Sunday, August 6, 2006

I fully retract the statement that people here don...

I fully retract the statement that people here don't value cattle more than human life. Empirical evidence leads me to assert that human life in the local culture is less important than cattle. The North versus South war has been replaced by inter-tribal conflict; which takes fewer casualties but is even more senseless. Cattle ownership in the society is equated with money, power and status. Throughout history, on every point on this globe people have done heinous acts for money/power/status. So here it is not the owning of the cattle per se that is problematic it is what one is willing to do to get the cattle which is associated with money, power and status. There is a story of a young man who impregnated a young lady outside of marriage and was killed by the girl's brother. He was not killed because he dishonored the girl, ruined her or any of those reasons that you might think. He was killed because now that the girl was pregnant she would get fewer cattle which poses a problem for the brother in his search for a wife. No one bothered with the fact that now this baby will forever be fatherless, and imagine the pain of the mother; to endure a pregnancy and know that you own brother killed you child's father. What will this mean for the child's future relationship with his uncle? The tendency here is to react violently without critical thought.

Furthermore, I have to be honest and say of any culture I have had the chance to interact with significantly, this local culture treats women the worst I have ever seen. Working in development I hear often that women in Islamic societies are oppressed and abused. I spent some time in Guinea in West Africa which is about 95% Muslim; and the women there were treated with respect and care and protected. Women were treated better there than in South Africa, a primarily Christian country which has the highest rape incidence in the world and they were certainly treated better than here where women are a comodity in a man's bid for power.
If you are still not convinced let me tell you about an accepted cultural practice here. If there is a dispute within the family here and the mother and father are in disagreement the son has the right to physically discipline his mother!!!!! This is to help her come to her senses and agree with the father. So this boy/man who spent 9 months in his mother's womb, was nursed by this woman and cared for as a child can beat his mother and everyone is fine with that. How humiliating for a woman. As development workers we have been given the politically correct mantra that "We are not here to change the culture." Squash that. People (particularly the local community) need to be actively engaing to change that aspect of this culture. As I think about my work and the way I interact with the local community I can see how even with me there is some of that lack of regard for women present. I see it in small ways like not being quick to respond to my requests or questioning one of my work related decisions. When we were in Akot last Sunday for the VCT there was a man there who was not able to get tested -it was getting late, we were running low on test kits and the guys were tired. So this man is literally demanding to me that we stay longer, in fact his exact words were; " I say you stay here." At that point I was too sickened with the sexism here; so I told him who was boss (me) and that my commands are what will be and then added that there was absolutely nothing he could do but live with it. He looked like he wanted to punch me. A woman with more power than him was too much to take. I have more stories like this (one day I will tell you how I was kicked in the market!!), but I cannot stay too long in negativity.

Happy news is that I have an incredible circle of friends in Rumbek who have fascinating lives. As someone with an adventurous spirit, I devour their stories and live for a moment in them. Everyday I laugh. Outside of having work that you enjoy, the way to survive living in an aid town is to have elements of life that will help maintain sanity. All of the aid organizations have self-contained compounds with international expatriate staff living there. For example, I live, have an office space (a tent) and eat at my World Food Programme compound. It is very possible for me to only leave my compound when I go out to the field for work. I cannot live like that so I walk or catch rides to other compounds and socialize. I try to make it to the Mosque every Friday, sure I don't understand 95% of what is being said, but being there is comforting and provides me with so many other benefits. This is how I maintain my sanity.
When I look at my challenges in Rumbek I do so comparatively. If I was not in South Sudan dealing with sexism or violence, I could be at home in Chicago dealing with racism or inner-city crime/violence, but be alot less fulfilled in my work, not travelling and of course I would not experience the depth of human diversity at home as I do here. So I said all that to say, despite all the things that may cause me grief, I recognize my blessing and treasure it.

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