International Women’s Day, an African reflection

My “Mother-Daughter Tea speech” is what I called this presentation, given about half a dozen times to women’s groups after we returned from three years with Mennonite Central Committee in Chad, Africa. Today (Tuesday, March 8th) is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Not everyone has the chance, like I have, to see what life is like for women in another part of the world, especially in the Muslim world. We returned in 1992 and found it hard to reconcile the stereotypes we were hearing with the Muslim friends and villagers that we knew. We often found ourselves saying “That’s not what the Muslims we knew were like…” Perhaps, this is also a good time to share about the people that we knew and try to help break down a few stereotypes…

“Women’s Lives: My African Friends”

I was apprehensive when we accepted an assignment in a predominantly Muslim village in Chad, Africa. We would not be near any other Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) volunteers, or indeed, any other ex-patriots at all. I knew that I would always have to wear a skirt and cover my hair. I worried about how I would adapt to that structured of a role for women, afraid I would find myself just chomping at the bit, feeling unable to BE ME. I tend to speak out when I feel strongly; I love wearing jeans and I hate anything on my hair that makes my head sweat. I worried that the culture would stifle a lot of the qualities that are part of who I am, and that I would have to give up some of my favorite activities or clothes. I was partially right.

I gave up running, something I had done faithfully for years. I tried it, in a skirt, for a while. It wasn’t comfortable and there was no good place to run with enough privacy (not followed by a dozen small boys) or without sand so deep it made running impossible. I knew another female volunteer had gotten negative comments for her running – even in the capital city. So, I wore skirts, skirts, panges and more skirts. I covered my long hair until my head itched from sweat. Then I decided that in my own yard I could do without, only covering it when I went into the village. The longer I was there, the more I sorted out what I felt compelled to do and what I thought I could relax a bit – at least in my own home. In the cold season I wore jeans in my courtyard in the evenings (after dark) after my bath, only once running into the village in jeans and without a headscarf – trying to catch a photo of a pair of hippos fighting on their way downstream.

Women in our village never wore pants, it was considered the dress of a prostitute. I think not covering the hair had somewhat the same connotations. Later in our term, one of my village friends told me that people did not draw those conclusions about me, because they knew my character now. Younger women, particularly students in the capital, left some of these conventions behind but were not well regarded by the older ones. I noticed that women didn’t always wear a veil or scarf in their own courtyard either. And sometimes, even in the village, let it fall to their shoulders.

But my biggest fear, that of not being able to be my usual friendly, open self, was laid to rest as I saw how the Muslim women in our village related to each other, to Dave, and to village men. They were not at all the subdued, oppressed, subservient women I was afraid they would be. They enjoyed life with gusto. They teased mercilessly, Dave included (did he want a second wife?).

Arguing with men over the amount of money the groom's friends should give the bride's family.

They shook hands with men. They argued with men. They owned fields and worked “outside of the home. They seemed to have a fair amount of control over their own lives. When Dave asked the male nurses at the dispensary if there was much wife beating or abuse in our village, they said, “No, the women will leave if their husband beats them.” Being Christian nurses, they were a little taken aback by Dave’s “good!” Not all Muslims in Chad were like the ones we knew. With many ethnic groups and over a hundred languages in Chad, you can see that I can not speak with any authority beyond my own experience.

I know less about Christian women be cause they tended to live on the other side of the village, speak a southern language that I did not know, and few of them were farmers, the primary group we had come to work with. There were also more expectations on the part of the church that we had to deal with, making some of those relationships more complicated. To help out where I lack, I have read Mary Lou Cummings book, Surviving Without Romance: African women tell their Storieswhich is primarily about Christian women. A very interesting, easily read book that I would recommend to you.

In church, women sit on one side, men on the other.

In her book, Mary Lou says, that “African and American women want the same things (…success and power and status and money. Love and marriage and children. Happiness. Fulfillment.) But we live in cultures that define us, that enclose most of us in boundaries of the possible. And so, as one might expect, African and American women look for what they want in different ways and in different places.” We American women, at least in my generation, place a high priority on romantic love. An African woman would be more likely to say the prime relationship in life is between mother and child. I saw sisters or friends who mattered more to each other than their husbands. In Africa, women hold hands with women and men with men, but NEVER do you see a man and a woman holding hands. Dave and I were fairly careful not to make any pdas (public displays of affections), at least not in front of adults. Little kids got a kick out of seeing me kiss Dave goodbye when he left for the field. But, even just walking side by side brought the comment that we shouldn’t walk through the village together.

