I love Mark Hudson the Journalist, but I love more his semi-fiction novel ‘Our Grandmother’s drum’ which bridged the gap between travel and fiction writing. It is the story of the lives of women of the Mandinka tribe, Keneba, West Kiang, Gambia. The Fiction name Dulaba was given to it by the award winning author. Bored with his London realities, the young Tubab Marky (as he is called by the women) is drawn to the mystery of the Gambian women and hence set out to honour his curiosity. There he worked as an amazing anthropologist, escaping the researcher’s bias by living and toiling the earth with these women through the seasons of hunger, of rain, of sunshine and abundance. He was not just a visiting tubab (white man), he was a part of them, a member of their Saniyoro kafo (women’s club). Even though his feelings of difference as a result of his skin colour remained ever present, he stayed through the year.
The ethics of his data gathering has remained in question as it may have been unconsented that he would publish a novel about them. It implies that he stole the secret of the women of Dulaba, creating yet another impression of the European unethically taking from Africa’s natural resources including her poverty and ignorance. Having noted this, Hudson has done a fantastic job situating the women of Dulaba and their lives in the map of humanity. He gave a poignant story vividly describing the people, the culture and the landscape in joy and sadness, he indeed created a portrait of rural African life. As is expected of our rich Africa, various subject matters were covered ranging from female genital mutilation, religion and agriculture amongst others. One relevant for this column is the representation of women’s role in African agriculture.
Have you ever heard these comments about women feeding the world? Have you read that in sub-saharan african, women contribute 60-80% of labour in food production for household consumption and for sale? These are few examples of dominant narratives of women in African agriculture. Every time I see this, I have often wondered if I would still find so many women toiling the field as described and I wondered what men did. I grew up going to the farm with my parents (even though I detested it then); I remember there were men and likewise women tilling the earth in neighbouring farms. Farm work evolved around family relationships and so even men, women and children like us played a role. I also remember that my mother and many of her friends in the rural village were in addition traders who I saw in the traditional Afor market. Hence I am startled at the power some of these claim and the figures that they carry have for conviction. Many times I wondered about the lives and stories behind the statistics quoted. Each one of them noticeably displaced our men in the field and put them anywhere else.
All of these claims have in the past decades unequivocally influenced the structure and design of development investments in the African agricultural sector. They make a gender case for the challenges of African agriculture and support policy debates in funding and promotion of activities for women in African agriculture.
Like Hudson, in 2012, I carried out an academic research travelling through maps of different claims. I pitched my tent on one of them, following their trajectories right on my desk to confirm the origin and character of evidence supporting it. Four decades after, the origin remained traceable to the identity constructions of women in agriculture by Esther Boserup. Her 1970’s much renowned work ‘Women’s Role in Economic Development’ created an identity for rural women, it put them out there but it also generalized their realities.
There certainly has been substantial changes in African Agriculture, considering the amount of investment that has gone into it from aid agencies over the years. If not for its political expediency, why are these changes not reflecting in the claims? This old data remains shaky and overstates the facts, its continued recycling speaks even more. But Hudson’s work gives me another perspective.
The narratives in Our Grandmother’s Drum gives qualitative evidence validating the claims of the hard working women and the lazy men theory, it is the story behind the claims I have been looking for. Yes, in Dulaba, women probably contribute more than 70% considering the realities that are presented by Hudson. With glimpes of brightly coloured clothes flashing in sunlight we see the great mass of women milling over the land in Dulaba. The women of Dulaba spent their life time in a circle of childbearing, domestic labour and manual agriculture summing up in the rhythms created by mortar and pestle as they pound and cook. With their songs and dance, voices of different generations of women rise together, they create scenes of domestic intimacy that excludes the men. From the planting to the weeding time bindeyo when women battle with the earth to preserve their crops, all these put together, amounts to little more than slavery according to Hudson. But where are the men in Dulaba?
Mention is made of young men working in rotations two decades before, planting large fields of groundnuts and millet. Now, Hudson record that ‘while the men liked to sleep through the day, the women had continued their task’ as described. He validates that indeed women may actually be feeding the Gambian world.
As I think of the contrast between Dulaba and the landscape I grew up in, I realise that the world of Africa may be similar in many ways but also peculiarly different. Dulaba in Gambia may never be the same with my landscape, but the importance of agriculture in Africa’s development cannot be doubted. So now I ask if we may actually continue to focus on the investment on women or do we find a way of galvanising the men and the women through development project without fracturing family and other social relationships? Can the strengthening of our agricultural sector also strengthen the gender and family relationships in agriculture just like in the time I grew up?
Thank you Mark Hudson for the perspectives you bring, but I thank more, Christine Okali for blessing me with this book, she is a dear teacher who has always challenged many of my assumptions.
-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye