If I talk to people in different African countries, both the locals and those foreigners working with them, there is one notion that I encounter all over the place: It is basically the women who keep the place going, feed the families, are to be trusted with loans etc. In Ghana even the young Ghanaian men I worked with generally had a lot of praise for their mothers and very little for their fathers.
Today at breakfast I had an interesting discussion with a colleague who opened my eyes to a possible cultural and historical explanation that goes beyond the boring ideological statement that women are somehow better people. In many pre-colonial societies in Africa (and elsewhere, for that matter) the role of the man was closely linked to the forest, going out in the wild, risking their lifes to hunt and bring back food for the family. Women were much more household bound, involved in agricultural activities, if that was part of the specific culture. In many colonies, the colonial powers decided that the forests were to be state propperty and thus made the male contribution to household lifelihood an illegal activity. At the same time, women continued cultivating the land and – in many cases – didn’t encourage men to encroach on this domain.
So, my friend says, what are the men supposed to do, who didn’t only get food but also recognition and dignity through their hunting activities? Denying them access to the forest was like making them amputees, forced to find alternative ways of spending their day and searching for dignity. And even now most support programs focus on women and often not taking men seriously as partners in development.
This might not explain everything that happens in the many different cultures of Africa in the interaction between men and women. Why I found this conversation inspiring, was because my colleague opened my eyes to a completely different perspective to something that I have struggled with in the past. And it is much more helpful to try and understand the behaviour of groups by understanding their culture and history than by throwing blame around and claiming that they behave in a certain way because they are just a bit useless…
Filed under: exploring new ideas