A Woman's Place?
I look up from my book while anxiously waiting for students to arrive on the first day of the student-run “kids’ school.”
“Ayo. Fofoo. Wariga.” “Yes. Hello. Come in,” I reply to the voice announcing a girl’s arrival at my courtyard gate. I wait in the shade of my straw porch, lazily deciding not to face the brutal Sahelian sun since custom doesn’t require me to rise to greet her. Since moving to Burkina Faso last year, I have found that the temperature seems to intensify my emotions. I relish the sweet cool of the morning, but the beauty in the pre-dawn chill often allows me to irrationally overestimate what can be accomplished in the day. By 10 a.m., the scorching heat returns, often augmenting my frustration when my plans for the day have fallen apart.
I crane my neck and see the tall frame of Agratou, one of The Ten-- my nickname for the student leaders of the kids’ school. She ducks beneath the hanging straw mat onto my porch. At 13, she is developing the quintessential Fulani beauty: impeccable, fair skin; long, dark hair; and high, graceful cheekbones. To this outsider, many Fulani women’s eyes seem to hide more than they reveal. But Agratou is different. Her dark, expressive eyes, usually in serious concentration of the world around her, flash brilliantly when she is excited.
Agratou greets me, her hand, calloused from years of pounding millet, meeting mine, which has known only pens and computers.
I notice the picture book in her hand and smile. “Did you practice?” I ask her. In a couple of hours, she and another one of The Ten are expected to kick off the activities with story time. Her friend will read in French, and Agratou will translate into Fulfulde for the many village children who haven’t heard much French.
“Ayo,” she says, nodding.
Not fully convinced, I smile and reply, “Great! Show me!” She scoots closer to me on the wooden bench. In French, I read the title of the chosen book, “The Day of Aysa and Sambo.”
“Baalde Aysa e Sambo” she repeats in Fulfulde.
“Each day when Aysa wakes up, she washes her face and begins her work.” I begin the story that, in recounting an average day of a brother and sister, reveals the stark contrast in society’s demands for boys and girls.
“Soni Aysa fini, o loota dey o fudda gollugol makko,” she translates in a clear, self-assured voice.
My face breaks into an instant grin, she actually did practice. She smiles back, the sparkle in her eye meeting mine.
As we continue, her confidence growing with every line, my mind wanders to previous events of the week--particularly a conversation with an influential village leader assigned to collaborate with me on promoting girls’ education. He explained to me the importance of excision--the tradition of removing a young girl’s clitoris, often with a dirty razor blade.
“Well, Kadi,” he began, abbreviating my village name, Kadeja. “Even the women will tell you, excision is essential. If not, well, they just want the men too much and can’t be faithful to their husbands,” he said matter of factly, shaking his head disapprovingly and resting his arms on his large stomach.
“Oh, really?” I asked, not surprised.
“Yes. Of course, that was before we stopped the practice once it was outlawed,” he quickly added, playing with the indigo fabric of his embroidered boubou. “But, it really is necessary.”
He continued to grace me with his masculine wisdom, expounding on the dangers posed by breasts.
“You see, girls really shouldn’t go to middle school. It’s too far from the village.”
“But it’s only five kilometers away. I know many students who bike back and forth daily, sometimes twice a day,” I replied.
“But girls, once their breasts come, they shouldn’t leave the village. You see, once they have breasts, they can’t prevent themselves from getting pregnant. Girls, they just want the men too much,” he informed me.
This time I actually was surprised; this explanation for girls to discontinue schooling was new to me. I pictured all the breasts I saw daily, deflated from years of breastfeeding. “I thought that is why they removed the clitoris,” I challenged him.
“It’s not enough,” he replied, visibly irritated.
In some ways, the discussion reminded me of the playful arguments I used to have with my grandfather, each of us lovingly brandishing the most extreme elements of our worldviews--his conservative, rooted in a rural existence, and mine liberal, exacerbated, he believed, by my years spent at a university in the city. But this, I cautiously reminded myself, is a village elder whose views hold much more weight here than mine. At that moment, Yacouba, his naked son toddled over to me.
“Kadi!” he cried. As he threw up his arms, gesturing for me to pull him onto my lap, the momentum knocked him off his feet and he landed with a thud on the dusty earth. Grateful for the distraction, I picked him up, tickled his ribs, and we both giggled.
