lady business: notes towards a methodology, Kagbere

By Julie Mendel, B.A. student.

Insight from Kagbere, Sierra Leone.

Previously: On Hunger & Loving Humans & Manifesto (For Clarke Speed)

I. Sell

Sento is twenty-seven years old, maybe twenty-eight. She’s got a figure, a voice, a hairdo, and an attitude that all say city instead of village, Los Angeles instead of rural Sierra Leone. Mostly, it’s her attitude. [1] Sento’s confidence is inexplicable, an anachronism; like many other things about the lives of women I know in Kagbere, it seems all but impossible. Keyword being but. Because Sento is there, on that porch, wearing a fitted t-shirt and enormous silver earrings, selling someone a packet of sugar or laughing with some man on a motorbike, radiating confidence the entire time. Impossible, but possible.Sento is a business lady. The verandah room of her house is also a storeroom, 3/4s of it filled with piles of plastic buckets, plates, crepes (shoes), packets of sugar, salt and Maggi, notebooks, a rusty radio. Buying and selling small items isn’t unusual for women in Kagbere, but on such a large scale, for profit, certainly is. And Sento’s out for profit, as she very proudly illustrated one evening. A bag of Maggi, or MSG, costs seven thousand Leones in Makeni, the largest city in the north, which is too much and too far a distance for most people in the village. But Sento makes trips into the city every few months, packages the Maggi into packets of a tablespoon or two, and resells them, for one hundred Leones each. People just seem to know she sells goods and for how much. Children would silently appear during the evenings I spent with her, sopping from the rain, pay and pocket their wares, and leave as quietly as they came.

We sat close as she taught me how to spoon the Maggi into plastic and twist the plastic into perfect spheres. (Well, hers were perfect.) Scoop, pour, twist, tie, repeat. The sky was a grey-violet color, calm after dinnertime’s torrential storm, and as it darkened we counted the packets we finished and stuffed into a jar: seventy-three. Selling all of them would recoup her costs on the bag of Maggi, and the quarter left marked something she didn’t have to translate into Krio as she held it up to me and smiled widely: profit. To buy rice and goats, or more bags of Maggi, to sell, to make money, to buy more rice. To eat. “Business is how you make money,” she told me, “and money is how you get food.” [2] I smiled, looked out over the dirt road and the goat field beyond, and thought about the impossibility of picking up business acumen from a woman in a village in northern Sierra Leone. All but impossible, right?

From when she was nine until fifteen, Sento lived in Makeni, which helps explain the big earrings and the tiny t-shirts. Her mother couldn’t afford to keep her, so she was sent to  live with an uncle, who put her through evening school. She learned to write, got pregnant when she was fifteen, and returned to Kagbere, to raise her son and run the family store. [3] The story of a young woman returning to the village pregnant after time in a big city is a familiar one in Kagbere, but Sento expressed no regret. “In Makeni you have to pay for everything,” she explained. “Kagbere is my home.” [4]

Two men sped by on a motorbike, radio blaring. She points at their receding forms and says, “Makeni boys. They’re bluff.” Bluff, na Krio, translates roughly into cool, hip, confident, self-assured. How do you get to be bluff? I ask. [5] Sento laughs for a few seconds, thinks about it, then says what sounds like “You’re either bluff or you’re not. You’re bluff!” She pats my hair, which in the humidity flips out with a self-confidence the rest of me does not ever possess. “You’re the bluff one!” I insist. She laughs, looks out at the road, and shrugs, as if to say, Yeah, I know.

Impossible, but possible.

II. Weed

Koni Konteh is pregnant. This is her fifth pregnancy, but her fourth child. Nyandeh, the youngest, is two and well on her way to becoming just as sassy and pretty as her mother. Then there’s Curtis, four, with a tubby belly and cowboy dance moves, and Saidu, nine, the perfect miniature of his father, high-pitched giggle and all. Koni wants another girl, another child that can be hers, and predicted her due date with confidence, though inaccuracy: July 15th if it’s a girl, August 20th if it’s a boy. [6] She remembers exactly how long she carried each of her previous children to term, though – like almost everyone else in the village – she doesn’t remember their birthdays. [7] Age, in Kagbere, does not hold the same significance as a marker of life lived. Babies born, or farms planted, or even just the sheer, daily fact of survival – this is what is important. There is no calendar in Kagbere on which to cross off days: there is only the next meal, the next harvest, the next child.

