A month ago I was in Buea to test more than 1,000 people for HIV in a single day at the Race of Hope. I was in the lobby of my hotel trying to negotiate for a lower price and partial refund because they had promised hot water, no cockroaches and continental breakfast for my set price. I knew it was a tall order—and they had failed to deliver on it. In fact, there was no running water at all. The man behind the counter made an effort to deflect responsibility refusing to talk to me at first, though the reservation was in my name. Then said he could not give me money because the manager was at church (an all day affair for Cameroonians). My needs were so unimportant to address that I was following him through the hotel while he hauled buckets of water to their various rooms. As I climbed those wet stairs after this man, I realized he didn’t even see me as a person because I was just a woman. I probably didn’t make household decisions anyway. As my temper was flaring, my friend who was sharing the hotel room with me stepped in. When my friend finished negotiating the refund, the manager stopped in the doorway with a knowing smile and says warmly, “Don’t worry, I am married too. I understand.” And without a glance at me he cruises back downstairs to watch his evangelical television. It took my friend ¼ of the time to get me my refund. Yes, he was less frantic. Yes, I was all too glad to step into gender roles since I knew it would benefit me. No, a little part of me did not die.
Since this is not the first time I am dealing with this I thought I would share the two general reactions I have to this scenario:
- Go on the defensive. I notice it afterward, when I realize I approached the situation ready to be given the run around, be treated like a festering wound or totally ignored. Sometimes sexism sneaks up on me so I am left to freestyle.
- Be totally belligerent. I’ve climbed on top of buses while yelling in French, I’ve had to call my boss to prevent me from snatching my money and running or fighting and old drunken man, I’ve stomped my feet so hard they hurt, I’ve explained shamelessly that I don’t care if they are a man I am still first in line. I will not condone my behavior. It just is what it is—at this point it is the past.
Peace Corps has three stated Goals inarticulately summarized here:
1) Skill transfer. In other words, do work, teach others to work.
2) Share American culture with Cameroonians
3) Share Cameroonian culture with Americans
So if I zero-in on Goals 2 & 3 what should I do about this sexism? This is where the white woman part comes in. I stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. So even though I may loose nearly all battles I have against men in regards to respect, I keep on keepin’ on because when I am headstrong and insist I have rights and am equal, I know women are paying attention. Whether the big men in my village like it or not I am these women’s most tangible example of what an American woman is like.
Women carry the Cameroonian economy on their shoulders while birthing an average 4.3 children per woman. Everywhere you look, they manage their household and children like a well oiled machine all while having one or more small (often untaxed or informal) businesses.
Nothing can remain the same forever. And things, they are changing. Even in my agricultural town there are women who amaze me in their gutsy leadership. One woman I work with is the manager of a local cooperative. She is smart, eager to learn and does not hesitate to do business in a place that still regards formal business as a man’s club. She is fearless in a situation where there are not a whole lot of mentors to share advice and insight. This woman is backed up by a man in my village who also shocks me with his great leadership and faith in his team. Sometimes I have to ask myself who is learning more—the business people or the Peace Corps Volunteer? The women leaders I meet here are special because they are the trailblazers for tomorrows Cameroonian women. They take the best practices from Global North countries and add their own Cameroonian flavor to make it their own. Somehow things are getting done.