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Friday – Am I a woman?

January 20, 2006

A bizarre, interesting and ultimately deeply touching day today in a village called Fikayi. It is the first place we have visited that currently has no safe supply of water, although a well is scheduled to be built this year. We arrive and, after the usual welcome from the chief, arrange to photograph a few women at their closest and most frequently used source of water: a dirty pond 15 minutes away. Their other choice, a cleaner stream, is nearly an hour away.

Sa'a Ali collects water from a dirty pond

13-year-old Sa’a Ali fetches water from a pond shared with frogs and God knows what else. © Suzanne Porter

Suzanne and Mathew go ahead in the Land Rover with some of the women. Duncan, Bankole and I make our way on foot. Predictably many women and children follow us. Equally predictable, while I am being watched by some putting on sun screen, Suzanne’s ability to take photos is greatly diminished by the growing crowd, a nightmare for her on every visit so far.

Mathew, Bankole and I lead the onlookers away to where the Land Rover is parked out of camera range. When we get there one of the girls called out “Bituri, bituri!” to me. When I look over she’s making a rubbing motion on her arm. I nod and shrug, trying to convey that, yes, I do have stupid skin that can’t take the sun. She rubs her arm again and nods towards me. “Ah,” I say, even though she can’t understand me, “you want some?” The question is conveyed more with gestures and facial expressions than words. She smiles and nods, so I pull out my sun lotion and squeeze some into her hand. Then, of course, nothing will do but the whole crowd want some. Dozens of hands are held out to me. Bankole gets a snap of me doling out dollops to everyone which they all rub on their arms.

Then, without me noticing, both Bankole and Mathew disappear, leaving me alone to entertain the crowd.

They just can’t figure out what to make of me. I look as if I must be a woman, yet I am wearing trousers and one of the men’s shirts I was forced to buy in the Stoke Newington second hand clothes shop after I twigged that I was going to be in the Muslim north where I would need to cover up without anything the least appropriate in my wardrobe.

I begin to comprehend the confusion when one young woman holds her hands under her breasts and looks at me curiously. I nod my understanding and cup my hands under my own breasts, give them a jiggle. They all smile, but that’s not quite enough to satisfy their curiosity. One motions pulling up her top and nods towards me in a clear request that I show them my tits. I would probably agree without thinking, but there are some male youths around and I don’t fancy putting a show on for them. Ridiculous really, but there you go.

Bankole comes back and I tell him about the women’s request. He seems more shocked than I was (not that I was particularly shocked, just not particularly obliging). Duncan, who’s been interviewing women at the pond, comes over to ask if I’d like to have a turn. I would like to, but I also realise that I am the thing keeping the crowd away. I explain this to him and demur. He goes off again and I try to think of something to keep my fans entertained. The women and girls all have traditional tightly braided hair, so for the hell of it I put a small and no doubt terrible (couldn’t see what I was doing) plait in my hair. My surmise about the quality of my plait is confirmed when one of the women steps forward, gesturing that she wants to do it for me. Bankole reappears in time to take a picture of this. Great, because I really want a record.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I’m having my hair braided a couple of others inspect my ears, surprised they are not pierced and that unlike them (even the youngest girls) I have no earrings. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets. These females, poorer than I can imagine, all have jewellery, some really quite beautiful. This reignites their curiosity and my shirt lifting friend again conveys that I should show them my tits. Bankole’s gone and so are the boys. What the hell, I smile, pull up my shirt and vest and flash one. Great hilarity ensues. They are finally convinced I really am female, but the issue of the jewellery still clearly disturbs them.

I sit down on the step of the Land Rover and a moment later, a little girl (six years old, named, I later discover, Hauwa) undoes her beaded necklace and holds it out to me. “For me?” I mime. She nods. I take it from her and get her to help me do it up. I am so touched I want to cry, but I also can’t stop grinning. This is the most extraordinary thing that’s ever happened to me and I will never possess another piece of jewellery which I treasure more.

At a loss for any other way to entertain them without language, I demonstrate that by bouncing up and down on the Land Rover step I can make it move. Some of the boys, who’ve now returned, decide this is a great game and try it on the side steps, ecstatic to find it works for them, too.

