New Internationalist

Life without Men

Issue 089

Debbie Taylor reports from the village of Odi, Botswana, where half the men have left for the mines of South Africa. Photos by Christopher Sheppard.

In Gaborone, the men in the government are sighing with relief as they watch the rain soaking into their perfect green lawns. It marks the end of a drought in Botswana: the cattle’s grazing will be saved now. And cattle mean wealth and security. By selling just one good ox a man can feed his family for a year.

But for the 48 per cent of Botswana families who don’t own any cattle the effects of last year’s drought will linger on until the next harvest in June.

Six months seems a long time to someone like Naledi. She is one of the 33 per cent of women in Botswana with no men and no cattle to help support her family. Her husband died, leaving her to provide for four children and their grandparents. If the rain falls at the wrong time, she will face another year of crippling poverty. Neither of her two sons is old enough to plough her land, even if she had the cattle, and strong traditions prevent her from ploughing herself, or from performing any of the agricultural tasks for which a relatively decent wage can be earned.

She is forced to wait until she can persuade a neighbour or relative to plough for her. But they are busy on their own land, and by the time they get around to helping her, the best of the rains may be over. She manages by getting what she can from ‘majako’ (an informal arrangement where agricultural work is done for payment in kind), beer brewing and by raising a few chickens.

Her small figure is a familiar sight. She is never still; collecting water from the nearby standpipe; sweeping her immaculate, beautifully decorated compound; repairing the walls of one of her three round mud huts (rondavels); returning from a six-mile walk into the bush for firewood. Or disappearing for a week with her family to work on a neighbour’s land. For a day’s bird-scaring or weeding she and her older children can earn 72 thebe (65 cents) between them. It’s not much, but it buys a small bag of mealimeal - just enough to keep body and soul in some tenuous contact with each other for another few days.

She is not the only one in this plight. In a skimpy mini-skirt and bare feet, Malebogo passes the village bottle store on her way home. She looks up in response to shouts and jeers from the group of young men lounging outside. But she shakes her head when they call over.

At home her mother waits, sitting hunched and miserable, in the doorway of the tin-roofed house. She mutters, looks around vaguely for a sign of Samuel, Malebogo’s brother and then lapses back into a world of her own. Samuel is away working in the goldmines of South Africa, and he hasn’t come home for Christmas this year.

Malebogo is angry. If he doesn’t come back soon it will be too late to plough … If only one of those men would marry her instead of infecting her with their filthy diseases … and now after twelve years of VD, she’s barren and won’t ever find a husband.

With nearly 50 per cent of men between the ages of 20 and 29 away in South Africa’s mines, a man in Botswana can afford to pick and choose. He likes to know that his woman can bear children before he commits himself. But, for a woman, an illegitimate child is no guarantee of a husband.

It is tempting to dismiss Botswana men as a crowd of lazy, drunken, chauvenist, goodfornothings. But such men are as powerless as the women in a situation perpetuated by the migrant labour system and the Botswana government’s callous disregard for the rural poor.

This acute shortage of men hits Botswana’s rural womenfolk doubly hard. Firstly, they are left without labour during crucial times of the year. Secondly, their self-esteem is immeasurably damaged by having to compete with one another for the fleeting favours of a man who may decide to leave at any moment.

This migrant labour system functions to cushion a large proportion of the rural population from utter destitution. Remittances from those working in South Africa account for between 40 and 50 per cent of family income. It is often said that ‘no-one dies of starvation in Botswana.’ But this is an excuse for brushing over the fact that perhaps only 15 per cent of rural families are able to feed themselves from their own land. Recruitment of Botswana for work in the mines is now dropping sharply.

For men, wages from mine work are often the only chance of escaping from the drudgery of rural life: or of acquiring enough capital to buy cattle. Cattle are sacred in Botswana - the key to power and prosperity. And the key is denied to women.

A fence runs along the 25 mile stretch of road between Odi village and Gaborone. On one side of the fence the grass is green and thick. On the other side goats graze on thorn bushes and pull listlessly at a few bits of grass straggling across the sand.

Behind the fence lies one of the Presdient’s farms. No-one knows how many cattle President Sir Seretse Khama owns but the family empire is vast. The Vice-Presdient, Dr Masire, is even richer. In fact 80 per cent of the cattle in Botswana is owned by ten per cent of the people: and the richest of these are Members of Parliament. Small wonder that government policy concentrates on meat canning, the farcical Tribal Grazing Lands Policy - proposed by civil servants as a means of dealing with the problems of overgrazing but so emasculated by parliament that only rich cattle owners can benefit from it now - and prestige projects such as the new international airport.

Such inequalities seem impossible to combat: so perhaps Malebogo’s brother Samuel can be forgiven for staying away. Having experienced the intoxication that comes from a pocket-full of Rand at the end of the month, it is difficult for a man to summon enthusiasm for back-breaking work on a land which yields such meagre rewards. To make things worse, he may be weakened by TB from mining conditions, and he will certainly bring VD back to his village.

