Monday, July 7, 2008

The gender thing

I spent nearly a month in Lilongwe, Malawi which is very hard for me to believe. But it was broken up by a day in Nkhotakota and a week in a township called Area 25 where I waited for Bridget to have her baby.

On the fifth day I wasn’t getting much good material and I texted my girlfriend back in New York that I hoped the baby waited for day six. (My Malawian cell phone had cost $26 to buy and two or three dollars a day even to make a couple short calls; that’s the trick of cellphones here so I didn’t give it away to a Malawian when I left, I gave it to the owner of the campsite where I stayed and asked him to give it a good home).

A little while after I sent my text to Jill, Bridget decided she wanted to go to the hospital. She was four hours from delivering Solomon and a couple days from re-naming him Sean.

Bridget’s husband Pacharo was sitting on the couch watching a DVD and suggested Bridget call a friend and go to the hospital.

“I’m not going to walk to the hospital when there’s a car in the driveway,” she said. Pacharo is a taxi driver but didn’t feel like driving just then.

Bridget was feeling too much pain to remember all her tasks so Pacharo helpfully pointed out, “its 11, you need to cook some food.”

Bridget said she felt too bad to cook.

“Have Aubrey make something,” Pacharo decided, delegating to his brother. “And turn the volume up on the TV.”

It went like this for most of the day, which was too bad because I didn’t want Pacharo to look like such a terrible person in the film. He seemed as devoid of malice as he was of concern or competence.

Bridget and I never discussed just what I could film but she was fine with me filming it all and I did it in the most respectful way I could figure while standing 10 feet away with a giant camera.

The next day when I returned to the hospital to pay thanks to the nurses, one of them told me she had spoken to Bridget and she wanted to see the whole delivery on the DVD I had promised her. The nurse suggested I make a separate G-rated version for Bridget to show her friends.

I missed her at the hospital because she had already headed home and when I got to her house she was sweeping the area outside her front door.

People like to ask what my documentary is about and I like to say it doesn’t have a “topic” but a “concept,” the concept of following six people for a single day in their life. But it has become clear—thankfully—that there will be themes, and chief among them will be gender issues. In Niger I found women hauling hundreds of pounds of water in the 115-degree heat while their husbands sat in the shade. In Malawi Bridget served Pacharo while Jackie Chan kicked ass on another bootleg DVD.

The exception was Saly in Burkina Faso, a college student who says she’ll attract a good husband by having a good job. Its perhaps disheartening that her father died when she was a toddler and so her and her sisters were raised in an anomalous female-dominated home by a mother who sold porridge in the streets to raise tuition money.

These are the impossible value judgments a well-meaning person can be confronted with sometimes. Is it wrong that females are so “badly” treated? Should something be done about it? What?

The good news seems to be wrapped in the bad news. Traditional African society is changing, or even dying, as western values permeate imperfectly. Whether you like it or not, the Africa of imagination—if it ever existed—is being destroyed. More and more people like Saly are being produced as a result.

If the arc of Africa’s moral universe is bending towards equality, it still has long to go. Bridget had to drop out of secretarial school when she was orphaned and her extended family refused to support her because she had a different grandfather than the rest of the clan. She hopes for something different for her daughter Alice but something instructive happened on the day she delivered: Her happiest moment in memory came when the cord was cut and her strongest wish fulfilled. Her baby was a boy


KK said...

Your patience is commendable. It takes a lot of patience to come to grips with Africa's realities, I think.

icollectmaps said...

My friend and I watched A Map for Saturday tonight, and it has me reflecting on my time as a traveler which, while very different from yours, seems to have brought me to very similar conclusions.

I found your blog, and only read the first entry, but I'm definitely coming back. Thanks for reminding me why I love travel, and thanks for being a worthy American ambassador.

- Mandy