Monday, November 17, 2008

When those "situations" become personal

As we turned the bend on the way into work, my boss pulled the car over and said, "Get out and act calm." I swiveled in my seat and saw my colleague outside her vehicle arguing with a man who was visibly angry and yelling at her. Not one to be shy, she was standing up to him and yelling right back. A policeman from the opposite side of the intersection walked over to try to address the situation, and I got out of the car and walked over with my peacemaker face on. The policeman manged to get the two of them to move their collided vehicles away from the middle of the road, the passengers in the matatus silently got down from the vehicle to surrounded me, my colleague, the driver, the policeman, and a bystander who spoke English, and the negotiations began.

Standing outside by the side of a Juba road in the rain on a Monday morning trying to negotiate with a drunken matatu driver on how much money we would pay him for his broken light after he ran into my colleague's vehicle was not how I wanted to start my week.

However, my boss obviously wanted me to deal with the situation, not this other woman, so for the second time since I've been here I was the one to negotiate with matatu drivers on behalf of other woman colleagues who were unwilling or unable to do so.

Three times the market rate for the cost of parts and labor for the broken light? Come on, two times? Doesn't matter that we had our mechanic on the phone with the policeman telling him how much everything costs on the market, the policeman just shrugged his shoulders, said, "It's raining, give him what he asks for."

After 30 minutes we accepted, "fine, here's your money," and I got the translator to translate him a lecture about him being a "very bad person" (I'm so eloquent, aren't I?). But then my boss and the colleague said "what about him hitting her?" What? When did this happen? Turns out when the two vehicles collided and the matatu driver left the car, he opened the car door of my colleague, grabbed her arm out and started hitting her arms and chest. Because I did not see that part of the incident I had no idea, but was obviously approaching the negotiations in entirely the wrong way. This new element was addressed with the policeman, who again shrugged his shoulders pointing skyward at the falling ran, and proceeded to walk away.

Given some of the proscribed gender roles in Southern Sudan, including the attitude that "If you pay cows for a woman, then of course you can beat her. If you want to give me your daughter for free, maybe we can talk." it's not surprising that we were treated this way.

Here in Southern Sudan, even though there are many different tribes, marriage customs are very similar. Generally men get married when they can afford to buy enough cows to give to the bride's family - a reverse dowry of sorts - which means they are usually in their late 20's when they marry for the first time. Men can have anywhere from 1 to 4 wives, although I've met men that have 10. Whole families help the man out (uncles, father, grandfather, etc) with the 20 to 150 cows depending on the wealth of the family and the community. Cows cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a head depending on the size of the cow. Generally, the larger and more crooked the horns, the better. The man pays for the wedding celebrations too. Women (often girls really) are anywhere from 15-20 when they get married, even if they are educated in other East African countries. Babies come immediately after marriage, and men can even "return" a woman to her family if she is unable to have children. This has a lot to do with society as a whole - I know women that have directly asked their husbands to marry a co-wife so they can share the burden of chores and raising children with another woman.

If it seems to you that women here are treated as commodities to be bought and sold, you're not the only one, and it is quite difficult to be here seeing it first hand.

Driving away from the incident, feeling sick inside, my stomach turned into a bottomless pit of guilt. What could I, should I, have done differently? The answer is nothing. There is nothing I could have said or done which would change how the policeman or the matatu driver viewed the situation. All they saw was a woman, and a broken headlight, and a target on which what? To take out their frustration of having peace but not yet prosperity? To take advantage of an opportunity to make a quick and easy profit? To assert their "manliness"? To be fair there really is no way to know whether the incident was a result of them taking advantage of women or whether it was them taking advantage of khawajas (white people). Maybe a combination of both.

In the end, the policeman and driver paid for their mistake but not by our design. The colleague driving the car involved in the accident was here in Juba working for the Minister of Labour. She didn't want to say anything to the Minister, but a friend of hers did a few days later when her bruises started showing, and he proceeded to find out what happened, and find the people involved. The policeman was fired, and the matatu driver was arrested. God only knows what happens inside Sudanese prisons.

What are those two men thinking about now, looking back at things? Do they respect the fact that the law (written or not) saw them in the wrong? Will they become more bitter and act even worse if a similar incident happens again in the future? I'm not sure. But I do know that we all have a long, long way to go.

And next time, you'd better believe I will spend all day if I have to filing an official report with the police, no matter how futile the effort may seem at first.

"Hope will never be silent" ~Harvey Milk

1 comment:

Mamacita Chilena said...

The whole situation makes me feel a little ill. Honestly, I feel that you're very brave to confront these sort of things.

I'm fascinated by your blog...adding it to my reader. :)