New Internationalist

Until Death Us Do Part

September 1984

Women everywhere work harder than men. But in Africa they work hardest of all - bearing the burden of family survival without sharing the benefits of economic power. The result: poverty itself is locked together with sexual inequality. And Africa will stay poor until its women are free. Debbie Taylor pleads their case.

AFRICA, my Africa. If I had breath enough I would curse: once for the day that you bore me; twice for making me a woman. I would spit at the sun for shining on me, merciless, blazing, every day of my life; withering my spirit and turning my skin rough and dark, black as the bark of the acacia tree.

Africa, Africa, what have they done to you? If I had strength enough I would carry my children far away across land and sea to their concrete capitals and I would stand before their ranks of white-faced men and make them see how dull are the eyes of my children, how slowly they blink and turn their heads, how thin are their arms. And I would show them the palms of my hands, the soles of my feet, the skin of my knees – scarred by stones and splinters and thorns – and my breasts and belly – stretched by 15 years of motherhood. And I would tell those men a story that would make them understand at last why my Africa is dying.

Africa is dying because of me, I would tell them. I have been carrying this continent for centuries. But I can’t hear the weight any longer. And as I sink to my knees so Africa sinks down too.

Look at me working, I would say: knee-deep in the south Senegal paddy fields where I alone grow all of our rice crop: or bent low over the dusty land in Tanzania where I keep on tending our maize, sorghum and millet half as long again after the men have gone home; or on the jungle’s edge in Zaire1 where four-fifths of our food is grown by my hands.

Yes, I know I’m not alone. Women everywhere are working: doing two-thirds of the world’s work, earning one-tenth of its income, owning one-hundredth of its property. I know the facts. But I know I work hardest of all.

Yes, it’s hard for my sisters in India; in Indonesia and Indo-China; in Barbados, Bolivia and Brazil; arms, back and thighs tightening and straining, doing half of all work in the fields. They are bowed and bent by their workload. But mine has brought me to my knees. They do half of all field work. But I do half as much again; and half of all work with our animals; and all of the threshing and winnowing. Then home to sweep courtyards, wash clothing, fetch water, cook supper. Yes, it is hard for them. And I’m sorry. But it’s hardest of all for me.

Some days, I would tell them – those men with their suits and statistics – my sons and my daughters go hungry while our granary is half-filled with food. When the rains come at last, sweeping their blessed grey curtains across the parched red dust of my fields, my days are so long that I can’t make my arms lift the pestle to grind grain for our porridge.

That is my choice. To work or to eat. If I work there is no time to cook. If I cook there is no time to work. In Ghana and Botswana, in Gambia and Zambia – everywhere it is the same story. Food or work. Work or food. Look at your statistics. They will tell you that on the wide plains of Zambia the food I grow is not what the land will yield, but only as much as my hands can weed and my back carry. This is why Africa is dying.

From behind their wide desks they would look at my children, an uneven row of dusty angled limbs and tight black curls: and at me in my new brown skirt and my faded scarlet scarf. Their eyebrows would raise and I’d know what their thoughts were. Where is my man, then? Why can’t he help me’? He is why Africa’s dying.

Africa, oh Africa, what have they done to my man? Once I could admire him as the protector of our land: the one who cut through the jungle, clearing a space for our crops, the one who drove away invaders, who led our animals to grazing and water, who hunted and brought back our meat.

Where is he now, the person who was once my partner, an Adam to my Eve, with whom I was proud to say ‘we’?

Look at him now: puffed and pompous in the city, playing with his power, turning his back on the people who raised him; or hat over eyes in the shade of a thorn tree, drowsy and docile, afraid of the sun; or weaving and stumbling and stinking of beer red-eyed and angry, kicking his woman; or herded like cattle to cut down their sugar, to pick their tobacco, collect their rubber, carry their cotton.

They took him away from me; took him and beat him; imprisoned his spirit; took him and chewed him and sucked out his goodness, stole all his strength; then spat him out and sent him home.

Turn your minds backwards, I’d beg them, those men with their secretaries and reports. Remember how Africa was when you landed, beaching your ships on our shores. You found fields with no fences, work with no profit, crops without owners.

