Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Gender roles in the Vezo culture

Last Saturday we attended the Women’s Day celebrations in Befandefa, the administrative center of the area. Befandefa is a small, inland village about 45 minutes drive from Andava (not far in kilometres, but the dirt roads don’t allow faster access). In this region of fishing communities, it is the only village that does some agriculture around here, although I have to say I didn’t see many fields...

Women’s Day is hugely important here, it allows the ladies to leave their everyday duties behind, come together and officially enjoy themselves. This year hundreds of people gathered to sing, dance and fundraise for their respective women’s associations. Each village has women’s and girls’ associations, most of them have a uniform ‘lamba’ (a rectangular material one can wrap around herself as if it was a skirt) or T-shirt. 

The celebrations consisted of each group parading around a big open area, in front of a covered podium (we had seats there, behind the various village elders and presidents). After the “parade” of the groups, each of them did a little performance. The younger girls were dancing to popular Malagasy tunes, the older generation often sang their own songs with really interesting messages.

Unfortunately, my Malagasy is still restricted to about 3 lines, so I missed out on a lot, but the summary I was given sounded really great. There was one group that was singing about natural resource use and asking “Do we want to exploit our oceans until there is no fish in them?” And then responded “No” and had a whole song built around this kind of question and answer structure.

Another group was singing about the different people working in and with Safidy- I caught their names and the smile of each person when they were mentioned suggested that the song was a big success.

Once the performances were over everyone went to have lunch. We left mid-afternoon... before the much advertised highlight of the day had started: the beauty contest. The feminist in me had a slight shock when I heard that there would be a beauty contest for women’s day, because I don’t quite see how judging women by their looks will make them feel better about themselves or more empowered... I was told (by a man) that here this is a great way to demonstrate that women can do more than their traditional roles i.e. just staying home and having babies.

I also found out that women’s day often involves football tournaments among female teams. Apparently these games are so emotionally heated that there are regularly broken body parts by the end. If we had been able to stay I would have been very tempted to play football with Vezo women - much more so than participating in the beauty contest, to which we were all kindly invited!

Yesterday I had a funny conversation with a young gentleman who has been working around our huts for a while. He is approximately in his early thirties and we’ve had a couple of exchanges already as one of our medics treated a wound on his leg and I served as the interpreter. After the usual formalities (Hello, how are you, how is your leg doing?) he asked me whether there was a monsieur associated with me. I told him yes. He then explained to me that he is looking for a "vazaha" wife (so, basically a foreigner) because he has three children and is a widow. To improve his chances, he told me about a land that he could get and where he could construct a hut for this future spouse.

I am intrigued by the fact that "vazaha" women are on such high demand and wanted to find out why that might be the case. His response was just as straight forward as the intitial question: Malagasy women are a bit agitated and jealous, while the white women are much calmer! 

Additionally, I was told, local women are alcoholics and play cards and if that wasn’t enough, they don’t work either and live on the husband’s salary, meaning that you are poor by the end of the month. White women have no such guilty pleasures (...) and they work, so the family would be much better off. Seems logical. Except that I keep seeing the women and the children in the village carrying the firewood, cleaning the clothes at the well, cooking in front of their huts. I didn’t see any women sitting in the bar, drinking for pleasure... Last Tuesday night (when we went to the local disco for purely cultural purposes...) I saw one or two women and all the other late night guests were male. So, if this gentleman’s insight has any component of reality to it, Malagasy women must be closet alcoholics!

Interpreting this from my personal perspective would mean labelling it highly sexist. But I can also see the value of being straight forward and simply asking for what we really want. Why beat around the bush if all you want is a "vazaha" wife and there is one, approximately the right age sitting across the veranda? =)

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