15 November 2012

Women in Ethiopia - beasts of burden.

Traveling in Ethiopia, one thing is clear, men here are at once proud of their women's beauty, but often treat them as creatures less than human. This is a strong statement and of course does not reflect every man I have met. Certainly working in the professional circles with my research, the men I have met make me forget we have a gender difference. But, after my recent trip to the rural areas seeing women working so hard without help from their men, I feel a need to comment.

In Addis, women may be more educated, dress sharply, but something in their manner suggests an unequal status in society. Maybe it is how much time they spend on appearance - how dainty and impractical their shoes are, how much make-up, how they stroll rather than walk with purpose. I have met only a few women who deviate from this description and they are older, and in solid careers that garner them respect. And the issue of prostitutes is particularly disturbing in a country with high HIV/AIDS rates. Someone told me recently that there are different rates the girls charge with or without condoms. I don't go to the nightclubs, because I hear the scene is a meat market. Foreign women complain about unwanted solicitation from men. I see it happening to the Ethiopian women as well. In general, worldwide, women have to endure a lifetime of men treating us like forms of entertainment, servants, or worse.

In the countryside, women are beasts of burden. They haul. Wood, water, crops, children. They cook in smoke filled huts, enough to make my eyes water. They chop wood, sweep the yard, chase the livestock, grind the grain. Many times with a baby on the back. Then they suffer the amorous intent of their husbands at night. Their breasts are mutilated from breastfeeding 8 or more children.

Genital mutilation or female circumcision is still quite common. It makes the woman more manageable, I am told. This practice is common enough that any man I ask my own age has been with at least one women like this. They laugh about how she cannot feel anything. So sex is definitely not about pleasing the woman. It is also a topic that is socially taboo. But, HIV/AIDS is rampant, and so are big families and polygamy.

The international community believes that educating women will change this sort of situation. I don't know that I disagree, but I also see women's situation as rooted deep in culture. This male attitude is taught in the home, like racism or any sort of irrational disrespect. Even with education it is hard to change men's attitude. Some of my well-educated colleagues in the West can act like knuckle-draggers, and they will admit it bashfully. Admittedly, they try to be more sensitive to feminist rights as human rights. I think a combination of respect and compassion need to be in the mix. And appreciation. And self-respect. And assertiveness. Women bring men into this world in a mess of blood and pain, but the cycle doesn't have to perpetuate to the point of harmful, backbreaking or humiliating lifestyles.

Africa: A Living Laboratory

Living in Ethiopia these past months has opened my eyes to some new things, and reminded my heart of known realities. The West uses the Rest for its own interest - and usually at a cost.

I was with some Peace Corps Volunteers in a coastal town of Albania in 2004 and wanted to buy some snacks for a day on the beach. We went  into a shop and foud that the only things available to purchase were expired cast-off processed food from Europe. The woman said the food had just arrived and she was able to buy it at a discount. Working in Macedonia in 2003 I come across bottles of pesticides long since banned in the West, but probably stockpiled in some warehouse, too expensive to dispose of, but being sold at a reasonable price to local farmers. 

When I used to write about environmental news, I came across stories about toxic waste being dumped secretly in Nigeria by Italy. Hazardous waste washing up on the shores of the Ivory Coast because of a tanker from the Netherlands purposely dumping offshore to save money and skirt regulations.

Candace Feit for The New York Times

I remember as a kid not being able to visit the beaches in Connecticut because someone had dumped medical waste in Long Island Sound and rats and needles were washing up all along the coastline. In the Bahamas, I walked for an hour along a beach covered in plastics and garbage washed up from cruiseliners dumping or losing garbage from around the world. It was interesting to catalog all the countries accounted for by the markings or language on the plastics. 

In Africa, I am confronted with another sort of using - the living laboratory. There are agronomists and pharmaceutical companies testing out theories in places where people trust. Are these scientists, researchers, corporations practicing ethical standards? How can we know for sure? Here is a NYT article about a new malaria vaccine that my friend sent on - some of the language about who was selected to participate in the experiment (children) and the vagueness of how the countries were convinced to take part make me wonder.  What exactly is going on?

01 November 2012

Lalibella Pt 3. Mule ride and more churches

We woke up early morning, ate breakfast, and waited for our mules. We would take them up the nearby mountains to see church sites at the very top. The trek up would be 2 hours on the mules,  2 hours on foot back down, maybe more. Afework would do the whole thing on foot, to test himself, but more likely to save the $10 mule rental. The sun was just coming up, a whole mess of kites were perched along a wooden fence, and local kids wanted to speak in English with us. The mules arrived, we mounted (a bit awkwardly, I broke the stirrup during my first attempt) and went off through the town. It was market day and there was a steady stream of people hiking down the mountain with things to sell. We passed by dozens of rural folk who must have started out before sunrise.

We scrambled along cliffsides on foot to reach the churches. We were shown old relics - icons and books. The church is carved into the stone of the mountaintop. It is apparently one of the first that was constructed in the area. When it was finished, there was a beam of light, like a rainbow, that arched out of the church to the mountaintops below - and this is where Lalibella decided to build the rock-hewn churches of my previous post. After checking out the church, we climbed on top of it and Afework and one of the mule drivers danced the traditional Eksta dancing - shoulder dancing - to our clapping and laughter. The views from the roof were breathtaking - like being on top of the world.

We returned to the churches, finished our tour. It is hard to describe being at the churches, touching the stone, barefoot on the worn stone floors, worn out from centuries of feet. I try to wrap my mind around how these buildings were made, and I cannot. But I appreciate their beauty and mystery.