Koni herself is twenty-two or twenty-three, only a few years older than me, though her belly, breasts, and hands all suggest she has already endured a lifetime. We sit on her porch in the evenings and I tell her about the forests in America, my mom, the relative lack of rice. We laugh, and compare hand sizes: my soft, small ones to her broad, callused palms. I tell her I am twenty-one, not that much younger than her, and she asks me if I have a husband in America. I say no. Unlike other women, who laugh unbelievingly and tell me I am only a smol gayl pikin, a small girl, Koni says maheio, good. “Husbands are trouble,” she says to the ground. “You suffer boku.” It is impossible to think of the right thing to say, so I give her hand a squeeze, and she squeezes back. We sit in silence for a long time. Possible.

Koni married her own husband, YY Konteh, when she was fifteen, moving from her natal village to Kagbere, and leaving her family to start one of her own. Married and moving are active verbs, but it would probably be more accurate to say Koni was married and was moved. YY chose her when she was just a young girl, paid her initiation fees, and received the return on his investment a few years later. [8] One afternoon, struggling to understand, I asked Koni if she was ready to come, how she knew what to do – which seems, when you are a woman in Kagbere, like everything. “Oh!” she said first, as she always does, as if she is continually surprised I still want her opinion. “Mi mudah, she done tich me. Ow fo bruk, ow fo kuk, ow fo wid, ow fo sell.” Women in Kagbere “just have to work… if you don’t work, you won’t eat. You need to feed your family.” And if you don’t have a family? “Oh! You’ll get one. You’re not able to choose.” [9]

How to survive this, how to maintain a universe you do not get to choose, seems embedded somehow in lessons on cooking, washing, weeding, and selling. Women learn how from other women, and that, somehow, is enough to keep going. To me, it seems impossible, but there it is: possible. And so I go weeding.

It is the morning of July 4th, and even though Koni said her granat farm was close, it’s really a twenty minute walk away. The farms this far down the road are densely planted, and the granat plants on Koni’s land are more matured than the others I have seen. Because of her pregnancy, Koni hasn’t been able to weed in a while, and so the weeds are also bigger, tall and sharp and a complete pain to pull out. [10] The sky is overcast, but even in the morning the heat is relentless, and after just ten minutes I am already dripping with sweat, debating to take a break or pull a few more plants first. I like the repetitiveness of weeding, but today, instead of calming, it is a struggle. I go over it in my head, basic field methodology: bend down, grip the bottom of the weed, pull, discard, repeat. Avoid the thorny vines and the granat plants; stick to the tall, grassy ones, with edges sharp enough to cut.

Bend down. Grip. Pull. Slowly. It is hot and I feel dehydrated. I turn, to see how Koni is doing, and – even though she’s been going back and pulling what we miss – she’s several yards ahead of us. We insist she take a break, but she shakes her head and smiles, and continues to pull with an efficiency that I, for all my youth and fitness, cannot muster. She is eight months pregnant, and keeps weeding. Impossible, but possible.

Women learn from other women. I manage to write just one sentence in my journal that day before I fall asleep: A lesson in strength.

III. Plant

Yai Mary grew up in a village between Kagbere and Mbendembu, eight miles away, a distance you can cover in a morning – if you’re her, which means if you walk fast. [11] She has three other siblings: a brother in Romoko, a sister in Freetown, and another brother who died long ago. She is old enough to have been old in the 1980s, but young enough, apparently, to have a sixteen year old daughter. Age is especially meaningless when it comes to Yai Mary, as the most important thing about her – to me, anyway – is that she is, when all the (public) rules say she shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t still have a farm and a bevy of people to support when you’re a widow; you shouldn’t command so much respect, from men and women alike, when you occupy the margin. But the holographic playing card shifts, the circle spins, and she’s Yai Mary, so she does. Somehow.

