Under the jacaranda shed we gathered every Saturday afternoon after tutorials. It was relaxing, meeting in the open air, seated on stones, logs, and trunks while some just flopped down on the grass carpet. We preferred this outdoor sitting to the tutorial rooms or amphitheatres that baked in the early afternoons like cake in ovens.
In a cappella, we sang soul searching-songs like “Amazing Grace”, Negro Spirituals and Bob Marley emancipation reggae; we recited some poems, whether they were cacophonic or euphonic, dramatizing some, especially the satiric feminist poems of Maya Angelou; we cracked jokes and commented on current events. Our mutual pleasure had no bounds. The group was heterogeneous, I may say, comprising young men and women of varying ages and levels. Some were freshmen, some undergraduates, some graduates, post graduates, teachers and research fellows. We all felt and behaved almost the same, not losing decorum and decency towards one another though. We named our group “Yupoc”– Yaounde University Poetry Club and individually referred to ourselves as Yupoets.
As with other large groups, we had both active and passive members. People joined and left the group for multiple reasons, graduating to greener pastures. When later we found ourselves all dispersed across the globe, some die-hard members created a web link -Yupoc Connection- to help us keep in touch on-line. A few of us had carved out ourselves because we felt more, related better with each other than with the larger group. We were Kiz, the jovial, dynamic and ambivalent coordinator; Pat, the outspoken merry girl who never minced words; Vicky, the melancholic poet, with the unmistakably sardonic vociferousness; Liza, the scholastic critic and lastly, myself, Suarez, the silent water and would-be group’s pathfinder.
This day, as we chattered in the group, we paused on a controversial albeit sensitive and startling issue. Kiz had just asked me to say something because I had been true to my form, silent.
“Suarez, how was the week? You look tired this afternoon, haven’t you visited grandma?”
‘Grandma’ was the university restaurant.
“Say something,” said Kiz pleasantly.
“I’m fine, Kiz, and l’ve been thinking of what to say today.”
They all burst into laughter.
“Come on, Suarez; okay, what have you got to share today?” Kiz pressed on.
“Something I noticed yesterday,” I said. An idea had just struck me and a brief story I knew would stimulate everyone. They asked almost in chorus what it was.
“Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I expected Liza and Pat to tell us how it all went on their part.” Pat and Liza looked at me and tossed their heads. They were trying to figure out what I was driving at. I continued, paying little attention to them.
“I was embarrassed at what was given as this year’s theme for the International Women’s Day — “Women of the World, stand up as one man for your empowerment.”
“Suarez, that is sensitive,” said Kiz, laughing.
“Yes, and ridiculous too,” commented Vicky. “Women canvassing for equality with men, that’s awful.” It sounded like a deliberate provocation of Liza and Pat.
“Vicky, shut up!” shouted Liza. “What’s there to envy in men that women lack?”
“Their manhood,” I cut in sarcastically. “That’s why they want to stand up as ‘one man’ and not one woman.” I knew that manhood was a tangy pun that pulled both at the flat strings of humanity and at the innuendo of sexual vigour. I had no intention of further dangling the tantalus in their faces.
“Suarez, you were asked to tell us about your week and not to taunt women on Women’s Day; so stop the leg-pulling,” Pat grumbled aloud.
“Well, before you tear yourselves to shreds, I was about to share a story and an experience I had last evening with you. I felt dreary and could neither read nor sleep. The noise from the bars in the neighbourhood was also unbearable. Reflecting, I realized it was the International Women’s Day which I had forgotten. Women would be drinking off their brains and dancing erotically in bars, pulling up their kabas over their heads!”
I couldn’t finish; that was too much for Pat and Liza to bear. Pat glared at me and Liza too fumed with rage. Their fierce reaction would have marred the session if Kiz had not put a halt to the discussion. He asked me to keep my story for the following week which was a way to kill the tale. I never told my story the week that followed. It ended there. But recently I resurrected the issue on Yupoc Connection. Looking for a good discussion topic for the forum, I remembered the discussion we had under the jacaranda erupting from the women’s day theme. Kiz had punctured the ensuing debate wittily and I had not shared my experience as planned. Well, the years passed and, I decided to share the story still. In the chat forum I wrote:
I stopped by the Nfoundi food market to get a few items for my kitchen years back. The market was not so congested for only a few hawkers were screaming out in the hope of selling something in the hot dry season afternoon. Bayam-sellams were there in their customary broad-fibre hats to shed the mid-January heat. It was a season with the peculiarity that families were exhausted after celebrating Christmas and New Year feasts; they were now ‘chaffing’as the expression went in local parlance. It really was a misconception of chafe, or fret, referring to the hard times that followed unwise spending for the joyful seasons. Traders spent whole days in their shops without any fly buzzing by to ask the price of anything.