Husbands were almost peripheral to women’s lives (we did meet some exceptions). Husbands often had their own room or house, sometimes not even living in the same village. Oh, how my friends teased when they found out Dave and I slept under the same mosquito net – every night. To them, that meant we must make love, every night. With my poor grasp of Arabic, I misspoke and instead of saying that would be too much, I said that would be very sweet.  So, who knows what they think of American’s sex lives… Men who had government jobs, were in the military or with their equivalent of the Fish and Game Commission, were often gone for long stretches at a time. While they were gone, life was sweet… When they came home, my easygoing, carefree friends, were quick to cover their heads and serve their men, with less time for braiding each others’ hair and visiting.

Mimoona was about eleven years old when we brought her out to our village from ND’jamena, the capital. She and her mother were both in tears and their parting was painful. Mimoona was married to 40-year old Madan and was coming to his village to learn how to be his wife. This was unusually young, most marriages happening around 15-16. Once a higher up official in the Mosque came to our village and bawled the men out, saying they weren’t marrying the girls fast enough. There is some fear that a girl will “go bad” and start chasing men if she is not married off soon enough. First marriages were often within the family, a first or second cousin, sometimes significantly older and usually arranged. In our area there was an incredible divorce rate. We’re still not sure if we knew ANY non-Christian marriages that were first and only for both. I knew of one – but the husband then took a second wife.

MimoonaMimoona came to our house often. She was friendly, a bit of a tease, but warm and affectionate. Her mother asked me to “take care” of her. I wasn’t sure what stage her marriage was in, but when she began to ask specific questions about the physical side of marriage, I feared that at 12 years old, she was truly a wife. When she asked over and over again, if Dave beat me, I wanted to ask her, “Who beats you?” At weddings she had to sit, wearing the full veil of a married women with the other wives while her friends were laughing and playing. Older women in the village said she was not good, that she did not stay home, but ran around to her friends. She began to bring me things to “keep” for her and I feared that she was going to run away. To our great relief, a separation was finally agree upon and we were able to take her home to her mother to “grow up”.

More typically, girls Mimoona’s age were likely to be doing most of the housework. They went looking for firewood, bringing it home on their heads from the time they were old enough to carry the axe. They watched younger siblings as soon as they were big enough to support the weight of a baby tied on their backs – around 4 or 5. They washed dishes in the river.

Aci and daughter Nowda pound grain.

They pounded grain, hard work that made the women strong. They carried water, drawing it from the well, or carrying it from the river. Dave and I once watched fascinated as a woman came up a steep riverbank with a large pot of water on her head, no hands. Large enough to hold ten gallons, full, it weighed about 80 pounds. As we greeted her, her head shifted ever so slightly left or right, forward or back, to keep her load balanced. Four-year-old Aci would walk beside her mother with an empty cup on her head to practice. My slick Nasara, or white people’s, hair made it hard to balance anything. I couldn’t even keep a veil up.

Classes with girls.

When I tried to do nutrition and sewing classes with girls, they were continually having to come late or leave early to do chores, or even bring a sibling along.
When I taught boys to sew, we didn’t have that problem.

After a three-week vacation, I went into the village to find out the news. As I asked the ritual questions in greeting, “How are you? How’s your household, your children, your husband, the village, etc.?”, the answer was always “afe” or fine. But when I started a second round of questions, thinking surely something must have happened while we were gone, “Did so and so have her baby, Did anyone die? Is anyone sick?” I found out my friend Marangabi had left her husband. Not because she was angry with him, but because her family was and made her come home, leaving her children with her husband…, my friend Lala had been extremely ill after being bitten on the foot by a snake, and my friend Josephine’s 8 or 9-year-old son and sickened and died suddenly of hepatitis.

Health is an important issue; most people were healthy in our village. Even during the time when Chad was experiencing famine in some parts, children in our village remained basically healthy, their arm circumference measurements remained stable. But early, abrupt weaning pushed one little girl close to starvation. Her mother described it as a fight between Satan and his wife for the soul of her little girl. I saw it as the result of another superstition – that nursing a girl child will harm the fetus if the mother is carrying a boy. I tried to tell the mother her daughter needed protein and that nursing her would not harm her unborn child, male or female! I also encouraged her to feed her daughter eggs and add ground peanuts to her porridge.

Lala, the women bitten by a snake had suffered three miscarriages in three years. She had an incompetent cervix and could not carry a child to term. When she finally agreed to let us take her to the hospital in the capital to get it sewn shut until delivery – if her husband would allow us to, which he did – she was already too far along, according to the midwife.

Having children is very important. Visiting Aballole, we asked where his 4-year old son David was, “In the neighborhood”, he replied, not knowing exactly where – and not concerned. Children were raised by the community. In the afternoons they generally came to our house, being chased away from every where else as their parents napped or “whatever”. We decided that must be when people were amorous, since they didn’t always sleep together at night!

Aci and new baby girl, Hajji.