I looked back at Yacouba’s father, whose expression had softened a bit. However, with a meaningful look, he ended the discussion by unequivocally reminded me where he saw a woman’s place.
“Kadi, you know, if your husband was African, he probably would have left you by now. You are 25 and haven’t given him any children. He probably thinks you are sterile,” he said coldly.
“That’s why I didn’t marry someone from your village,” I retorted in English under my breath, avoiding this not-so-playful argument by focusing on the fresh dust print transferred from a skinny bottom onto my skirt. Which is worse in his eyes, I wondered: a married, childless woman, or the truth—an unmarried 25-year-old woman living alone in his village?
Returning to Agratou reading on the bench next to me, I wonder how the next few years will unfold for her. Her father appears to be more liberal than the village leader, but I’ve overheard men in the village remarking on her emerging beauty. At 13, she is almost ripe for marriage. She always ranks among the top three students in her fifth-grade class, but I wonder whether she will be allowed to attend middle school if she passes the entrance exam.
“Great job! You have worked really hard!” I exclaim as she finishes the story. She beams, relishing in the praise I lavish on her. In this moment, Agratou is clearly a child; thoughts of marriage couldn’t be farther from her mind.
A few hours later, I am amazed to find all of The Ten gathered on my porch more or less on time. As projected initial enthusiasm rarely indicates actual participation, I tried to prepare myself for half of The Ten to be absent.
After a brief pep talk, I turn them loose on the village, directing them to round up children so that we can begin. As they go to work, I drag our few materials—chairs and mats from my house, picture books, crayons and cement paper--to the tree we have designated as our meeting place.
A woman approaches me and asks what I’m doing. In my broken Fulfulde, I try to explain the kids’ school, try to convey that the older students are organizing activities for the younger children in the village in order to excite them about school and teach them some basic French. I can tell that she grasps my enthusiasm for the project but doesn’t quite understand the details. We both laugh at my attempt.
A commotion in the distance distracts me from the conversation. I turn, noticing various members of The Ten leading rambunctious groups of children, skipping and running, to the tree. I’m baffled and slightly alarmed, wondering what The Ten promised to elicit such enthusiasm.
I call Agratou over and ask what they told the kids.
“We said that if they come, they can look at pictures and draw,” she says.
“A wi’i, so be waran, be windan?” I repeat in Fulfulde.
“Ayo.” she responds, confused at my confusion.
The children have very little visual stimulation and few “toys” to play with in the village, but still I’m surprised at their overwhelming enthusiasm for things I take for granted.
I survey the 30 or so kids piled onto the mats in front of me. Some are chattering excitedly; a few younger ones sit quietly, nervously. Two girls--they must be younger than eight-- shush the babies they were given to look after. One girl unties the sling made from a piece of cloth and pulls the baby onto her lap; the other leaves the baby tied to her back, rocking rapidly to end his crying.
The Ten, pleased with their new found authority, decide that this is a serious school. Boukary scolds one naked 4-year-old, sending him home for clothes. The boy returns fully dressed, but within minutes he removes and abandons his shirt. Boukary’s brother Mamadou picks up a stick and lightly smacks two little boys fighting in the center of the mat. Then he notices an older girl sitting in the tree and flirtatiously pokes her until she climbs down.
Agratou and her friend read their story beautifully. Then The Ten divide the children into groups. Without pedagogical formalities, they try to enthusiastically impart—in one afternoon--all the wisdom they have gained in five years of school. I watch Agratou introduce counting, then move on to basic addition five minutes later, willfully unaware that her students are gleefully scribbling on cement paper, oblivious to her lesson. We should talk about teaching techniques, I muse to myself. My thoughts are soon interrupted by Boukary and Mamadou, scurrying in my direction.
“Kadi! A woman just pulled away her daughter. She said she would hit her if she came back to the kids’ school again!” Mamadou exclaims breathlessly. “What should we do?” I look up at a little girl dejectedly walking away, following a few feet behind an old woman. My gaze wanders from the sad little girl to the expectant faces of the boys, then to Agratou, who is scowling at us for interrupting her class.
My mind flutters back to my earlier question about Agratou’s future. In that moment, while looking into her determined dark eyes, I predict that Agratou will be permitted to begin middle school.
But completion seems unlikely.