Three days after the rains begin, life returns to normal in the village. A medley of women’s voices, pierced by the wailing of children, comes from the crowd jostling around the clinic. The clinic and primary school stand out: smart and square and white, in the midst of the scattered round clay huts. A harassed nurse tries to keep order as she weighs the children and supervises the feeding of the thinnest ones.

This is where the drought and the privileges of the big cattle ranchers take its biggest toll. On the vulnerable brains and bodies of small children.

Festina stands in the queue, half ashamed, half defiant. She has proved her fertility twice - to two different men. But they are under no obligation to marry her or support her children. But Festina is philosophical: ‘This my child is like a purse of gold. Am I to say "to whom does this gold belong?". No, she is my purse of gold.’

But the babe is pitifully thin and has to be coaxed to eat the slimy greenish ‘maluti’ from the clinic cooking pot. ‘Maluti’ is the local name for the cornsoya meal provided by the FAO for malnourished children.

Festina’s mother has resigned herself to her growing brood of illegitimate grandchildren. ‘There are just not enough men to marry my daughters’ she sighs. ‘Am I to scold them for having children when no-one ever gets married these days?’ It’s true. All seven hundred villagers are Christians, but there hasn’t been a wedding for two years.

Rural destitution is kept at bay, not only by remittances from outside Botswana, but also by the extended family structure. There is an intricate system of traditional responsibilities both within the family and between those linked by marriage. With so few marriages, this whole framework may soon break down altogether, as it has in the squatter camps outside the cities of Gaborone and Francistown.

Festina’s young baby is called ‘Mosetsanagape’ - literally ‘another girl’ - a cruel illustration of how vital men are to women in rural areas. From the moment they are born little ‘basimane’ (boys) have an easier time than ‘basetsana’. They are fed the choicest food and have little to do except play football until they are eight years old, while their sisters are already performing all the chores of womanhood. Then they are sent out to herd cattle and goats to and from the watering holes. In this job, the boys have milk and meat from the animals to supplement their diet of sorghum porridge. At home in the village, little girls fare much worse. In the queues outside the malnutrition clinics twice as many girls as boys are found to be pathetically thin.

Their early work with cattle far from home means that many boys miss out on their education. Up until the ages of 14 and 15 there are more girls than boys at school. A few are lucky enough to get a government job in Gaborone. But for others, less fortunate, there is no alternative but to continue to bend over the iron hard land. Hoping for a son. Waiting for rain. Praying for a man.

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Half a Chance

Purine Motsa has been caught between the traditional role of women and the demands of a developing economy. Unable to follow the old pattern, she has not been allowed to participate fully in the new one - which is unfortunate for her country as well as for herself. Gay Seidman reports from Lobamba, Swaziland.

When she was younger, Purine Motsa wanted to be a teacher. Coming from a poor Swazi family, she might have found it difficult to get a place in a teacher training college or to pay school fees, but Purine, 20 is an intelligent enterprising woman. She might well have managed - if she had not fallen pregnant before she finished Form III.

Her status as an unmarried mother is not unusual. More than half of first children here are born out of wedlock. Three out of four women say they know nothing about family planning methods, and traditional sanctions against premarital pregnancy have broken down.

Once, Purine could have counted on marriage following the birth of her child, but things have changed. Like many of the young men from her area, Purine’s boyfriend went off to become a construction worker in town.

Sitting in the small mud but she shares with her daughter, Purine speaks haltingly of the period following Nonhlanhla’s birth. Forced to leave school because of her pregnancy, Purine looked for a job to support herself. She could not rely on her family: her father died in 1964, and nine children lived on the $25 a month that their mother could earn as a cook. But it was not easy to find work. Unemployment is high in Swaziland, and companies generally prefer to hire men.

After several months of desperate searching, Purine had some luck. A former teacher, realising her talents were being wasted, fought to get her a place in an agricultural school near her home. Although women do nearly all the agricultural work in Swaziland, the school - like most agricultural courses here - was designed only for men.

Eventually, they agreed to accept Purine as a test case. To pay her fees, she cooks meals for the boarding students, and her mother or a younger sister watches Nonhlanhla while Purine is at school. Laughing, she says that at first the other students expected her to be weaker than they. Now they know better. She has done well, taking several prizes last year, and four other women have now been admitted to the course.

But Purine’s problems are not over.

As an unmarried woman without a son to put in front of her,’ she cannot receive land under the traditional land tenure system.

So Purine will probably work at the school after she graduates, looking after poultry and doing other odd jobs - instead of the farming which she is eager and trained to do.

The school hopes to persuade the government to help her, but she is pessimistic. ‘It is unfair’ , she says softly, ‘it is unfair’ .

Purine Motsa: Women are not weak, they are clever, it is only that men don’t want to admit that women are stronger than they are.’

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