Aci, around 30, one of my best friends, had her sixth baby the last summer before we left. She had an older daughter and a son by her first husband, then two more boys and a girl by Wakil and now Hajji, a new daughter. Her son by her first husband never seemed to fit into the family. He was like a lost child. She treated him differently. His clothes, etc., were the responsibility of his father, not her current husband. I thought she was quicker to scold or beat him than the others.


Her sister Kafani, was barren. Her husband, Mahdu, lived in the next village and had a second wife. They were an unusual couple in that they worked together in the field. Later he gave up his 2nd wife and Kafani moved to his village where they lived together. Aci gave her 2-year-old daughter to her sister for extended periods of time. Finally, she brought little Kafini home because she was getting confused about who her mother was! Children were often raised by relatives. My “mom” in the village was raising her two granddaughters, her daughter having divorced and married a second husband, starting a new family.

In a divorce, the girls usually went with the mother and the boys with the father. I don’t know that I would say this means daughters were less valued by their fathers. Eliya broke her leg when the heavy pan of corn on her head fell and hit her. Her father wouldn’t allow her to come to the dispensary for fear that she would be sent to ND’jamena to the big hospital there. Another of his daughters had gone to the hospital and died there. Instead, he took her to a local healer who set her leg and splinted it with her knee bent. When she was well enough to come home, 8 months later, but still unable to walk, her father literally squatted down on the ground and cried in shame.

Our best friend Aballole treats his wife and children differently than most. In fact, he has been scolded by others for spending so much time with his children, allowing them to come along with him. He tries to make decisions together with his wife. He has been influenced by several sets of Mennonite Central Committee volunteers with a vastly different parenting style than is normal among his peers.

Aballole, Kaylu, David and Amina

One Chadian church worker explained the custom of sending teenagers to live and work for relatives as “teaching them how to suffer”. Cummings suggests it protects the family from being wiped out in a disaster if all the children are not in one place. Having only one child made us an oddity. One of my older friends said, “Having only one child is like having only one eye.” While there were not the really large families in our area common in the south of Chad (One Christian from the south said, “Nobody has big families here, why I don’t know anybody with more than 8 kids!”), six was probably the average. A lot of my Muslim friends were praying that God would give me a son… I took this opportunity to explain a little bit about natural family planning and why that wasn’t likely to happen. One about-to-be wed girl said that was bad to talk about, but another young wife, said, “No, it was good to talk about these things.”

I was really impressed by older women. They seemed to me to be harder workers than anyone else. They were the first ones up and off to the fields. They were among my first and closest friends. They adopted me and called me “daughter”. I called them “aunt” or “mother”. I liked Kagu, even though she was the aunt Mimoona had come to live with and was supposed to teach her about marriage. Missing several front teeth, she refused to let me take her picture. But it didn’t keep her from smiling. She was raising her 2-year-old niece and took care of her very old mother. There was no husband in sight. Halimata lived with an even older relative, her blind sister. Again, no husband in sight.


Jidde was my mother; we adopted each other. She was the youngest of my circle of older friends, possibly in her 60’s. She had a husband, he lived in a village about 30 miles away and came occasionally. They seemed to be on good terms. She was quick to laugh and while short and petite, a hard worker. She had lost at least one child and had only the one living daughter. It was something we had in common. She was raising her two grandchildren. She, her mother Bobbie, and Kaylu lived in straw huts instead of mud brick houses.


Kaylu, about 70 yrs. old

Kaylu lived next door to her son and did not keep her own kitchen. I never heard of a husband. She would look at me with the orneriest expression out of her half-closed eyes and then laugh at her joke. She teased with exuberance. She let me draw a sketch of her, but when all the kids laughed about the gri-gri (charm) she wore around her neck that I had drawn in, she was upset. She would not let me take her picture for fear it would steal her soul and she would not be able to get into heaven. These women were hard workers. Their houses were down to the bare minimum, their dowries of beds, and dishes and pots long ago given away as gifts, worn out, or sold for needed cash. They dressed in the simpler, less feminine style of old women.

Dowry displayed at a wedding. These items belong to the woman.

The Christians in our village were almost all outsiders who had come as government or health workers or as fishermen from the south of Chad. They came from various ethnic groups and spoke several languages. The women usually did not know French and their Arabic was hard for me to understand. The Christian southern women often had a younger sister or niece or cousin to come and work for them. They were more likely to be large women, a sign of a husband with a salary… They dressed differently than the Arab women. They incorporated more western dress, such as t-shirts or blouses, with their ponges, and covered their heads with scarves rather than veils. They tended to stick to themselves and stay at the other end of the village, forming a warm community among themselves. The midwife Naomi, or “Asta” as she was called, was an exception. Warmly welcomed wherever she went, she was one of the reasons there was such a good relationship between Christians and Muslims in our village.

