On Being A Woman

August 4, 2010

I have now been in Ghana for three months.  I haven’t really talked about gender yet, so I thought perhaps it warranted a post.

During pre-departure and in-country training, we talked about gender A LOT.  I had discussions with past volunteers and listened to stories and situations that I knew I’d find myself in.  I am now so used to the way of things are here regarding gender that it didn’t even occur to me that someone reading this from home would want to learn about it.  Keep in mind every experience is different!

There are specific differences that occur when Maclean, the other JF working in Kpandai (at the District Assembly) walks down the street and when I walk down the street.   He is a white male, and therefore on the top of the hierarchy in Ghana.  People don’t grab his hands or yell at him or hiss at him nearly as often as they do to me.  The number of marriage proposals he receives in a day doesn’t even come close to rivaling my tally.  If he is seen having a Ghanaian beer with a white female, he is patted on the back, not chastised.

I am in a very unique position.  I automatically receive (uncomfortable, often undeserved) privilege and respect because I am white – I’m at the top of the totem pole.  Ah, but I’m also a woman, which nudges me closer to the bottom.  I just don’t fit into the hierarchy.  So why is this challenging?  Let me illustrate with a few examples.

The second most important man at the District Assembly refuses to make eye contact with me and doesn’t ask me any questions, or thoroughly answer mine.  I’m pretty sure this is because of my gender due to other comments he’s made.  When he was asked what his siblings did, he only responded about what his brothers did.  After probing, it turned out his sisters were just as successful, if not more, but that didn’t seem to count to him.   The only meaningful conversation we’ve had revolved around the number of children women should bare.

Every time I leave a farmer group meeting, my AEA is forced to explain that I am not looking for a husband.  Usually proposals are just jokes, and they don’t really irk me that often, but there are definitely times they get under my skin.  This one male that works in an office near mine always calls me his wife.  I joked around with him for a bit, explaining that it would take 1,000 sheep for me to marry him.  He said his father owned 10,000 in the Upper East region.  I said it would also take several elephants.  He laughed, and assured me that there were plenty of elephants in Mole Game Park (where I coincidentally spent an amazing week with the other JFs for a mid-placement retreat).  I indicated I had a fiancée at home (boyfriend doesn’t translate well – it means mistress (mister?)).  He said he would be happy being my second husband.  When I indicate that he doesn’t even know me, why would he want to marry me, is it because I’m white?  He lists off personality traits that I don’t have, and even if I did, there’s no way he could know I have them.  Finally, I said it would take 100 horses.  He finally gave up, defeated, and mumbled that I should know there is a serious shortage of horses in the world right now, they’re nearing extinction.  Point Sarah.

Joking aside, it’s exhausting sometimes.

It is always women surrounding the cooking pot or the washing bin.  It is women carrying water on their heads.  When there is a funeral, which can last either 3 days or 7 days in my experience, the women stay up from sunset to sunrise, dancing, as do the men, then the women work from sunrise to sunset cooking while the men rest and drink pito (local brew).

When you’re in the village and they can only afford to send one child to school, it is likely to be a male rather than a female.  In my office, where there are over 15 government MoFA staff, only one is a woman (and she is an unpaid secretary).

I have heard men discuss polygamy, agreeing that if one wife does not have all the characteristics a man wants or if she cannot satisfy all his needs, he will need to find another wife that has those qualities or can fulfill those needs.

I went to a village, Kabonwule, where my host mama and the chief and several of my host brothers and sisters are originally from.   There was a very intense, public quarrel between a husband and wife that required the chief to separate them.  It turned out the woman had sent their son to fetch water while she was cooking because she couldn’t just leave her pot.  The husband was furious.  I was furious that the husband was furious, but my mouth remained shut.  Instead, Madam Delphina spoke up – a very strong, powerful woman.  She told the husband he was being ridiculous – it made sense for the son to fetch water.  The chief also supported the wife.  I couldn’t help but think two things – these are the people effecting change with gender equality, and I wonder what will happen when we leave this village.

There are changes – one of my AEAs from Accra cooks regularly for people, including lunch for me!  My host brothers pound fufu and help us sweep the compound sometimes.  It’s there.   I’ve seen how outspoken and vibrant most women are here in Ghana, how they often unofficially ‘rule the roost’ and command respect, how they’re running restaurants and credit unions.  I  don’t want to project this image of helpless, oppressed women, it’s definitely not like that.  But not all women have equal opportunity.  Ah it’s so hard to explain without causing generalizations!

One thing we didn’t really discuss at length in training is the advantages of being a female in Ghana.  It appears that people feel more comfortable greeting me or talking and laughing with me because I’m seen as more approachable (at least initially) than a white male.  My office staff feels comfortable calling me in on nights and weekends, whereas they’ve indicated they’d have a tougher time doing so if I were a male.  When I indicate I want to learn how to cook, and I want to eat my dinner on the compound floor with my sisters, and when I want to contribute to the cleaning of the compound, I am not met with as much resistance as a male might be.  [Of course, I don’t know what it’s like being a male in Ghana, so this is based on discussions with male volunteers and is not fact, just observation.  ]

My time here is coming to a close and I have a lot more things I want to say.  I hope I don’t become too redundant.  Please continue to let me know what you’d like me to talk about!