Yai Mary’s story, like that of so many other women in Kagbere, is also the story of the husbands and sons and brothers-in-law in her life, who control the land she works – and, somehow, sometimes, the universe she keeps running in spite of them. A woman’s biography is her family, which is her lineage, which is her land, and so it goes, on and on in a circle. It is hard to parse out who has power and who doesn’t, even harder to see how it works.

Like Koni, Yai Mary was married to a Konteh man: Pa Alemami, former section chief, YY’s uncle, JKK – my host dad’s – brother. [12] He died a few years before the war, and – as she tells it, which does not mean it is necessarily accurate – she was with some mysterious pastor for a while, which did not last, and then with JKK, her brother-in-law, for thirteen years. As a widow, ownership of Yai Mary’s farms passed to her sons: women cannot own land in Kagbere, or access it “pas [without] men.” [13]

Though husband-less, widows are not man-less. It is customary for the elder brother of the deceased to take responsibility of his brother’s land, wife and children. As JKK put it, “it is important to keep everything in the family.” [14] Brothers technically cannot drive their sisters-in-law from the family house and farm; usually, if the widow is “humble”, “puts herself down”, and “’grees”, the brother-in-law marries her, and her access to the land she needs to support her family is secured, at least for a little while. [15]

This sounds like a plausible explanation for Yai Mary and JKK’s relationship, though according to him, “that relationship done fade.” [16] JKK’s responsibilities as the Konteh elder extend to another Konteh widow, Yai Fatouh, and the costs of supporting both families in addition to his own apparently proved to be too much for the man. (Instead, JKK insists, Yai Mary and her children know that he is their “uncle”, and that his “eyes are always over them.”)

Despite this, despite all the men in her life that are there and then not there, Yai Mary has a farm. Two, actually: a granat farm, and a rice swamp. I do not know, for all my reading, my questions, how she actually has this land; JKK’s support is the plausible explanation, but at this point even plausible explanations move in circles, shift dimensions, defy words. What I do know, what I have the words for, is this: Yai Mary’s rice swamp.

Yai Mary’s rice swamp is at the end of a path behind blind Pa Sori’s house, on the same road that goes to the river. It is green, greener than green, so green your eyes hurt, even weeks later as you look at the pictures on a computer screen. Hers is a rectangular piece of the swamp, maybe twenty-five by thirty yards, among other parcels of swamp with rice shoots of varying maturity. The land opposite the bank where we leave our packs and our shoes is covered in jungle and palm trees. We wade in. The water is cool, the mud squelchy, the ants out for blood. Yai Mary brings over bundles of rice shoots, bundles and bundles, then leaves and returns with more. And then we begin.

Like weeding, planting rice is repetitive. Separate two or three rice shoots from the bundle, hold the bottom with the thumb and index finger, insert straight down into the mud. Plant the shoots a few inches apart, and stick to the more solid mud formations; if you put them too close together, or not deep enough, they’ll fall over onto themselves, and Yai Mary will shoo you away and fix it herself. There are nine of us, and still the work takes the whole morning. After two hours I am smarting from several ant bites and somehow more dirty than everyone else. And then she herds us towards the deeper part of the swamp, the more technically challenging area to plant, and we realize: she isn’t here to lead a field trip, or do a demonstration. She’s here to plant the whole damn thing.

And so – like Koni, like Sento, like the lady herself – we keep going. Two more hours of bending, pushing, separating, bending back down again. Two more hours of avoiding water spiders and cursing at ants that bite; a few moments of looking around and savoring the sheer absurdity of the moment. And then bending back down again to plant a few more rice shoots, not thinking about how hot it is or how much left there is to do, only thinking about the next plant, the next plant, the next plant. Kulu gulu. Step by step. Plant by plant. Harvest by harvest, child by child, day by day. [17] We keep going.

