I stood on the corner watching the women carry their baskets up the hill. I had long admired the straight back mena dn women who could carry things on their heads, leaving both of their hands free. The first month of the volunteer position in Cameroon was over and we were moving to a new village today.
Sitting in my chair in Catford, I had been waiting for something to happen. Working with homeless young people and responding to complaints about loud music and disruptive arguing was not what life was supposed to be about. A young man had moved in with the speaker boxes from his sound system. The boxes were as big as the wardrobes we provided and his room went from being 24 by 20, with lots of floor space to 6×4 available floor space. The complaints came in thick and fast and those meetings where I at twenty-one, had to tell him at seventeen, not to play the boxes in the house or in the street, became more and more hilarious. Then he dared to ask if I would go out with him. After all, he fancied me and age was nothing but a number. I understood why they had thought I was too young to be recruited for such a ‘responsible role’.
Three months of voluntary work in West Africa sounded great. I had to be fit and healthy as the role involved lots of walking. Whatever my state of health was, it sure was not going to improve sitting around in the office. I asked the management committee for three months of unpaid leave, making sure that the rent and bills were paid up before I left. The voluntary sector of the 1980s was so cool and off to Cameroun I went.
The group of women stopped at the top of the hill. They were sweating and took the baskets and bags from off the top of their heads.
‘Are you waiting for your parents?’ they asked me
‘No. Just waiting for friends.’ I answered
‘Which part of Cameroun are you from?’ they enquired
‘I am not from Cameroun’, I responded
‘So which part of Africa are you from?’. Their look of concern was funny and endearing at the same time.
‘I am not from Africa…. well not born here’. I could feel myself stumbling. They looked at each other. Puzzled.
As I had walked through Goldsmiths college that day wearing my new Kaba and slit from Ghana, a white man had asked me the same question. In the time I had thought about how to answer him, he had stabbed me with Well I am from Zimbabwe so I am more African than you. I had crashed to the floor but risen as quickly. The wound had taken some time to heal though.
‘So where are you from?’ they asked. More concerned and a little impatient now.
‘I am from…I am from Jamaica’, I blurted out. I made a decision to say Jamaica today.
‘Jamaica?’ they asked repeating the name quietly. It was not familiar to them.
‘Where is that?’, they asked and I wondered if it was my accent. They were saying various versions of Jamaica.
You are African! They confirmed. ‘Where is Ja…may…kah? In their world, life was simple and all black people were from Africa. The oldest known body confirms this.
‘The Caribbean!’ was the answer I gave and this was met with more puzzled looks. I so wished the car would turn up
‘Where is this place?’ They asked one after the other.
‘Do you know Bob Marley?’ I asked as a last resort. I assumed that if people didn’t know Jamaica, they would certainly know Bob Marley.
They all laughed. ‘ Yes. He brings us reggae music. We like to dance to this.’ they all smiled. I liked the term ‘he brings us’. They still needed their question answered.
‘So how did you get there…to this Ja,,,may..kah place ?
I looked at their concerned faces for this young African girl who they thought should be home with her husband or family. I wanted to say something that I hoped they would know.
‘Slavery’, I said quietly. It was a word that could never be empowering. I didn’t even know if it was true. The staistics showed that most African people arrived in the Caribbean through the Atlantic slave trade. Not all though.
‘Slavry! What is that?’, they asked. This was so much harder that I had thought it would be!
‘White people took African people to work for free in other countries’ was the simplest way I could explain this antisocial and greatly economic system. It was complex and left scars on the taken and the takers.
‘Why did they do that?,’ was the obvious follow up question. Why does one group use Christianity to justify 4-500 years of enslavement of another group of people and then systematically reduce the majority of the world’s views of that group to a list of negative nouns that many spend their life trying to redress? I looked at the faces of these women who were busy trying to get this young girl to her home.
‘Are you all married?’, I asked. I needed to change the subject. I realised how much I had taken for granted in my previous conversations. The reality was that these were not simple concepts or ideas.
‘Yes we are all married. I am the second wife, she is a third wife and she is a second wife too’, said the tallest of the three women. She pointed to the other two women as she spoke.
‘What is that like?’ I had to ask. I knew men who had girlfriends in the UK and in Jamaica. Those relationships were fluid though and although the women sometimes knew they had signed up for relationships where they would be sharing their partner, others did not. A past relationship came to mind when a man I was dating, had no time to respond to messages from exceptional me and after week three, when I called him out, he told me ‘I was quick’. He had expected me to hang around and just be there for when he was ready to show up.
‘It’s not good. The men have favourites’. They looked at each other and continued. It was safe as I was a stranger from a place Bob Marley had come from. I had read about polygyny. It is where a man can take more than one wife. I had also read about polyandry and liked that more. After all, the idea of having more than one husband was somewhat appealing and I had already figured out at 21 that everything could not come from one person.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. I shared the little knowledge that I had.’ Do you all get a home, food, clothes and school fees for the children?’
‘Yes, yes! That is easy for he has money!’. They sighed
‘What is missing then?’ the curious and naive twenty-five-year-old me asked.
‘Many of these men do not spend time with you when you are no longer the new wife. We feel it as our bodies change and we become older. Each new wife is younger and younger’.
The main speaker signed and looked out to the hills ahead. I had not thought that this system of legal sharing would also bring preferential treatment and imparity.
‘Hey!’ one of the women exclaimed as the other spoke these words. She had been very quiet up to then. She threw her hands and head up to the sky and hugged her stomach, bending over. I watched in silence. This looked like too much pain for her alone to be carrying.
‘She is pregnant again’, one of the women said. ‘It is the second time her husband has slept with her this year and we are in March already. A woman has needs beyond clothes, a house, school fees and dresses’.
I nodded my head. I didn’t know what to say
‘You western women. You always ask us about the same things. Do you think we do not have feelings and suffer from loneliness?’
I had not thought. I had just wanted to make conversation. To change the subject. The car pulled up. I turned to the women who had already positioned the baskets back on their heads. We had not exchanged names. They continued on their journey. Angela Davis had spoken of her experience in Sudan. The women had said to her that outlawing FGM would not make them free. It was a western agenda.
The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored. Please don’t take it personally.