Friday, 21 February 2014

Awakening to being a woman in Cameroon.


It's been just a little over a year since I moved back to the country I've always called "home". Haven grown up in Cameroon, my adult experience here now adds up to two years all together, not counting short holidays. I can presently say that this is in fact a permanent move since I have no plans of moving again in the foreseeable future. Kumba, Cameroon has truly become "home" once more for me. I have now adjusted, sometimes with a little resistance, to the way of life here. I've thought about writing up a list of things I like and don't like about my experiences in my home country. I realized the list goes on and on about mundane experiences that are only relevant to me personally. I finally decided to write about only those issues or topics that I'm naturally passionate about, since strong emotions add great fuel to a writers fire! Today, I'd like to share my overall experience of "awakening" to being female in Cameroon.

The reason I'm using the word awakening is because my experiences and the feelings they've stirred in me are quite new to me. I've been left with an amazement... sometimes positive, other times negative, at this curious realization that in this world that I currently live, I'm not just a person anymore... a citizen with access to equal opportunity, equal consideration and equal delivery expectations. I'm having to relearn anew, how to be a person... a female person in the Cameroonian context.  Here is an outline of a few curious scenarios:

Women can't drive. Not properly anyway! I remember reading an article which proposes that there is scientific research to back up the theory that women are naturally challenged at both operating heavy machinery and driving anything, owing to our poor hand-eye coordination and sense of orientation (in comparison to men of course, not apes)! I never really thought about it much, mainly because no one had actually ever said anything to that effect in my face before. Now, I get yelled at, mostly by motorcycle taxi drivers, and male drivers, who never fail to express their road rage by reminding me that women have no business behind the wheel. Now, I consider myself a very good (and I should mention "careful") driver. I even took a defensive driving class once to help lower my car insurance rate! I have noticed that when I happen to be riding in cars driven by men, they get hardly any of the road rage that I and my sisters get on our busy streets everyday, and they carelessly break road safety rules constantly. It gets even more annoying when people assume I don't know how to park a car and say "Hmmm its a woman", and hold their breath watching intently, anticipating that they might have to step in and parallel park! I am now always conscious that I am perceived as being inadequate, or less capable; at least as far as driving is concerned, because of my gender.

A man is the natural head of a family. The law, religion and traditional customs in Cameroon dictate that a male human being, particularly a husband... regardless of how able the wife happens to be, is always the natural head of the family, the primary decision-maker and the primary provider of the family. Equality on this issue is considered blasphemous and hazardous to the stability of the home. I can't remember how many times I've heard the word "submission" being used to define a woman's position in the matter. It's been explained to me a couple of times, but I just can't get it, partly because I'm not religious to begin with, but also because up until now, I'd been completely unaware that any limitations I might have in decision making, and my current lack of employment and ability to be the bread winner were solely as a result of my gender.

I am fascinated by the fact that men readily (some grudgingly though) shoulder the financial responsibility in the home even when their wives work. I met a man in a provisions store who needed advice on his purchase of baby formula. I was surprised that he was only getting one can and I assured him that it wouldn't last more than 3 days. He became quite long in the face over the cost of formula and grumbled about how women just don't know how difficult it is for men since they are the bread winners and sole providers. There were 7 people living in his house and he had to provide for school fees, uniforms, medicines, food (chop money). He couldn't even remember how that number of people came about since he only has one child, a baby, with his wife. I asked him what about women who have babies, work, take care of their families and equally contributed to the family's financial needs. He asked me "where does that happen"?

A woman must know how to cook. It's been put to me in casual conversation that a woman who can not cook is considered inadequate. This is a position held by both men and women here. A man is not required to have this skill because once he marries, his wife must and will know how to cook. I always used to think that as a rite of passage into adulthood, all humans should know how to cook and know how to change a tire. Now I know that since my gender is female, the later doesn't apply to me!

Male violence and or aggressive behavior towards women. Violence against women is too readily dismissed. I'm always surprised when on hearing that a man has beaten or verbally abused his wife or girlfriend, it is still very common to hear "she must have done something wrong. What did she do"? Police and other law enforcement officers are known for brutalizing women when they are off-duty. I'm aware that my safety, right to fair and decent treatment can very easily be in jeopardy simply because of my gender

An imbalance in productivity expectations. It is considered that women; especially married women with children, are unable to be as productive at work as their male peers. It is quite common to hear men complain about having to cover for their female peers who regularly do not show up for work due to commitments at home. When managers turn a blind eye to women's absenteeism due to their gender and what that entails in their home life, I might be tempted to think this should be a welcome advantage for women. At a job interview, I was asked how I intended to juggle my family with a position that required my full commitment. Regardless of how experienced, qualified and well suited for the job I happen to be, I began to see that my gender and family status puts me at a disadvantage as employers assume I naturally won't show up for work. That I won't honor commitments at work because I'm a woman with children.

There are other random scenarios. One day, my daughter asked me "mommy, can men wash clothes". I guess she'd never seen a man wash clothes before. I answered "yes baby. They all can but somehow it always gets done by their wives, girlfriends or teenage daughters". "But why"? She pressed on. "It's a silly way in which women show that they care". I responded. "Can't women just buy ice-cream instead"?! "I'm sure they can, but someone will still have to do the laundry"! "I like washing clothes", she says. "Great, you won't have a problem there"!