A woman who sold edible hides and crayfish felt frustrated that afternoon that no buyer had even stopped in front of her counter ever since she opened in the morning. Known as Mami Njanga, her surname was Monica. She had spent hours steaming in the scotching sun, half dosing. Startling up, she remembered angrily that she had not sold anything yet and it was already afternoon. As if tickled, she laughed in a metallic voice that somewhat was provocative enough to attract preening eyes towards her.
“Look at me, you women, is there anything wrong with me?” Mami Njanga shouted, getting up. She untied her wrapper, spread it out on her back, took a few careful steps and then swung round as if in a fashion parade of nudity. She called out aloud for a cool bottle of 33 Export from the near-by bar.
As she stood parading her well-made physical profile—elevated and chocolate brown, with bewitching eyes, an elegant nose and succulent lips—her full chest and excellently rounded bum were seductive. Neither slim nor bulky, but full of flesh and fresh, she was the archetypal quest of men’s lust. She completed the spectacle by taking off the broad hat shedding her face and then pulled off her headscarf within. Then she shook her head as a wet hen would to get rid of raindrops; her flourishing hair floated to reveal her magnetic beauty. Her peepshow performance continued as she shouted:
“Take a look at me, you women, do I lack in anything?” She stood at akimbo, her wrapper in both her hands spread out behind; she twirled the wrapper skillfully to the right, then to the left and lastly to the right again, making the knot on her left hip firmly in anger. It was compelling drama to watch, the tying of her wrapper accompanied by a loudly angry declaration: “I work, or I no work, I go chop!”
Women screamed with excited laughter, ululating, and giggling in response. Monica seized the cool bottle of 33 Export, knocked off the cap with her lower left molar, holding it with the left hand. Then she placed the bottle on the left corner of her lower lip and without the upper lip touching it, poured out the beer into her mouth. A few noisy gulps emptied the bottle which she now flung to the ground. One would have thought that she poured the drink into another container.
Mami Njanga packed her market items and closed for the day. I watched this drama silently, a curious by-stander. Her image lingered on in me weeks after until I saw and confronted her on the International Women’s Day. That’s what I wanted to share in YUPOC Connexion when I wrote:
The day before our meeting under the Jacaranda was International Women’s ‘Death’, so I went out in the evening to ‘take the temperature’ of the event. Sitting near a group of rather talkative ladies in a bar who said, among other stuff that they had not cooked for their spouses, sent their husbands to the market, ordered and obtained sums of money from them to spend anywhere they chose, and with whom they chose; and how they were going to spend the night independent of their husbands because it was their day.
In the bobble, one of the voices sounded familiar and a closer look revealed that it was Mami Njanga! The dramatic scene where she had boasted that whether she worked or not, she would eat came vividly to mind. I decided to stir them to talk confrontationally by declaring that a woman is nothing, capital ‘O’ like in ‘Oh’, or Naught, or Zero…without a man. “Take away ‘fe’ from female and you have male, ‘ss’ from mistress and you have mister, ‘s’ from Mrs. and you have Mr. ,‘m’ from madam and you have Adam, ‘y’ from lady and you have lad and ‘wo’ from woman and you have man. Obviously, ‘ss’, ‘m’, ‘y’, and ‘wo’ are worthless without man! If you take away man, we would celebrate International Women’s Death.
Religiously speaking, there is the Amen. Why do we end every prayer with ‘Amen’ (Ah men) and not ‘Awomen’? This I say because without men, life ends. Men have given you money to buy the IWD fabric and stitch your kabas and with them, drag men into mud with you. What you are celebrating is the International Women’s Death, which I consider wrong; no death is a happy occasion!
