Monday, 8 March 2010

Raising Wapishana Women’s Voices for International Women’s Day

“An’ I am a woman yes,
It’s the whole day a workin’,
Takin’ care of ma family man, aha, mmhmm,
Can’t get time to scratch ma head man,
If you see how I sweatin’,
Start ma work since the day began Ooii!”

One by one they step forward, as Nurse Leslyn and I sing their verse. Alzira utterly natural with her warishi slung heavy on her forehead, machete in each hand, serene and toothlessly smiling. Dorothy getting a huge laugh for “Don’t you tell me ah robbin’!” with her sinister sunglasses and wads of trader’s cash. Mary in nurse’s costume, enthusiastically miming blood-letting. Miss Joan as the mother, with real borrowed baby as prop. Alison in apron and ‘sanitary hat’ (chef’s) throwing her hands up to shield herself against “da fire I facin’.” We finish with the verse above, as all the women step forward and demonstrate their alleged faint-heartedness and exhaustion with aplomb, verve and gleaming grins.

This is the 99th year of International Women’s Day. It’s my first. I’m not sure I even knew it existed. In Vietnam, Bulgaria, China and Russia it’s a national holiday. I suppose I never feel the need for feminine solidarity in Britain.

Here I do. I know women work hard everywhere. But ZOWEE they work hard here. And by ‘woman’ I mean every female over eleven years old who is spending more than a third of her waking hours on housework. Little girls who are failing in school may well be bringing up two babies at home. The tasks are endless and most of them are back-breaking. Bringing up bewildering numbers of children, farming, grating cassava for farine (the local staple, rather like a hard and pungent couscous), hauling water, heaving great buckets of clothes to the creek to wash and then bringing them back a hundred times heavier wet. Building a fire in this equatorial heat for cooking. Walking to the sewing centre to make clothes. These are the tasks most of the women do before they start thinking about earning a little money. “I know I should have got up at 1a.m. to start making pepperpot”, a lady said to me yesterday, “But my back and feet were so painful from farming the day before that I lay in till 4a.m!” She laughed self-deprecatingly. Sluggardly.
We had decided for International Women’s Day that we would all come out to practice for the five evenings before it. Wednesday there were four of us. Thursday only the two foreigners turned up. Friday Kristin was tearing her hair out trying to teach her wonderful and carefully choreographed African dance to absent participants. At this point we dropped half the programme. Saturday was better, with about seven people out. Sunday I went around bullying personal friends into joining in. There was no risk of us suffering from over-rehearsal. Monday afternoon when people were still having their first go at a programme item, I realised it was going to be an utter flop. Monday evening, when we were due to start, the speakers weren’t working, the amp had a problem, and there was no audience.

I was absolutely wrong to despair. The technical hitches were a fortuitous time-warp allowing an audience to gather. An hour after we were due to start, new speakers appeared in the back of a pick-up. Witch-doctor techies did their divinations. And off we went. Maya Angelou poems declaimed by our feistiest feminist, Nurse Bertha. Dances, songs, a reading about domestic violence which was patently close to the bone. Our wonderful “Aishalton Women” song captured something very interesting about the spirit in which the women here accomplish the heroism of daily survival. Suddenly I recognised my presumptuous stupidity in complaining about people not coming out to practices. Where would they possibly find the time? International Women’s Day is a moment to recognise the invisible women. Not our mothers, not our divas, not our success story women, but the women who quite literally bring to birth the whole world.

As we finished with “I Will Survive” as Gloria Gaynor certainly never pictured it, under the equatorial stars with Amerindian backing dancers, we were serenading all those women who are not the protagonists, not the Iceni, and certainly not the glamorous bare-breasted Amazonian giants of childhood fables. In Communist China, women’s sudden gender jump was sloganised as “Women hold up half the sky”. Here, many women also hold up more than half the roof with their earnings. They accept the loss of their migrating children as matter-of-factly as they welcome their sixth pregnancy. They just get on with it- an expression that somehow masks the shocking volume of the ‘it’, but also under-rates their equanimity, their stamina, their wondrous capacity for mirth.