama—because the entire village turned out for the event—saw the elected board sitting on equal footing with the sous-prefet.  It’s not much, but it’s symbolic, and symbols are important.

As it turned out, Howa (the first female mayor of Mayo Oulo, to my right) only brought awesome, strong, professional women in her entourage, so we were doubly represented.  Get it, sister.
The obligatory photo de famille after the event, posed in front of the Maison de Femmes.

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