A few men who sat by and heard the argument took my side especially because the women had become more offensive in their tipsiness, threatening to thrash me up for daring to belittle them to that extent. Their screaming increased, menacing fingers pointing irefully at whosoever dared to take my side. I saw my chance and sneaked off, turning behind the building and heading home. The conflict was not unlikely to end in a fight. Heads would be split, aswabis torn and some would end the night either in the hospital or police station. It wasn’t cowardice to escape, I decided.
That’s the story I was about to tell you years back under the Jacaranda; Kiz punctured it.
Thanks for reading.
Spontaneous reactions came in, almost everyone finding my analysis atrocious. Pat reacted shortly after my post. She wrote on Wednesday, March 9, at 11:4 PM, thus:
You chose the wrong location to do a temperature check for such an important day– a bar! Who goes to a bar to talk sense? Bars are for booze, profanity and sickening ‘good’ times; No more, no less!
International Women’s Day symbolism goes deeper than girls kicking it in a bar and talking trash about their spouses!
It is a day to acknowledge the importance of women actively participating in world peace, and socio-economic progress-
–A day to reflect on how far the world has come to granting women equality and basic rights!
–A day to self-examine how we can help in the advancement of girls and women so as to alleviate some of the ills of our society that result from ignorance, lack of basic rights and poverty!
It is a day on which we can fight for words like ‘woman’, ‘female’ and ‘lady’ to have some respect, appreciation and encouragement. Suarez, you are educated and I can guarantee with no doubt that a woman played a very great role in your endeavours.
***Maybe you are just being funny. If this is the case, I apologize for my lacking a sense of humour! If you are not joking… well, you have a right to your opinions and sadly, they count.
Pat’s only preceded several other reactions from group members amongst which I found Liza’s of peculiar interest. She wrote on March 10, at 9:39a.m.
I could not help laughing after reading your mail entitled “International Women’s Death”. But on a second thought, I asked myself: “what if this guy is serious about his views on women and, what if those women at the bar actually said what he reports?”
If you are serious that a woman means nothing then we as a people have a lot to do. I was surprised that men still think of women in that light. I thought we had passed the stage where women were looked upon as nothing. I now believe I was wrong in thinking so. If a woman, be she sister, wife, mother or daughter means anything to men, then all the men will get up and support the women in their fight for recognition. A woman is more than just the five letters wo/man.
Again, if those women still think women’s day is a day for them to eat, drink and go home late, then they defeat the idea of celebrating women’s day. We have to educate them and every other person who thinks that way. Women have a lot more to offer if given the opportunity; they would do great things. We need to work in partnership with men to realize our full potentials.
The debate was heating up and I feared falling out with my female friends over it. My luck is that they were enlightened and hence, more tolerant of others’ opinions, even when such opinions went against the grain. So on Thursday March 10, at 19:17, Pat posted the following re-International Women’s Death to the group:
Nice to read from you! It is possible that those ladies said those things, which add to the reason why day should be used to sensitize our fellow ‘lay’ ladies.
I am from a poverty-stricken ‘side of town’ where lots of girls and women lack the basics of education and so express similar views all day. I do not blame them, but try in my own small way to explain things to them.
My mum, for instance, spent women’s day every year going to bed late the previous night, getting up late on the day itself, cooking the food she liked and topping it up with Tuborg beer, dead cold. She and her friends dressed up in their women’s day ‘ashwabi‘ and went out at night; my dad had no say or share in whatever she did that day.
Interestingly, she and all her friends believed that day was like a ‘Women’s Independence Day,’ and that independence was from their husbands. (Hey! Husbands are usually the primary oppressors and first people to violate women’s rights and advancement). Needless to say that I tried telling her otherwise! OMG! Was I ignored?
Bottom line, I totally agree with you that, regardless of what whoever said, we should not undermine the importance of women in our society. We have come a long way and seen the struggles of women.
So far, Kiz and Vicky had not reacted strongly to this debate. Kiz was never easily moved by any discussion topic, no matter how controversial it seemed. He simply chipped in brief phrases of compliments or disapproval. As for Vicky, when he disagreed, it was difficult to halt him. In response to the above letters, Vicky broke loose and wrote on Monday march 11, at 2:42a.m. :
This is a rather interesting debate that obliges us to give our points of view to help others elsewhere. I hardly have a problem with the previous speakers, not because their arguments are convincing, but because we have to respect each other’s opinion.
