October 29, 2007

A Fine Romance

The missionary is not traditionally seen as a “sexy” figure and I don’t quite know how to say this but… the young mothers and young women who come into the clinic are definitely flirting with me.

Of course, pretty much everything they say is in Xhosa. But it turns out that more than just smiles and thumbs-up are universal. So too are embarrassed giggles, blushing faces, and shy smiles, it seems. There’s also the occasional question in halting English – “What is your name?” or “How old are you?” – followed by that universal body language.

Now in English, I’d be my usual debonair and suave self (…) but in Xhosa… well, all I can really manage is, “hello, how are you, I’m fine” or “my name is Jesse.” I can also ask “what is your name?” but I have ask about a dozen times before I get it and I’m only asking so I can find their medical records. So I just sort of return the smile and play with their babies, which only excites more giggles and whispers. (As if they have to whisper – it’s not like I can understand them anyway.) Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly chivalrous, I’ll start speaking to everyone in French (that mostly just consists of calling everyone “mademoiselle” and saying “oui” a lot) I guess just to prove I can speak another language (as if they can tell it’s a different language). When I’m feeling mischievous and have to weigh a patient, I’ll secretly step on the scale or hold onto the weight to make them seem heavier than they are. But I’ve found a woman’s weight doesn’t hold quite the same existential importance here as it does in the U.S. and the women just look at me and wonder why it’s taking so long for me to weigh them.

It’s sobering when I look at their medical records to see just how much these young women, who are often several years younger than me, have experienced in their lives so far. They are experiences – pregnancy, assault, and, of course, HIV – that have never even touched my life. And yet we’re not all that different, really, just people more or less in the same age bracket playing more or less the same games people our age play all over the world.

I like to think I have fairly “enlightened” views on gender relations and have tried to demonstrate that in Itipini by, for instance, taking on traditional female roles, like getting the water for the clinic and learning to carrying sacks of corn meal on my head. And I’m realizing that my interactions with the young women in the clinic are another opportunity to do the same. I can treat their babies with the love and attention they may not receive from their fathers. I can treat the young women themselves with dignity and respect they may not receive from other males my age. I’ve known generally that in many poor communities there is a dearth of positive male role models. But I often thought such role modeling gifts as I have were primarily for the children. I didn’t realize it could apply to their mothers as well. Being a smiling and welcoming male face may not solve a lot of their problems but it’s something I can do pretty easily.

4 comments:

Naoko said...

good for you.

Anonymous said...

You are doing wonderful things just by smiling and being a caring, very tall, man. -- Jane

Anonymous said...

Jesse--we're ALL in love with your smile! The ministry of presence means sharing all that you are with people. Now, are you flirting with the babies, too?
Meredyth

Anonymous said...

Jesse--we're ALL in love with your smile! The ministry of presence means sharing all that you are with people. Now, are you flirting with the babies, too?
Meredyth