Of course life was tough then. It’s never been easy: sun always too hot, rain always too late. Childbirth was painful and babies still died. But he used to help me and we were together. I had time for singing and suckling my children, and rights to the land that I weeded each summer; and when I raised my voice it was heard. And of course he still beat me when I cursed too loudly. But I knew him, he knew me, and we were together.

With your guns and your greed you destroyed a whole continent. Your bullets ripped through his shining black flesh. Your pistols emptied themselves into my belly. You fenced our best land and called it yours. And you took him and chained him and made him your servant; made him grow coffee on land that raised millet, and cocoa and tea where we harvested corn. You sent him to burrow away from the sunlight, to die in your tunnels in search of your gold. And you threw him in thousands in the hulls of your tall ships; spat on him, cowed him and sold him like meat. This is why Africa’s dying.

Those men with their pink lips, sipping their coffee; would they still be listening to the end of my story? Open your history books, retrace your footsteps. Know that Africa has had more good food-growing land taken for cash crops than any other continent. Know that Africa’s woman has lost her land-rights more than woman in any other continent. Know that in the place where half the world’s gold is mined we do not even have a vote.2

But the worst thing you did to Africa was to divide us: brother from sister and woman from man. You came from countries where a man works for money and his manhood’s his wages at the end of the week; where a woman’s expected to maintain his household. And it’s men who make laws and own land and hold power. You did not respect our tradition of sharing – in work, land and marriage; in what we grew and what we inherited. You wanted to transform us all in your image. But all you achieved was division, destruction.

My man you have stripped of his sense of belonging. You stopped him from doing the things that a man should. You forbade his hunting and warring and peacemaking and put fences up in the path of his scythe.

You taught him that a man either earns wages or stands idle. But there are few who earn wages in our shattered continent. Some you reward, sure, with power and land rights. But most you’ve left with nothing to live for, snatching some solace in the bars and the brothels.

And how can I blame him for refusing to help me’? His scorn for my work makes him feel like he’s human; his pride is a jewel in the deep of humiliation.

Are you listening up there in your chrome and black armchairs? I’m explaining why Africa is dying.

In Botswana’s barren scrubland he wants payment for ploughing, and spanning his oxen is all that a man does. In Uganda he mostly refuses all cropwork, deriding the effort I make to grow food. While Gambian man’s turned his back on tradition, refusing to take up his scythe to clear land. Africa, Africa, my man is a burden: one more to be carried on my aching hack.

Can’t you see what you’ve done with your planning and plunder’? You’ve created two half-men where there once was a whole one. One half-man leans languid and lost in our villages, stripped of his spirit and reason for living. This one you call ‘farmer’; send in teachers to teach him to farm (while I am out growing the food); lend him money for tractors and tillers (while I am out growing the food); promise him fortunes if he’d only raise cotton (while I am out growing the food); buy our land from him to add to your ranches (while I am out growing the food).

The other you call ‘worker’. He’s lost to my village; forgotten the place where eight-tenths of Africa lives. He sleeps in a dormitory, a stone’s throw from the mine; or under corrugated iron a bus-ride from the factory; or within slabs of white concrete a car-ride from the office.

At first he comes home once a year for a visit, sends money monthly, dreams dreams of childhood. But soon he’s forgotten his debt to his village. And now I’m alone in one-third of our households, my door ajar for a man who never comes.

Me? I’m just woman. Invisible woman. Doing the work of both woman and man. No, I daren’t stop working (who’d feed the children?); I can’t use a tractor (who’d lend to a woman without land, without birthright’?); I’ve no time for schooling (I’m needed for weeding); I missed the last meeting (I was out chopping firewood); never been to the clinic (too late, now I’m pregnant); and I won’t, won’t abandon that thing I was born for: to make sure my children have food in their bellies.

So what will undo all the harm that’s been done to us? Will you hold one more summit, write one more report’? Or parachute bushels of wheat and milk powder to prove just how completely my Africa is vanquished?

Oh, if I had my way I’d rule over this continent. No-one could turn me away from my duties. How could I forget what I’ve learnt all my childhood: a woman tends babies, pounds sorghum, draws water; a woman makes sure we have food in our bellies; a woman can never lose sight of her duties. If I only had half of the power you gave to my man. If he only did half of the work that you made him leave me. Then, only then, can we stop Africa dying. Together we can stop Africa dying.

This feature was published in the September 1984 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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