While agreeing with the fact that the bar may sadly be the last spot we would want to choose to monitor or evaluate an important celebration like the International Women’s Day (IWD), some critics would comfortably want to do so, given the state of things in Cameroon.
We grew up to know that the buying of new dresses was meant for feasts like Christmas and New Year, weddings and anniversaries. The introduction of annual uniforms as part of the celebration of the IWD in Cameroon seems to have brainwashed our sisters, aunts, nieces and mothers. A brief study on the history of the IWD would lead every responsible person to the conclusion that from the 9th of March every year, governments should be busy studying the recommendations tabled by women for decision making purposes, a product of their reflections concluded on 8th March to improve upon the standing of the woman and the girl child– respect, protection and fulfillment of women’s rights, equality, empowerment, positive discrimination, etc.
Sadly, we only hear and watch images of march-pasts, parties, jubilation, etc. Even where we are told that round tables were organized, we never hear of the recommendations which came from there. You must have known about problems in your neighbourhood like quarrels, fights, and other forms of conflict, leading to broken marriages, elopements and even murders, some related to the non-procurement of a piece of uniform by a man for his wife on IWD.
My dear sisters and mothers, it is not yet time to celebrate, it is time to get together (women and men), to answer the question on what could still be done to give our girl children and women the same opportunities as our boy children and men found in similar circumstances in societies which respect the dignity of women and men. How could you declare a celebration for women when there is still a woman/sister next door who finds pleasure and is happy to be a man’s third wife, stops attending school because she has been given to understand that success in life means getting married? How can you celebrate, when Aisha only knows that she is born to take care of younger siblings; that her brother has to go to school while she has to start selling little items to gather funds for her future marital utensils?
Dear sisters, maybe we need to get together to call on the government of our country to organize IWD minus fabrics.
Extremists are happy to have us continue eating, dancing and drinking in noisy places every 8th March in the name of IWD. After all, they know that nothing changes since we ourselves have not yet changed our attitudes. While progress is made elsewhere, we need to stand up, women and girls, to march past on ordinary days to ask for an end to female genital mutilation, breast ironing, sexual exploitation of girls/women, violence against women/girls (physical, emotional, psychological, etc). Let us rise with one strong voice to say ‘no’ to a government with no female governor, far few female SDOs, a mere chip of five female ministers out of 60, etc. What are we celebrating on the IWD? I call on all Yupoets to be the change agents to support women/men in our families to understand what the IWD is all about.
Pat was relentless and came up most passionately, concordant in the main with Vicky. She took us down memory lane to experiences of the female folk, the bewildering experiences of yester-generations of women. Her posting of March 12, at 6:27p.m., read as follows:
Vicky & Liza,
I am thrilled at your passion and good intentions to promote this good cause. I love your recommendations and admire the depth of your knowledge of the matter.
Vicky, I think you are spot on what the problem is, what it should be and what has to be done about it. However, I beg to differ with you and Liza’s point of view that it is not yet time to celebrate and that the IWD uniform be abolished. Hmm, I have a different take on that.
I am an advocate of applauding baby steps. When a child stands up and tries to take a step, we adults know that that first step is not enough. We know there is a lot the child is yet to go through to stand on its own, walk, run and accomplish other coordinated movements, but we go right ahead and celebrate those first steps: ‘Tang! Tang! Tang!’ We applaud with claps and hugs and praises. This motivates the baby to work harder and do better.
I think the IWD should be a day of celebration coupled with sensitization and a call to action. Most importantly, it should be a day of action towards the fulfillment of the recommendations on improving the situation of the woman and girl child.
I agree that there is still much to be done regarding issues like polygamy and sexually-transmitted diseases. However, I would rather you let my mum celebrate the fact that her children and grandchildren do not have to marry the 2nd, 3rd, etc. wives for their husbands. The men now look for their multiple spouses themselves (baby steps).
Let her celebrate the fact that some women can now file for divorce to escape abusive marriages; that some women can go to court and meet a female magistrate!
