Is Woman only a woman?

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The need for dialogue in the light of the evolution of the couple in the African town.

How are we to understand relations between men and women today? They are increasingly complex. With the help of advertising campaigns, the recommendation is made that emphasis be placed on sending girls to school because, in many regions, they are still left out in the cold by the education system. On the other hand, the presence of top women civil servants or female company directors does not go unnoticed. For many years now magazines, such as Amina, need we be reminded, have become renowned for seeking out examples of women who have « made it ». But, let’s just say right away that when you look closer, you need to identify all the trees that hide the wood and discuss them! I would like to venture into this forest and to take several highly familiar paths – familiar by virtue of the fact that they are frequently and often unwittingly taken by men and women in Africa’s towns. Yes, because it isn’t enough to have « made it » to resolve all the problems with a wave of the magic wand. And, doesn’t the weight of the traditions add to the imperatives of modern life in the towns? How do men and women who have decided to live together assume this conjugal life? How do they both try to fulfill their own lives? At the price of what sacrifices?
Analyses of social change in Africa ought to put the reasons why the family is not what it used to be, the reasons why there are so many divorces today at the top of the list. All of this is visible and can be confirmed by the statistics. But what is still the most hushed, because people speak about it so little, precisely because it is related to the word, yet which is nonetheless more and more common, is the break-up of the couple.
We could look at this in terms of the survival problems facing single-parent families. But that is not what interests me here. Let’s take conjugal life and see how it metamorphoses over time and depending on circumstances. Society bears down on the couple with all its economic, political, moral and religious weight. In order to stay united, the couple has to be capable of resisting social pressure.
Here – no one can forget as it is inscribed in our memory – the woman remains the fire that fuels the family home because she is capable of giving birth. She also has to be welcoming, to have a certain number of qualities, those expected of her in a traditional world (mentalities change very slowly in this respect). (1) The good wife is a good mother. That is, she is a woman who knows how to hold the familial fort, and her tongue too! A truly womanly woman. But is this woman only a woman?
« They say that woman is only a woman
They say that her words are reserves of forgetfulness
Engraved by the wind at the gate of Time
But they do not realize that there where our words
Fall in tear dust
Life mounts the guard
Against the killers of all descriptions » (2)
Moreover, although sons, whatever their age, are obliged to respect their mothers (and everything functions as if this injunction were engraved in everybody’s subconsciouses), the same cannot be said of men with regard to other people’s wives, mothers, or daughters. I will give one single example here. In Côte d’Ivoire, one is struck by the fact that in at every time of grave crisis, women’s bodies are the first outlet on which men heap rancor and fury. I am referring both to the rapes carried out by the police in Abidjan at the Yopougon University halls of residence in 1991, and to the same crime perpetrated last 4 and 5 December against the women rounded up in the streets for participating in a demonstration staged by a political party. Someone else’s wife, daughter or mother is openly and publicly punished in her deepest intimacy. Here we have a kind of latent conflict between men and women which resurfaces at the slightest available opportunity. Everything seems to suggest, therefore, that in spite of everything, in the popular imagination « woman is only a woman »
But let’s come back to the couple. Don’t town-dwelling men and women who live together have the heavy responsibility of having, when needed, to financially support the whole extended family out of duty to solidarity? Rising poverty, rising unemployment and other psychological and cultural reasons force the couple to have to share the little they earn, to spend their time listening and receiving, to have at times to give up a part of their living space. In the meanwhile, what is left of conjugal life? When the man and woman work outside the home, does the couple still have time to speak to each other, to live together?
Put this way, the question would sum up the malaise in which the majority of so-called modern couples live in the African towns. It isn’t unusual for religion to come to the rescue to mask this malaise. A good deal of time is devoted to religion after work. All the communal spaces in the home are placed under the sign of some kind of praise to God. In addition to religion, involvement in politics and the unions and the new panacea giving meaning to both men and women’s lives – the NGO – also takes up a lot of time. As a result, conjugal life tends to wither. The presence of a third-party – a child – undoubtedly papers the cracks. But once the children begin to grow up and have a degree of independence, the couple finds itself face-to-face again, often living for others: the extended family, political party, community group, or something else. It is the time spent together which suffers. And, neither the fact that the woman fully assumes all these responsibilities, nor that the man be the head of the family and continues to wear the trousers as society would have it makes any difference. Only good communication between the man and the woman can save the couple, if it can be saved.

It can happen that economic requirements force one or the other to leave the house, to go to live alone in another town, another region, another country, either momentarily or permanently. The couple falls apart. Each party thus unquestionably learns to fulfil itself without the daily presence of the other, but at what price? This avoids routine perhaps. But, as Lénie, a female character in Les Baigneurs du Lac Rose (The Bathers of the Pink Lake) puts it (3), « Then we left each other for ages, for moons, for suns. Both together, what an explosive concoction! Dynamite perhaps. Only one day spent together out of three-hundred and sixty-five for us was the fair-weather swallow that routine wasn’t familiar with« . Love is lived in the instant, the stop-over, haste. But what about the rest of the time?
Yet it seems that speech can be lacking between the two, and fundamentally and chronically so. Indeed, there is nothing worse in a couple than not being able to speak to one another. Isn’t speaking together above all a way of recognizing the other’s humanity? Isn’t it a way of respecting him or her as he or she is? Without pronouncing the word love – the « scourge Love, that Limited liability company » (4) (do we in fact really know what this word means?) – we could say that one makes friendship with the other by speaking to him/her and vice versa. The more we spend time on others, all others, the less time we have for the very close other, right down to the spoken word. All that remains is silence, like a veil beyond all the social successes. Man and woman are also bound by these so frequent silences which can cause disaster. For, is there a worse situation for the couple than being « sat next to each other like two strangers separated by an insurmountable wall »? (5)

1. Cf the study I published two years ago in the journal Diogène, nº 198, December 1998: « Contribution à une analyse de la vie quotidienne des femmes africaines ».
2. Il n’ y a pas de parole heureuse, Le Bruit des autres, 1997.
3. Les Baigneurs du Lac Rose, NEI, Abidjan, 1995, p. 63.
4. Grains de sable, Le Bruit des autres, 1993, p. 33.
5. Les Baigneurs du Lac Rose, p. 135.
Tanella Boni has published: Labyrinthe, Akpagnon, 1984 (poems); Une vie de crabe, NEAS, Dakar 1990 (novel); De l’autre côté du soleil, EDICEF, children’s collection, 1992; Grains de sable, Le bruit des autres, 1993 (poems); Les baigneurs du Lac rose, NEI, Abidjan, 1995 (novel); Il n’y a pas de parole heureuse, Le bruit des autres, 1997 (poems). Her contributions to collective works include: Légendes (poems on photos), Laboratoire, Grenoble, 1997; « Peau de sel », short story, in Archipel de fictions, Florent Massot, 1998; « Chaque humain est la source du temps » in Lettres aux générations futures, UNESCO, cultures de la paix, 1999.///Article N° : 5484


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