Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 8 March 2013

The Numilis

I came across the numilis two days ago when I was rearranging books on the shelf above my work-desk. They have been book-ends for a long time.They are quite ugly, these two little statuettes crudely made of soap stone. 

The big one, about nine inches high has a face more distorted than the small one. It is a he - the features are all merged into each other as though he has recently been cured of leprosy. The head is most of the statue, with the body a short stump below it.

The smaller one is darker, slightly more personable. Looks like she had crude plastic surgery , though, and the doctor gave up half way. She sneers a bit.

I collected them in a very different life in Sierra Leone. I didn't know what they were meant to be, but then Sierra Leone was a bit like that. You had to take it on trust and most times that worked. (But not the time when we had a shortage of diesel in the country and I stored a fifty- gallon drum of this precious fuel in a Lebanese friend's warehouse. I lost both petrol and friend.) Some you lose.

The numilis have something compulsive about them in their utter misshapenness. You end up looking at them for a long while. Malcolm Thompson, our Assistant Director of the British Council in Freetown, had a collection of these in his office and it was he who told me about them: Sierra Leonean women kept them under their marital bed because they were fertility symbols.

'What happened when they failed to conceive?' I asked. 'Oh, they smashed them up and threw them out of the front door,' my boss, Mike Chadwick offered. And I knew I would like those women immensely.

All this came up in my memory during the International Women's day snippets on the TV. We heard a lot about how badly the women in England got discriminated against, in the workplace. True, very true. But, does it compare even remotely with what happens in Asia, and to a larger degree in Africa?

In some African countries, women deliberately had children before marriage so that their fertility could be proved beyond doubt. Even though they had no means of supporting them. In a country where multiple partners was the norm, where would an infertile spouse stand in the hierarchy?

In the North of Uganda, after the boys were 'initiated', I was told they were advised to have sex as soon as possible after the event. The boys would be anything between four and fourteen years old. My gardener had AIDS by the time he was twenty and he was dead before twenty-five. These boys who were sent out to go forth and perform, I wonder what age the girls were that they practised on.

I once went to a Vodoo shrine near Gbendembu in Sierra Leone. It was hidden well inside the forest and there was no path to it. There was no way you would find it if you didn't know it was there. A Peace Corps friend extracted the information about this voodoo shrine from a local friend of his, who had to remain unnamed. We went there on a motor bike - I remember being hugely disappointed. A low thatch made of mud. What was there to look at?

Returning to Makeni, we saw a group of boys being led on the main road, by two men. The men had bamboo canes in their hand, which they used to keep the lines under control. The youngest looked under five and the oldest no more than ten or eleven. My friend stopped the motor bike and took his camera out. He clicked furiously. When the vodooo leaders noticed him they ran towards us, my companion powered up his bike, accelerated and got away quickly.

The friend who told the American about the shrine was a Catholic. 'Thank God,' I said to my friend. 'So, at least, his daughter is not going to get mutiliated.'

My friend smiled. 'I think he will hedge his bets. There is a lot of pressure on him to conform.' So the ten - year old was at the mercy of the elders in her community. Or the strength of her father's resolve.

I find it quite hard to get incensed about the women who don't reach the board rooms in the United Kingdom. Totally unfair, I agree, but if it's women of the world we are talking about, my sympathies are engaged elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Anand! (I'm sorry that I am just now getting to responding on your blog....teaching in the U.S. ain't all it's cracked-up to be...or maybe it IS ALL that's cracked-up!)

    Your "Numilis" story gives much food for thought ~ especially to Westerners who have not experienced the inequality of women in the 3rd World. As for the "little deities" in the photo...I can't say that I have ever heard of them in Salone. But, FGM, yes, I'd heard. Sierra Leone was my first introduction to the concept...I still shudder. Since my Peace Corps days I've continued to hear about FGM and the campaign to try to stop it. From the Somali-born model, Iman, to Nicholas Kristof and "Half the Sky" series, I know that now more and more Westerners are learning about it. I had a student (when she was just new to the U.S. from Somalia and she was an 8th grader/13-year-old), who is now a Freshman in college. She, very poignantly, gave an oral presentation (in her grade-level 8th grade class ---NOT in my ESL class) about FGM. I was so very proud of her for her courage and for doing it with her limited English to a class full of American boys and girls. Today, she is going into the health field and, I believe, she plans to help with the crusade against FGM. I hope and pray that more women from the countries who practice FGM will stand up and continue the fight. Thank you for your part of the crusade. :)