September 3, 2007

Becoming a Xhosa Woman

My fellow volunteers and I spent the weekend at a lodge on the Wild Coast known as Bulungulu. The Wild Coast is an undeveloped (and under-visited) part of the South African coastline, famed for its beaches, rolling hills, and much more. Bulungulu is an interesting approach to tourism – part business and part community development. The lodge is 40-percent owned by the local subsistence community and local residents own and operate all the touristy type attractions the lodge offers. On Saturday, we signed up for the “women power” tour, in which we were to spend part of the day living as a Xhosa woman.

Now I have long believed that in many cultures it is women who are the glue of a society (honestly!). The role of men in many societies, it seems, is to take it easy, show up when all the work is done, and claim credit. But it is one thing to objectively “know” this and quite another to actually “do” it.

First, let me say, this tour was the ultimate in Tom Sawyer-ism. Basically, we paid money to help a (very intelligent) young woman with chores she would have had to do anyway: getting water, collecting wood, cooking, washing dishes. I was happy to pay the money, not only because it went directly to her but because it was such an eye-opening experience.

Collecting water is not so hard; it’s the carrying it back on your head that kills you. In this picture, our tour guide is only holding her bucket, I am sure, so I don’t look quite as bad. Girls start learning this at age four and she could easily walk without a helping hand on the bucket.
Collecting wood is harder; you have to go searching through tangled thickets looking for whatever deadwood hasn’t already been picked up by another family. Carrying it back is even harder than the water. You get poked every which way and it’s heavy. When carrying both the water and the wood, I was glad to take a picture because it was a valid excuse to put down the load.
When you’ve got something on your head, you can only look side-to-side and then only gingerly. You can’t look up-or-down to see what you might be about to step on or trip over. And have I mentioned the Wild Coast is renowned for its hilliness?

Cooking and cleaning is not so hard. But is just a steady stream of work, one thing after another. Every time, we sat down to take a break, it seemed, we were told what there was to do next. I managed to get out of a little work by collecting some rocks and entertaining the children with a little juggling.

This morning “tour” nearly did me in so I spent the rest of the day on the beach. It was legendary.