It's only been a year and I am adjusting to this new found awareness. Maybe it is in fact true that I am rubbish behind the wheel and didn't know it till now. Maybe it should be a welcome advantage that working wives are quietly swelling their bank accounts while they "submit" and let their husbands assume the roles of the all important heads of the family. Maybe a woman's cooking is ultimately better for the family as she might uniquely be really good at taking into consideration, the nutritional needs of each individual. Maybe all the violence towards women only happens to those women who really break the law and deserve it somehow. Maybe women really shouldn't be expected to show up for work when their children fall ill or they run out of groceries in the middle of the week. Maybe women should only be considered for jobs where the men are willing to do all the work for the same pay. Maybe I'll eventually adjust to the point where it no longer bothers me. Maybe I was always meant to feel like this... a woman, and this inferiority complex I'm experiencing is just temporary. On the bright side, everyone here is equal on the matter of cold beers. Women are even encouraged to keep up with their husbands because if a man drinks and his wife does not, the mood imbalance doesn't work out really well for them when they get home! As they say "when in Rome..." and in due time this awareness too shall pass!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

My "live and let live" rant on the myth that is the African body image.

Source: Art by Isaiah Stephens

There is no simple way of defining body image. I'm going to say why without specifically doing so! At Uni, I probably wrote more than one essay about body image, as it was a favourite topic of mine during young adulthood. My interest in the topic came from growing up not quite understanding the human fixation with body-types and the negativity that is very often tied to it. Being a very skinny kid growing up in the heart of western-central Africa (Cameroon) was tough to say the least. It was sort of a reverse experience on what an overweight child would go through in a western country. Random people I didn't even know would crack jokes when I walked home from school. I was made fun of in class, out on the field during PE, at home, and worse of all; during my two year stint in boarding school! It was really bad through adolescence. I eventually quit PE all together; an extremely bad choice for my health. The PE teachers never tried to encourage in anyway. When I didn't show up, they probably assumed I had some chronic medical condition and gave me the usual F, which was fine with me as long as I didn't have to bare up arms and legs for ridicule! With everything else that I had to deal with like every other teen, I started thinking there must be something very wrong with how I looked. It was a rather negative way of coming into my own as a teenager.

My rescue came slowly, by way of Western media (interestingly)! Foreign magazines like Ebony and Essence which showed images of African-American models of all sizes, strutting and posing confidently in their glamorous get-ups would save my young life from perpetual torture! My early style interests came not from my immediate community, but from fashion models featured in glossy magazines. In my mind, the only way a person with my body type could dress to impress would be exactly what a high fashion model would wear. So, with my borrowed sewing machine (the same one I've presently borrowed), I copied anything I could possibly recreate from the runway. Looking back now I realize I must have worn some pretty outlandish looking get-ups! This helped my self-esteem enormously though. It is interesting that when you exude confidence, regardless of how you really feel inside, it really impacts how people respond to you. Some people say 90% of ones confidence comes from clothes. A really good friend of mine also said the way he went about developing his self-confidence was by faking it and imitating people whom he perceived to be confident! This really truly works. I am a prime example of someone who has worked hard at it. Presently, I consider myself very confident in a not-so-in-your-face kinda way, which is why I am confidently writing a post about body image in my underwear Great imagery... I'm stupid like that, so laugh with me!!!

Recently (in the last ten years or so), I've noticed an outcry; particularly within the African community, about Western media's continued glorification of the slimmer silhouette over curvier women. There certainly is nothing wrong in calling out any such misrepresentation of women. It does not represent a diverse mix of people and especially, it influences young people to only view body image in one dimension. What I think is wrong... and horribly so, is when anyone says something like this: " a curvier woman is a real woman", or "a real African women with a big butt"! That image of a particular body image is a myth that does not translate to any and all African women. I don't think I'm the only African woman who thinks it is obviously not true because though I'm no longer a very thin teenager, I am also neither curvy nor the proud possessor of a great big derriere, but I still know that every inch of me is REALLY that of an African woman. What is even worse is that when such rude comments are made, a lot of people act like they really have no clue that we... African women, just come in different shapes and sizes. Anyone who says this is doing exactly what the media is doing when it constantly showcases only a certain body-type. I feel that anyone who can not see beauty in it's diverse forms is extremely ignorant, closed-minded and a bully waiting to happen. The way I see it, whatever body-type is used in any particular campaign, as long as it is one of a healthy human being, is perfectly beautiful to me. I don't really care if the image is that of a tall, short, light or dark complexion, slender or curvy person. It's all beautiful. Learn to appreciate the differences. 

Bullying and negative criticism does not just happen to bigger people. Since this has been my personal experience, it has been easier for me to learn that all women regardless of body-type are beautiful in their own way. Every time one person doesn't like something about a woman, another person will absolutely adore her for it. I'm asking the question "what's not the wrong body-type for a REAL African woman?", so people can start really thinking about it for themselves. What's not the wrong body-type? Whether a woman diets, works out, makes healthier choices or does not; however she happens to look naturally is what a REAL woman looks like isn't it?! It's not OK to put out negativity just because it is popular opinion. Many people think it's always the right thing to root for the underdog, but in this particular situation there is none and the attitude of blindly fighting fire with fire, is plain hypocrisy.

Why is it so very difficult to stop putting people down in order to feel better about ourselves? Why can't we let people live comfortably in the bodies they have or the bodies they want. On that note, I'm trying to loose 5 pounds and anyone who has a problem with that ... erhhhmmm... just has a problem don't they?! It's a shame when some people knock down women who work out... as if it's a bad thing to want to be fit, strong, and healthy. Within the African community, it would be nice to get some encouragement in one's health endeavors. I'd like to say kudos to Naturally Nigerian and African Hollistic Health and Fitness for promoting fitness and encouraging healthier choices within the community. Thumbs up to Finest Cameroonians  and countless others, for showcasing our diversity in beauty and breaking stereotypes by simply letting the world see with images of real people, what splendors our African continent holds. We really are beautiful in so many different ways. Accepting that means we can really truly love and embrace ourselves without needing to define body image into very narrow-minded place-holders.
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