Please, let her celebrate the fact (in some areas) that her children and grand children are now able to grow through puberty and teen years before getting married (baby steps). She got married after standard six.
Yes! Genital mutilation is another evil that needs close attention. My mum’s village used to practice that. She was told that her own mum went through it and was held down on her wedding night for her husband to consummate the marriage. She says her mum, like most women of that generation stopped having sex when she stopped having children (probably when she was in her 40s?) Needless to point out that my grandfather died leaving widows of between19 and 60 of age.
My Mum’s generation had the ‘virgin before marriage’ rule and no one could do anything about it. My eldest sister’s generation was plain funny! The ‘good girls’ had to act like they did not enjoy during intercourse and faked being hurt! The girl that enjoyed sex ‘don spoil’! They piped. Please, let my mum celebrate the fact that my generation can actually love it and that we can be creative with our husbands in the bedroom!
As for women in public offices, it is a continuous struggle. However, my mum can actually VOTE for the candidate who brings rice and oil to their meeting house. She can actually vote! She has a voice that can cause change!
Somewhere in India, newborns are killed because they are girls, not boys! So if my mum wants to wear her IWD ashwabi to express that she is a girl child that lives– a woman who is glad to be a person, a woman without shame; if she chooses to celebrate one day for being able to see subtle changes during her lifetime; if she decides to make decisions independent of her husband for one out of 365 days, and actually feel that sense of identity and control, I pray you, let her!
It is now up to us to sensitize and push the needed change. Let us educate but not talk down. Let us look for creative ways to use the festive spirit to throw light on real issues.
Please, let her celebrate the fact that men like Vicky are into the struggle to make her great-grand girl children prosper. Let her jubilate that there now exists the WILL in people like Vicky! Alas, she can catch the glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.
Pray, let my mum drink her dead cold Tuborg Beer and jubilate over the baby steps in her fancy ashwabi!!
A week after Pat’s letter Vicky reacted, precisely on Sunday, March 27 at 8:09 a.m. as follows:
Sorry for coming back to this mail after such a long time. I have been a bit busy. I really do agree with you, my dear. Where we seem to have differing views is on celebration. But before I get to that, let me draw your attention to something you said in your last mail: “If she decides to make decisions independent of her husband for one out of 365 days and actually feels that sense of identity and control, I pray you, let her!”
I think the IWD is not about independent decisions making. This is where some women have got it all wrong and this might have been the source of some men’s resistance to acknowledge the potentials of the woman. I think we should be talking about participatory decision making in homes and families and not independent decision making, by a woman or man for 365 days a year. The IWD is a day for women and men to get together into deep reflections to identify what is wrong in the society related to the plight of the woman and what to do to improve upon her situation to attain her full potentials.
I beg to disagree with you that the drinking of a dead cold Tuborg Beer by your mum should have any bearing on the IWD. She could do that round the clock, 24/24 and 365/365 if she wants. Do you agree with me that most often when people clamour for change, they expect it to come from the others? But, real change begins with the self. That’s what I am trying to talk about. We cannot be talking about the celebration of baby steps when all that change has come from outside. It’s over 26 years since Cameroon started celebrating the IWD. Tell me what has changed as a result of Cameroon’s women actions. Please, let us refuse this brainwashing technique used by the government to impose an ashwabi and a feast that only helps to take the women further from their target. Elsewhere, there have been public demonstrations by women, sit downs, protest marches etc. to ask for better conditions. How comes that, in the month of March when women are said to be celebrating IWD in Cameroon, the only woman who has ever made her intentions known to run as a presidential candidate is mercilessly beaten by the forces of “law and order”. Even this was not enough to remind my mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces that there is something wrong with the view of the woman in Cameroon. Pat, maybe, your advice is that they should go ahead with celebrating even when that celebration brings nothing additional or helps to ameliorate the plight of the woman. Others have done it for us for so long, let us begin doing it now or it may never be.
I am happy God too hears us.
God bless you.
I admired the strength of the debate. The points were logical, democratic and convincing generally. But I had to remain on the opposing side in order not to kill the thrusts, and so it raged on with only sporadic pauses. Sometimes, when I thought it had finally come to a close, someone would post one more time on the topic and reactions would start flowing in again.
Thanks a lot in advance for contributing.