Thursday, January 29, 2009

Generation X-Y

In response to my last post I had a friend ask me “What do the men do? I've hardly ever read about the work the men do.”

It’s a good point. Being immersed in this culture I’ve been struck by “old fashioned thinking” and at times outraged by downright sexist behaviour. Development projects are always looking for gender disaggregated data, and focusing on gender issues, and gender equity. Obviously this means a lot of focus on women and their traditional roles in society. It’s easy to become so taken by the plight of women; one that is so visible in my work, home and social life here.

Well obviously it goes both ways. As much as women are discouraged from taking on more productive roles (building things, growing staple crops, earning an income, etc.), men are also discouraged from taking on more reproductive roles (cleaning, cooking, fetching water, fetching firewood, rearing children, etc.). I’ve heard men talk about how they stay in the house to cook instead of cooking out in the compound because he and his wife would be ridiculed if he was seen cooking for them both. I’ve heard of other men threatening to beat men who are seen to let their wife have too much power in the relationship, because she may start causing trouble by encouraging other women to rise up and disrespect their husbands.

Despite the social pressures against change and gender equity, I am inspired by men and women who are pushing against the norm. The last post was about a young woman. In this post I want to tell you about a 68-year-old man. Mr. John Nachomwa isn’t campaigning against gender inequity, or protesting against women’s injustices – or at least that’s not what I saw when I visited him in Gbaln. Yet what I recognized came closer to mainstreaming gender (a term that features prominently in development conversation) than a good number of manuals, guidelines, reports and strategies from various authors that I’ve seen floating across the desks of regional and district government.

John used to be an Agricultural Extension Agent, which means that he was employed by the government to visit farmers and support them in best practices for farming. John learned a lot during that time about different farming techniques, and he also learned a lot about people. In a village setting where school is often seen as the pathway to professional jobs in other towns and cities, he recognized how critical it was that farmers have an education. He saw that it enabled them to better calculate risk, and to make educated decisions. Those who weren’t used to critically assessing options were much more risk averse and less willing to change their practices. He himself was the first of his family to be educated so he is fulfilling a duty he feels to give back to the village and people that gave to his future.

John and his family

Because of John’s education and past career in the public service, he is now the community liaison with local government. When he first came to the community to begin building his home and his farm, none of the children were in school. The only school at that time was about 8km away – a difficult walk, especially during the rainy season (now there is a school 3km away, which is still a fair distance for a 6 year old). So he found support to build a church that also serves as a primary school. Not a formal primary school, but an informal school supported through the School For Life programme which teaches the local language, and prepares them to learn in a formal school environment once they are old enough to walk to the formal school. To supply this informal school with the necessary items like chalk, books and soap. Going to the district capital and back to petition for programmes and services on a bicycle can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on your stamina. Waiting for the coordinators to see you and provide you with what you are seeking can take another 2-4 hours depending on your patience. John said in the last couple of years he had to give up making the ride to town and pass it off to his son. At 68 he’s getting just a bit tired.

Home-school blackboards are created by rubbing spent lead batteries on the wall.

Besides promoting and supporting basic education in his community, John also works with the farmers by trying new things and demonstrating their viability. John showed me his farm and we saw cashews, palm nuts, plantains, pineapples, teak trees, and beans in addition to his staple cassava, maize, and yams. What I was really excited to see, however, was his dry season farming. We walked through the fields of dry grass and gradually began to see more green as we descended toward the river. This is where we found John’s tomato farm on the dried river bed that he cultivated after the rainy season banks receded into the dry season. This means that John can grow crops to sustain his family and even earn a little income all year round. Yet despite his successes, not many farmers are following his example. Instead they chide him for wasting his time; working so hard when he is so old. To that he answers that he is not working for himself, but for his grandchildren.

John's small cashew plantation

“I see so many men sitting under a tree playing owari during the dry season,” John lamented. It’s not that male farmers don’t work hard – digging yam mounds and farming cassava is back-breaking work, but when the season is over, much of their work ends too.

John's tomato crop

Why do I say that the work John is doing can be recognized as gender mainstreaming? Let’s look at productive and reproductive roles a little more. Productive roles tend to look a little more like projects with beginnings and ends. They are often seasonal. Reproductive roles are so named because they must be done all year round indefinitely. Both are critical to a balanced society. To me, gender mainstreaming doesn’t get captured in gender disaggregated data or in talking to women and finding out their needs (while they are both important). To me mainstreaming gender means men are enabled to take on more reproductive roles and women are enabled to take on more productive roles. Vegetable growing is typically the responsibility of women, and when John started growing tomatoes in the dry season he was adopting a reproductive role. Naturally, in addition to approaching the men he approached the women to encourage them engage in similar farming practices. “Somehow the women prefer to make charcoal as they have always done,” he told me. But making charcoal is a much more labour intensive activity that everyone else is doing so the price for it isn’t high, and it doesn’t add to the nutritional content of meals like vegetables do.

Why do his ideas and efforts not spread? It’s my theory that gender issues are at the core of every culture, and as such gender disparity is at the core of every inequity that encumbers development. Because gender issues are at the core of it all, it means that we can never really directly influence them. I think the best we can do is to indirectly influence them by creating an enabling environment for change. For results-driven donors this is unacceptable, but for sustainability I think this approach is essential.

So when I see a 68 year old man adopting new behaviours and demonstrating to those around him a more equitable lifestyle, I see a start. I see opportunity. I see change.

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