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|How an African Pygmy Tribe Explained My Life to Me|
Aug. 21st, 2013 at 12:23 pm
In November 1989 I was not a happy person. I was struggling with something, a feeling of injustice I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Rob and I had been married for 2 ½ years, our first child had just turned one. Rob was working full time as a janitor at night, cleaning the university classrooms he sat in during the day as a full time student. We joked he was home long enough to get me pregnant and then he was gone. I was by default a stay-at-home mom because we couldn’t afford to pay a babysitter to stay with Jennifer while I continued taking classes for a degree I no longer cared about and didn’t want to go further into student loan debt to get.
Besides, there was a niggling feeling I had about Jennifer. I had taken her to the doctor repeatedly since she was a newborn, telling whoever would listen that I thought something was wrong but no one heard me. They decided I was a young, inexperienced mother who was seeking attention by insisting there was something amiss with my baby. It would be another year and ½ before Jennifer’s speech delays would be obvious enough that her moderate hearing loss would finally be diagnosed.
No, back then, it was something else. I was unsettled, feeling frustrated at the inequalities of my situation. Sure, my husband worked full time and was a full time student. I accepted gratefully his willingness to work so hard his hands cracked and blistered. But I was working full time too, taking care of a baby I struggled to understand and who wasn’t developing the way other children did. I made everything else in life run smoothly so Rob could be free to be gone all day and all night except for the 6 hours he slept before his morning class. That counted for something, right?
I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what I was thinking. Rob and I lived in married student housing, surrounded by young families who were in the same poverty/school boat we were in. Some had more money, some had less. Some drove nice cars their parents paid for, some didn’t have a car at all. I wasn’t special in my struggle; everyone around me was having a hard time too. Before the internet everyone worked things out for themselves, one way or another.
One day, while sitting in yet another doctor’s office trying to find out what indescribable thing was wrong with Jennifer, I saw a magazine that interested me. It was the National Geographic November 1989 issue and it had a story with about the Efe, a tribe of pygmies who lived in the African rain forest. I was halfway through the article when the nurse called from the waiting room. I wanted to finish reading it so I quickly stuffed it into the diaper bag, intending to return it the next time we came back to the clinic. That was 24 years ago. I hope they aren’t waiting for it to reappear. My conscience is clear, he didn’t diagnosis Jennifer’s hearing loss and I got his magazine. Square deal.
As I read the article, written by American researcher Robert C. Bailey, I had to laugh. He worked very hard to present an article discussing the inevitable decline of the Efe tribe unless areas of forest were protected for their use. What he really wrote about was Efe marriage and relationships, which I wasn’t surprised he missed. He was single at the time and most single men I know are denser than a board. I am sure since his marriage to his fellow researcher, anthropologist Nadine Peacock, his eyes have been opened.
Besides bow hunting, the Efe men also collect honey. Mr. Bailey wrote, “My observations over a year revealed that the men spent 11 percent of their waking hours foraging for honey. In addition to its value in trade with the Lese (a neighboring tribe) honey accounted directly for 14 percent of the total calories brought into camp. I remember many times when they ate all the honey in a hive and walked into camp with bloated stomachs to say to their wives, “Oh dear, we worked so hard, and there was hardly anything in the hive.” On such nights the wives put little effort into cooking dinner.”
No kidding. Those Efe men are lucky they got any dinner at all. Besides eating all the honey, the Efe men also smoked pot mixed with tobacco and spend a good amount of time lying around, resting.
The researcher wrote,” One evening after supper Eembi took a deep drag of harsh leaf tobacco, as if to fortify himself, then moved to the center of the camp. He spoke firmly: “My villager has given me a large pot to fill with rofo honey, but I cannot do it if we stay here. We are not finding good hives. We must move closer to the river, where there is sure to be honey and where the villagers have not killed all our animals with their traps.” The men gave no argument. The women, however, protested, wanting to stay closer to the Lese village where they could get essential garden food in return for their labor. But the argument for honey won, and the next morning brought the familiar hubbub of decamping. Atosa packed her basked with nearly everything she and Dinogono owned: two blackend aluminum pots, a blue plastic cup, a small aluminum dish with a hole in it, two threadbare shirts, a small piece of cloth, an old machete without a handle, a thumb piano, a cracked clay pipe, and a rusted can containing two needles, a few strands of thread, a safety pin, and a few beads wrapped in an old magazine picture of Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko. She tied two squawking chickens to the side of the basket, and in her left hand she carried an emaciated puppy that slept even when she waved to hurry her daughter, Zatu….Enroute Dingono followed his wife and daughter. From his neck hung his bark quiver containing his full arsenal of 6 metal-tipped arrows and 17 poison arrows. In his right hand he clutched his spear and bow. Like most of the men, he carried nothing else. I calculated that each women carried about 40 pounds – about half her own weight – on the four hour trek. “ Why do the women carry heavy loads and the men almost nothing?” I asked Dingono. “Women are stronger, “ he answered matter-of-factly. “I could never carry all that weight. Besides, men have to be free to use their weapons. What if an elephant charges?” I smiled, thinking surely Dingono was joking. I knew that any animal, even a forest elephant, was terrified of the Efe, not to speak of a whole group of them.”
I chuckled at Dingono’s reasoning, remembering elsewhere in the article the researcher mentioned there hadn’t been an elephant in the area for years. I thought about the article for days, waiting until I could talk to Rob about it on the weekend. I realized that what the article described was exactly what I had been feeling. I felt like I was carrying our whole house on my back, while my husband was carrying nothing. I felt like my religious village moved based on the opinions of the men, not the women. I felt a kinship with the Efe women of Africa that I hadn’t known existed.
As I read the article to Rob, he listened but I was sure he didn’t get it. He was too busy working, studying and test taking to pay much attention to my thoughts.
That changed on Sunday morning when we pulled into the church parking lot. I took Jennifer out of her car seat, then put on her coat. I carried her, the diaper bag, my purse and my Sunday School Lesson Bag for the children’s class I taught, while teetering across the snow covered parking lot in my high-heel dress shoes. Rob walked well ahead of me, his hands free except for his scripture bag. My mind flashed to the Efe woman carrying her household, live chickens and a puppy across the forest. I yelled out to Rob, “Hey! I’m carrying the house here! What are you doing?” Rob stopped, turned and looked at me. He smiled and came back to me. “Why, I was going ahead to protect you from rampaging elephants, of course.” He took the diaper bag and baby from me and held the door open so I could maneuver myself inside without banging on the door frame.
26 years of marriage later, Rob and I rarely discuss the division of labor at our house anymore. We probably would have come to some sort of arrangement all on our own, but I appreciate the shortcut in communication the Efe tribe gave us. As I now read reams of articles on the internet about the changing roles of men and women in the workplace and in churches, I remember that this discussion has been going on since the beginning of time. It is not new, it is not a by product of our modern times. It happens in pygmy villages in the deepest African forest and our homes every day. The trick to finding peace seems to be recognizing that no one needs to carry the whole house by themselves, even if the women are stronger.