issue 181 - March 1988
Ina Vannay's day begins early. She is up long before dawn to light the fire and brew the grainy native coffee that will sustain her family throughout the day. The mountain air is still damp and cold as she picks her way along the edge of the rice terraces high in the Cordillera mountains of Northern Philippines.
Skirting dizzying drops - barely visible in the half-light - she climbs carefully down past the lower paddies until she reaches the river. She steps into the shallows and scoops up water in an earthenware pot. She straightens and looks back up the mountain. Once she strode almost effortlessly up these steep slopes, but after six children she is not so fast.
It is harvest time and many families have used the last of the previous harvest's rice so the women have to roast the new palay, which is unripe and too wet to be pounded uncooked. Ina Vannay sits outside in the grey early morning light, taking damp hand-fulls of greenery and painstakingly scraping the seeds off with half a coconut shell.
By the time she has done five bundles she can hear her husband and the children getting up. She will have to leave the roasting until later: today's food is more important than tomorrow's. So she scrambles to her feet to fetch some of the pendulous sayotes from the plant growing next to the house. The health worker said that the sayotes give no nourishment. But there is no time for her to finish the long preparation of the palay before breakfast.
Breakfast is a silent meal, with everyone eating quickly. But Ina Vannay eats even faster than her husband: she has to go back down to the river to wash he clothes so they can dry before the afternoon rains. Sabado, her youngest, goes with her. Sometimes she snatches a few minutes to have a bath herself and sit with him in the sunshine watching the turquoise dragonflies. But today she is too busy for that, so he simply splashes around nearby while she works. She watches him out of the corner of her eye - a neighbour's child recently drowned while his mother was busy scrubbing clothes just a few steps away. She has a plan to start weaving cloth for sale to pay for Sabado's education. But there never seems to be time: rice has to come before school fees.
Harvesting rice is back-breaking. The knife is held vertically between the two middle fingers, the half-moon blade facing outwards as each plant is tugged, cut, then bundled together in piles at the edge of the field. The sun beats down on her bent back, and she chews betel to dull the pain of a rotten tooth. Occasionally she stoops and reaches lower into the water to pick out the shiny black snails oozing round the bottom of the stalks - always thinking of the next meal.
When she gets back to prepare lunch she notices that her husband has used the water she fetched this morning to wash the mud from his legs, so she will have to go down to the river to fetch more. more time away from the fields. She sighs as she dishes out the food.
Ina Vannay must go to the swamp before dark to collect camote tops to eat with the snails tonight. She walks for almost an hour through forest and thick vegetation, over a bridge that is no more than a bamboo pole slung over a ravine with a piece of rope to hold onto. She and some friends wanted a more sturdy bridge built. But this route is used mainly by women and they have no time to organize a petition to the kalon, the meeting of the old men of the village where such things are discussed.
But perhaps the hardest part of her day is pounding rice. It always has to be done. There is never any escape. She pounds until the thud becomes the pulse of her blood and the world is only wood and rice. Shoulders aching, trying to keep her back straight, she pauses only to wipe her forehead. When she can pound no more she threshes. Then the second pounding . Sometimes she just wants to drop the pestle and run away to rest by the river. But she knows that then the family would not eat.
The rest of the family are sleeping. But Ina Vannay is still up, fetching some logs from the woodpile. Sitting by the dying fire, she chops them into manageable pieces, slicing off splinters to balance on the hearth stones to light the house. As the last one flickers out, she is sweeping the floor - the chickens need the crumbs for food...
Julie Eastwood is a freelance writer.
Worth reading on... HOUSEWORK
I was surprised at how many excellent books there are on this subject - and I don't mean books of useful hints about how to do your housework better. The classic is, of course, Anne Oakley's Housewife (Penguin 1976), one of the first books to focus on the politics of housework. Based on interviews with housewives, and extensive historical research, it is a well-written, passionately-argued analysis of how women's responsibility to do housework keeps them subordinate to men.
Hannah Gavron's The Captive Wife (Penguin, 1966) caused a great stir when it first came out because it highlighted the sheer waste of human potential that occurs when women become housewives. Somewhat out of date now, but fascinating for its comparison of working-class and middle-class women.
Ivan Illich is characteristically outrageous in his book Shadow Work (Marion Boyars, 1981), in which he classifies housework, and other unpaid activities such as commuting, together as 'shadow work' done in order to create workers for capitalism to exploit. Though he would not like to be associated with them (he is unnecessarily hostile to feminists), his approach is very similar to Wages for Housework campaigners', who class all women's unpaid services to men - including sexual intercourse - as housework. He argues that there is a crucial distinction between housework done in subsistence economies and that done under capitalism. Difficult but rewarding, as always.
If you want to read about domestic work - and women's work generally - in the Third World, Barbara Rogers' The Domestication of Women (Tavistock, 1980) has yet to be surpassed. It's a tightly-written encyclopaedic volume about the effects of so-called development on women, absolutely packed with examples from all over the world.
Somewhat more closely-focused on housework, but also with a broad international perspective, is L Leghorn and K Parker's Woman's Worth (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). And our own Women: A World Report (Methuen/New Internationalist, 1985) traces the effects of woman's domestic role in every sphere of life, from agriculture to war.