Monday, August 11, 2008

Estrogen and the crazy porto conference

Sent via e-mail 8/10/08
Dearest friends and family,

Next time work seems long and boring, a stack of exorbitant bills arrives in your mailbox, and you get stuck next to a smelly hill-billy named Icharus on your 30 minute subway ride to work, just remember: you are NOT a woman in Guinea. It could be worse.

As I've mentioned in previous emails, so, so many women in Guinea lead a tragically difficult and underappreciated existence. Women are expected to do 90% of the manual labor in a country whose infrastructure resembles that of mid-19th century America: They wake up at dawn, scrub the house clean, get water from the well, do the day's laundry with buckets and a washboard, cook lunch over an open fire in a pot resting on three rocks, serve lunch, clean up after lunch, wash the dishes, cook dinner, serve dinner, clean up dinner, turn in and get ready to do it all over again the next day. Many women also have fields and crops to tend to, or small "boutiques" (read: tables with some piles of onions, tomatoes, or dried fish) where they sell goods to help support their families. Almost all the middle-aged women I've seen have a host of children to look after (like cooking and cleaning, taking care of children is viewed as the travail des femmes, or women's work; NOT men's); many perform all the above tasks while pregnant or with babies tied to their backs.

As a thank-you for all their hard work around the house, women are oftentimes treated as second-class citizens. Polygamy, as I've mentioned, is a widespread practice: Most respectable men in Bouliwel have at least two wives (of course it could never work the other way—a wife having many husbands, I mean) (I asked about that the other night and was answered with a host of clucks and chuckles, even from the women).

A friend of mine, an employee at the health center, just married for a second time. When I asked him what his first wife thought about it, he said he never asked her. When I pressed him, he said, "It doesn't matter what she thinks. It's not her business whether or not I want to take a deuxieme femme." Sad but true. Ah, Guinea.

With an outlook for most women as bleak as this, you can imagine the many hurdles that girls must face on their path to womanhood. Education is largely the domain of men; Boys are expected to study, girls are expected to stay home and do chores. This year's 9th grade class at the Bouliwel middle school (we don't have a high school) consisted of 33 boys and 6 girls; the 10th grade, 15 and 2. Girls are often given in marriage at age 14 or 15 to men twice their age. Imagine if, for your sweet 16th, you were kicked out of your house and sent to live with a man of 35 who already had two wives, both of whom resented your presence in "their" foyer? One volunteer calls the practice of underage marriage—pardon the term—institutionalized rape.

It is in the middle of this culture that we Volunteers are thrust; they give us a bicycle and a local language notebook and tell us to have a positive impact. In light of the difficulties faced by women in Africa and all over the developing world, Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide make empowering women a top priority. Here in Guinea, we organize an annual Conference des Jeunes Filles, or Girls Conference, a three-day seminar where every Volunteer invites a girl from their village to learn about a whole range of issues, from women's rights, to excision, to gender roles, and public speaking.

We just had this year's conference last week!

Imagine this: Your name is Fatoumata Binta Sow. You are a 15-year old girl from a small village named Tountouroun, in the Fouta Djallon north of Labe. You are one of seven children, the oldest child your mother has had and the oldest girl in the family. You have left your village only twice in your lifetime, both times to go to larger towns for family reasons. You are very bright—indeed, you have the second highest grades in the 7th grade in your village middle school. When many of your girlfriends are out dancing, you light up the family's one kerosene lamp and study biology or French.

One day a random white girl shows up in your village! Nothing quite this exciting has happened in Tountouroun since before you can remember. Everything this porto does is exotic and funny and strange. She wears pants and lives by herself (she says she's 24 and she's not married yet!) and frequently travels in a shiny white Land Rover. She (allegedly) even wipes her butt with paper!

Slowly but surely, you introduce yourself and get to know her. She is really nice, and even though she does stuff that most women NEVER do, like eat with the men and smoke cigarettes, you grow to like her and look up to her quite a bit.

One day the porto girl invites you to go all the way to Mamou, five hours by bush taxi, to participate in something she calls a "Conference des Jeunes Filles." This seems like something you might dismiss as a "strange porto thing," but she seems serious. She even talks to the village authorities and worse, your dad, who tells you that you have to go. Yikes.

Turns out this "conference" is crazier than you thought. You show up in Mamou—your first visit to the "big city"—and are taken to a forestry school where they have electricity, cold cokes, and these metal tubes sticking out of the wall in the bathroom. All you have to do is turn a knob and water comes out! Insane. There's a lot of other girls here from all over Guinea—places like Boke, and Kankan, and Siguiri. You only know Pular and some French, but a lot of these girls speak languages you've only heard of, like Susu, and Kissi, and Malinke. One girl apparently spent 7 years in Liberia and even speaks English! Every girl has a porto with them as well, although none of them are quite as cool as yours. You've never seen so many white people in one place at one time. Heck, you've never seen this many white people in your whole life.

The next few days they talk to you about all sorts of things, like education (they all keep saying it's really important, so you're glad you're trying really hard!), and HIV/AIDS (you definitely don't want that!), and how to say no to boys (silly garcons). The third day a bunch of what the portos call "professional women" come and tell you all their stories about how they grew up and became educated and found jobs and stuff. They all speak really good French, which was kind of intimidating, but then when you got to talk to them after, they were really nice! You want to be just like one—her name's Odette—and work for the Peace Corps when you grow up.

By the end of the conference you've made 23 new best friends and got all the numbers of the cute porto guys. You are determined to finish middle school, to go to high school, maybe even try to go to the University in Conakry like Odette did! You are ready to tell your parents you don't want to get married until you're done with school, and you even want to start a Girl's Club in Tountouroun to encourage other girls to take their studies seriously. You cry when the Peace Corps car comes to take you back to your village but you're excited to go back and tell everybody what happened! You are going to talk about the Conference des Jeunes Filles for years!

This, my friends, should hopefully give you an idea of what happened here in Mamou this past week. To sum it up in a few words: Lots of portos, lots of deer-in-the-headlights Guinean girls, lots of silly skits (I played a Guinean woman twice), lots of estrogen. Good times!*

Thank you for reading, and please, keep the plight of Guinean women in your thoughts and prayers.

Much love,

* Yes, I've changed, Karina Arrue. I think estrogen is cool now. Sorta.