I extended my stay in Boukoumbe in northern Benin to join in International Womens Day celebrations: aside from witnessing all the traditional singing and dancing to compliment the interminable speeches, I ended it in fine style lurching out of the village nightclub at 4 30am having jumped around like a sweaty loon for a few hours to some great music, virtually none of which would conform to the European idea of African music and was much the better for it. I’ve been to more restrained raves than that night and suspect English villages would be hard pressed to compete.
The celebrations were organised by the local women’s association, many such groups are cropping up to provide much needed support, as violence, genital mutilation, lack of education and economic independence are very much relevant issues for the bulk of women in West Africa. These obviously deserve the main focus of attention but at their core is a simple lack of respect from many men, who completely take women for granted. Even perfectly likeable, intelligent young men well versed in the computer age cannot, for one moment entertain the concept of cleaning, washing or cooking.
Children, very much women’s work, is further increased when separation or death demands that related children need care. Just because she may have a job demanding as many hours as the husband is no excuse for the relief from the housework. In middle class families the responsibilities would seem to be simply farmed out to home help as labour is so cheap, but the only respite for the less well off is transferring the workload to other female family members. Of all the women I have spoken to I have never met one who would object to some help in the home for fear of undermining traditional roles. Several times I have seen that look of extreme annoyance on a woman’s face that the man treating her disrespectfully can’t see. Relative cultural values may justify some behaviour we would not regard as acceptable, particularly when they are borne of centuries of tradition but when the women themselves are evidently angered by men’s behaviour it becomes less easy to support.
It’s not just for our wallets that white men are seen as a good bet for marriage, we are often seen as more honest and faithful. Bébé in the village of Bani, Northern Burkina Faso whose food shack I ate at a couple of times, was completely frank at wanting to marry a white man to get some respect and understanding. I could but sympathise: she had spent years making reed mats and coasters to sell to tourists, five a day, each selling for 30p and I don’t for one minute imagine for one minute she sold that many each day, she saved up enough to build a little shack and buy the equipment to sell food from, for 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. She, like the multitude of women I have met who work such hours deserve a damn sight more than a slob, who would rather spend the household funds on drinking beer with his mates whilst groping any young girl he fancies, than getting some soap, for instance, for his wife. I wouldn’t for an instant damn every man on the continent, as I am confident that many I have met are, or will be loving, supporting husbands, but I suspect that the overall situation is much as it was in Britain years before the concept of women’s liberation entered anyone’s head.