The photo session starts to wind down. Deborah Kogi from Women In Nigeria, our partner organisation, comes over to the Land Rover. I get her to take a picture of me with Hauwa, then I ask her to explain to the women for me that I do not have any jewellery because I’ve left it at home, afraid I might lose it on my travels. (Not strictly speaking true. I hardly wear any jewellery and the rings I do wear, my mother’s, I left at home in fear of robbery.) Deborah translates and there are smiles and nods all round. Mystery solved. Deborah laughs and tells me the women have just said I will have to bring it next time I come so they can see it. I say I will, feeling guilty because the odds of me ever returning to this village are slim to nonexistent.

Hadija Mahamadu fetches water up to five times a day© Suzanne Porter

Suzanne and Mathew return to the village in the Land Rover. I walk back with the women, all of them, including six-year-old Hauwa, who holds my hand most of the way, balancing containers of water on their heads. How do they do it?

Our plan is to go to the DWMCO office for lunch and then return when the afternoon light is best for taking photos of the women and girls at home. Suzanne is completely blown away by what natural models the girls and women are. We all comment on how beautiful they are. Oh, yes, Bankole and Mathew agree, it is a well acknowledged fact that Fulani women are stunners. (Mathew, a happily married Christian, has been offered one of these knockouts for consideration as a second wife. He’s politely agreed to give the matter some consideration.)

As we prepare to leave, the surveyors turn up unexpectedly to assess the best location for the well. While Suzanne attempts to take pictures of this much celebrated event as best she can in the harsh midday light, the geologist attempts to explain the technology used to Duncan and me. Anyone who knows me can attest that science and technology are not my strongest subjects, but eventually I get the fact that the electrical currents pumped through the metal rods impaled in the ground give a reading of the water (if any) and its level below.

Sa’a Ali using dirty pond water to clean dishes © Suzanne Porter

We return after lunch, Suzanne to take her at home pictures, me to interview, with Mathew acting as my (as it turns out fantastic) translator, Haua Musa, mother of 10, grandmother of 15, who’s lost two children and a grandchild to water and sanitation related diseases. She is now the female lead on the recently formed village hygiene committee. She tells me her life has been dominated by water: when she wants a drink, there is no water, when she wants to cook, there is no water, when she wants to bathe, there is no water. She no longer has to collect water herself, her grandchildren do that for her now. But that saddens her, too. She would rather they were in school, but the nearest school is too far away for the children to attend. The village has already decided that once the well is installed and they have latrines built, the next thing they are going to do is to build a school. With water and sanitation they will be able to get a teacher to come, without it they won’t. At the end of the interview I ask her if there is anything she wants to ask or tell me.

Haua Musa

She nods and speaks. Mathew smiles when she’s finished, seeming to appreciate her comment, then tells me what she’s just said: “I am very surprised and happy that you came to visit us today. You took the time to spend time with us. You walked to the watering hole with the women and walked back. I did not ever expect to see a bituri do these things.” That really does make me want to weep.

Everywhere we go we are treated like visiting dignitaries which is shaming. My life in London is so easy by comparison. I have a home, a job. I can turn a tap for water, flick a switch for light. That women like Haua can live with such dignity with so little is astonishing. They are the real VIPs.

On the way back to our hotel, Suzanne and I plead to stop somewhere to buy some fruit. Like me, her system is going into meltdown (or more accurately the opposite) from lack of fresh fruit and veg. I also appeal for help solving my inadequate mozzie net problem. Mathew leads me into the market to a stall where one can be procured. I’m not sure what the asking price is, but he gets it down to 600 naira – just as well, as it turns out I only have 700 naira on me.

At 10 o’clock that night (after I finish moving my bed into the middle of the room so I can attach the net to the fan and discover several condom wrappers dropped between the headboard and the wall – despite the no free women sign there’s obviously some action in this hotel), I am surprised by a phone call from reception telling me I have a visitor from Women In Nigeria. I go out to the lobby and a man I’d met this afternoon hands me a carrier back containing four gift wrapped parcels, presents for Suzanne, Duncan, Bankole and me. I am touched and also embarrassed that I have absolutely nothing to offer in return. I thank him and go and knock on Suzanne’s door, knowing she (unlike early to bed Duncan) will still be up. We open our gifts: two matching sets of tops and trousers made from incredibly stiff, tie-dyed fabric. Now I’m even more touched and embarrassed that I had nothing to offer back.

From → Nigeria

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