Church women's organization in matching "complets"

I was an anomaly among them. I felt more at home with their French-speaking, possibly educated husbands. To me, they seemed more subdued than their Muslim counter parts. A Christian pastor once bawled out my daughter for not greeting him properly, and myself for not pumping water for Dave to take his bath when he got home from the fields. I asked him if women kneel to put in their offering at church because of something in the Bible, or if it was cultural? The offering container lay on a table right in from of the men who were the leaders in the church and these southern women handed anything to men from a crouching or kneeling position, so I suspected they did this with the offering because of those men behind the table. The pastor said it was a cultural thing and I felt perfectly free not to crouch down to put in my offering!

Southern Christian women came to celebrate and brought a clay drum.

Mary Lou Cummings’ goal was to interview African women who are leaders in the local churches to tell their stories. She wanted to collect stories, affirm local leaders and hold up role models to the young, sensing that women were so often overlooked, both by (development) projects and in recognition of their work. Her goal is well met in her book as she shares the stories of women who felt called as individuals to work for God, and who struggled with the inequalities and injustices and hurts of polygamy, desertion, lack of property rights, unending work, and responsibility for their children at the same time. They brought their struggles to God, often their only resort, looking to Him for inner and outer transformations.

One woman, describing herself and her family as among the pioneers in evangelism said, “I think it is easier for women to be Christians. We are closer to our spirits than men are, so it is easier to come to God’s presence, to ask for help. Many men are impatient. They want to be the head of the house, important. They are too proud to put themselves under God.”

The women she interviews turned a western question about “talents” into something they could understand. For them, “The questions was survival, not talents or self-fulfillment”, and few people bothered to think in those terms. So one Christian leader moved into an area she understood better…” telling of how she has cared for children, coped with her leg condition. “So you see, “ she says, “I love God. I love God even with my leg condition, and I love the church. I don’t have any other way to do anything.”

Some of the women who have been deserted by husbands described Jesus as their husband, the one they turn to. The women in this book responded to a hard life by developing an inner beauty that touched those around them. They accepted the hard things in their lives, believing that endurance was a worthwhile quality, but more than that, that at some point God would enter into their story and transform their suffering. And that is what happens, somewhere in these stories you stop hearing the pain, and see the wonder of what God has done, the depths of his love.

In ND’jamena, the capital city of Chad, there was a huge march to the president’s palace, asking for democratic reforms and for government salaries to be paid. It was women who were in the front, pulling their husbands along. In fact, the newspaper went so far as to say, “Where change is taking place in Africa, women have been at the forefront of it.”

How different is that from today?  In Tahrir square, it wasn’t just men who protested, Egyptian women camped out too. Yet, they are afraid they are being marginalized as Egypt figures out what democracy looks like for them.

I liked to use the hymn, “Sister, let me be your servant”, first learned in French in Chad, with this speech. It was later that the words were changed (and something lost) to “Will you let me…”

Will you let me be your servant?

Sister, let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.


We are pilgrims on a journey,
fellow travelers on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.


I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you
speak the peace you long to hear.


I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.


When we sing to God in heaven,
we shall find such harmony,
born of all we’ve know together
of Christ’s love and agony.


From: Common Praise #500


Chadian Arabic:

  • mara – wife
  • miskine – poor or simple
  • mala – why
  • mata – when
  • mileh – salt
  • min – of or from
  • mulah – sauce
  • murr – bitter
  • Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 David Wiebe
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    8 Responses to International Women’s Day, an African reflection

    1. Celeste says:

      Thanks for sharing this reflection. I’m glad I came back to see the additional photos, especially the one of you with long hair.

      I think of you and Dave often.

      With love and prayers,

    2. Trina Miller says:

      Awesome sharing! I really enjoyed your perspectives. Thank you.

    3. cornelia krahn says:

      I enjoyed reading that. Thanks.

    4. Laurie Hesed says:

      Thanks so much, Cookie, for the stories and memories you’ve recounted of your time in Chad. It’s such a great addition to thoughts on International Women’s Day and good to think about how women in other life situations are different and yet exactly like us. Their challenges help center my own life. As does yours. I think of you often and send you my prayers…

    5. COOKS, this is awesome! Thanks for sharing – we got a lot of the fun, crazy stories while we were around you, but hearing these types of things is really valuable and neat. 🙂

    6. Pingback: International Women's Day, an African reflection … | HappyTipsDaily

    7. Al says:

      what does it mean: “lack of property tights”? spellcheck won’t catch taht onne!
      “a bout” too.
      soo sorry… I have lapsed into being an editor.

      • cookie says:

        Thanks Al! AFter struggling (again) with adding photos – and not having the text disappear – I needed a laugh. I’ll fix it tomorrow!

    Comments are closed.