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The Weaker Sex


new internationalist
issue 175 - September 1987

The weaker sex
Women's appalling workload in Africa is finally being
acknowledged worldwide. But how do African men justify the
situation and is it their fault? Osei Kofi investigates.

'Who is the joker who said women are the weaker sex? Did the creature ever come to Africa?' asked Victoria Okumu when asked to comment on one of the world's longstanding myths. Ms Okumu, top reporter on Kenya's best-selling Daily Nation newspaper and mother of four school-going kids, reeled off the list of women's everyday tasks from farming and household chores to child care and shoring up men's 'fragile morale' to back up her point; 'Women may be born smaller in muscle power but what they are called upon to do with it, brother, there's nothing weak about it,' she said.

According to United Nations statistics women in rural Africa (where at least 70 per cent of the population lives) do 75 per cent of the weeding, 60 per cent of the harvesting and 85 per cent of the processing and storing of crops. They also do 95 per cent of the domestic work, which includes cooking, cleaning and walking long distances to fetch water and firewood.1 In between all this, they may be pregnant and will probably have to protect the growth and well-being of babies and children.

Where then are the men while all this is going on and what do they think of this workload their women carry?

A former colleague, Lindsey Hilsum, captured for UNICEF a widespread attitude among rural African men:

We are in a bar, in a small town in rural Kenya. A few men are drinking standing up, while others are sitting at the greenpainted chairs and tables. There are just two women in there - myself and the barmaid. 'In my village the women fetch water and firewood, look after the small animals and take care of the house and children,' says a schoolteacher as he takes another sip of warm beer. 'The women dig the shamba and they plant. Except that now we have drought... so there is no planting and they have to go very far for water.'

'What are the men doing?,' I enquire.

'The men? Well, we work.'

'Isn't that what the women are doing?'

'Oh no, women don't work!'

'But you've just told me all about the work that women do!'

'No, I'm talking about going out to work, earning money. In our culture, you see, women don't work.'

The world may be tired of the 'colonial bogey' as an explanation of Third World woes but it cannot escape this one: in precolonial days division of labour was both fairer and less rigid. Most African tribes were hunter-gatherers or subsistence growers. Males and females co-operated in the gathering or sowing but the males did most of the legwork in the hunt. Food was plentiful and nobody had to labour much.

Then came the colonizers, who encouraged or forced Africans to grow cocoa and coffee, cotton and sisal for export. The colonial masters with their concept of 'men's work' and 'women's work', directed the new cash economy at the men. The men went off to the plantations, factories and offices while the women stayed home to concentrate on the household, child care and on growing the family's food. Modern African states have not done much to change this pattern, which is embedded even in the lifestyle of the new urban middle class.

Geoffrey Coro is an accountant in Nairobi. His wife Mercy is a nurse and they have four children between seven months and 12 years old. They both have a busy work regime but it is Mercy's responsibility to see that the shopping is done, meals are served and the kids bathed and clothed.

Coro says it is not his job as a man to 'interfere' in the kitchen or in the running of the house: 'My job is being the main breadwinner, but I like gardening so I water the plants and so on.' He has no time for the fledgling women's liberation movement in Kenya or elsewhere on the continent 'Just a few women in the elite group who talk a lot - and they are all single women.'

His views are quite representative of the average middle-class male. He believes that most married Kenyan women are happy with their lot but concedes that rural women in Africa lead a tough life. He attributes that to 'a question of development': as pipe-borne water, electricity and other social amenities reach the rural areas, he says, life should become easier for women there.

Three years ago journalist John Kilonzo's marriage fell apart. His wife, a lab technician, left with their two young boys, telling him she no longer loved him. Kilonzo was shattered. He took to the bottle. Among his mates in the newsroom, he became a laughing stock. It was his own fault they said. Hadn't he treated his wife 'like a queen' and tried to emulate the 'new-fangled lifestyle of the white man?'

Kilonzo used to help in the kitchen, cooking the occasional dinner. He bathed the little boys (he doted on them) and put them to bed. He sometimes did the shopping. But by doing these things, his friends maintained, he had led his wife to stop seeing him as a 'man'. The married ones pointed to their own 'peaceful' homes. All they did was to give the wife a budget, make sure she knew who was boss, then leave the running of the place to her.

The situation is complex and sometimes one wonders who is the culprit and who is the victim. I am a bachelor - I live alone and do my own shopping, cooking and housework. Some time ago I had a gang of office colleagues, male and female, for dinner. One woman took a look at the apartment and said 'No wonder you are not married - everything here is so organized and clean.' 'I wouldn't want to marry a man who cooks so well,' another declared in-between courses.

An increasing number of urban men are seen these days pushing the shopping trolley alongside their wife in the supermarket But that's about it. Few men would dare to be seen chopping up food in the kitchen, carrying water from the communal tap or, worse, showing physical affection for their wife in public.

But these are middle-class African men who can afford to live with their wives. Few poor men have that privilege. The urban-centred pattern of development has drawn millions of rural men to the towns and cities in search of jobs. Scant in skills and qualifications, most eke out a difficult life crammed into the filthy shanty towns which have mushroomed around almost every African capital.

These men have left their wife and kids behind in rural homes. Recreation in the city is limited to nightly boozing in cheap shanty bars where the liquor, often illicitly brewed, would be better off used for lamp paraffin than for human consumption. Theirs is a nether world of brothels, thugs, brawls, police raids and callous landowners who regularly set fire to the shanties in futile attempts to get rid of the squatters.

David Mulaa hails from Kakamega in Western Kenya. Every night from 6.3Opm to 6.3Oam he guards the villa of an African expatriate professional in Nairobi's posh Lavington suburb. (As in Kinshasa, Lagos and Lusaka, every house in the city's middle- and upper-class areas is guarded at night). He rents a one-room shack in a shanty town. Like thousands of low-wage workers in the city, he simply cannot afford the daily 40-cent matatu return ride to work, so he walks, a return trip of six kilometres. He is lucky - some workers walk 20 kilometres a day.

Mulaa earns 50 dollars a month and sends half of it to his family in Kakamega. He has four days off after every 30 days and four weeks leave every year. He misses his family terribly: 'I wish I could bring them here, once, just to show them the city. But I cannot afford to,' he said, Given this situation it is perhaps understandable that he cannot really see the point of my question about the roles of men and women. 'I am usually at home for only a little time,' he said, 'so my wife does everything for me when I am there. She likes to do that,' he said.

The lot of men and women in Africa may be changing slowly but it is changing nonetheless. And we have our own positive role models to draw on. As just one example, the market women of Ghana and Nigeria have always wielded considerable economic and social power and they continue to dictate political agendas, be it under civilian or military regimes.

All along the West African coast women run industrial and business empires in the retail trade, in transport and import-export. The Yoruba or Ibo woman whom one bumps into on board a jet, dressed in her traditional lace and brocade, may well be going to negotiate a multi-million dollar contract. She might not have spent a day of her life in a classroom but she can do business in dollars, deutschmarks and Swiss francs.

Sexual equality is often seen by African men as a Western import - and a less essential one than cars and stereo equipment But as we set about rebuilding the balance between the sexes we have our own precedents to build on.

Osei Kofi is a Ghanaian journalist currently working for the United Nations in Nairobi.

1 State of the World's Women, UN, 1985.

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New Internationalist issue 175 magazine cover This article is from the September 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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