When we finish, after four hours, we ask Yai Mary in broken Krio how long it would have taken her by herself. She surveys the swamp, covered now in very satisfying clumps of green rice shoots, her mouth in a straight line, and says “Three.” The nine of us took four hours, and if she was doing it alone, just one woman planting and pulling and pounding at the earth, it would have taken her still less time. Impossible? Maybe. But spin the circle, shift the holographic card, and you can see: possible, because you’re Yai Mary.

IV. Live

Speaking of circles: it is mid-morning, and Koni and Yai Mary are standing in a big one, among other women, crowding around a pair of young girls. There are maybe thirty women present, many I know or have seen around the village, others I don’t recognize. The brightly-colored patterns of their lappas stand out against the grey sky and the brown thatched hut they congregate beside. But there’s also something else that stands out – just the sight of so many women together, sharing a space and an occasion, in spite of all the rice to pound, the meals to make, the children to raise. They are here, to celebrate and  mark something, and even if I do not yet understand what that something is, it is a marker nonetheless. An entry point to the endlessly spinning circles that I think of when I think of Koni’s life, or Yai Mary’s life, or Sento’s life. [18] It is the Bundu, the women’s secret society.

They have gathered behind Tapia’s house today, a few houses away from the Chief’s compound, because Tapia’s niece, her daughter, and another girl, Yai Mary’s namesake, are beginning their initiation process into the Bundu society. It is the rainy season, and thus unusual for the Bundu to gather now. (Usually, families wait until the dry season, in the fall and winter months after the harvest, because that is when they have the money to pay.) But Tapia and her sister, Isatouh, have decided to do it now, and so the women have gathered next to her cooking hut, near a path that leads into the jungle.

A woman in the center beats a broken drum that lies on the ground, and older women around her sing a call-and-response song, one punctuated by claps and the beating of the drum. The initiates stand near the center, sometimes clapping, sometimes dancing. It is hard to read their expressions, and confusing to watch it all. It is moving to see all the women I know, with different farms and different families, come together for something; it is unnerving to realize that what they are dancing for is called, in our First World dictionary, female genital mutilation. The public ceremony is beautiful, but the words we have for it are ugly, and trying to reconcile the two only leads me back to Endnote 13, again and again and again. [19] “Good” and “bad” and “equal”, or “life”, even: they don’t mean the same things in Kagbere as they do in Seattle, and trying to reconcile the two flattens three-dimensional reality into a cliché. Trying to understand a woman’s life in Kagbere requires a different conception of what a life is and what it is supposed to be – and how you measure the difference between the two.

For all my experience, I went to Kagbere the second time intent on understanding, convinced somehow I could measure the distance over this human abyss and then build a bridge across it. I asked Sento, and Koni, and Yai Mary over and over again, in different contexts and with different words, how they survive, hoping they’d reveal some strategy, some secret of sisterhood, that would outline the foundations of that bridge in a way I could see. And, over and over again, in different contexts and with different words, they would all proceed to tell me the same thing: You just do. You keep going.

Sento would shrug, and pull out more salt for us to package. Koni would look at the ground and say,Oh! Uman no able fo chose, and pull out a few weeds that I had missed. Yai Mary, on June 27th, July 1st, and July 5th, would say “Life i tranga fo uman na Salone, dey no get power,” and then stack another bundle of rice shoots on her head. They just did, they still do, and I could not see the answer.

One evening, soon after the Bundu’s public dance, I was invited to Tapia’s house, to sit with her and the initiates for a while. It was dusk, the light turning that violet color that shrouds everything in invisibility, and there were women walking back and forth under the partition that delineated the girls’ space. [20] A woman from another village was teaching the girls a clapping routing, and one of theyaiyos from the Chief’s compound was teaching them the words. The elder women would sing and clap, and the girls would repeat after them, dutifully learning the words that – like salt to sell, weeds to pull, or rice to plant – would hold their universe together.

Clap, sing, repeat. Plant, pull, pound; live, birth, endure. Over and over again, the opposite of life as a straight line or development as a series of stages. Instead, a circle. For which there is no formula, no yardstick by which to measure progress: there is only the spin. The next line in the song, the next child, the next harvest. [21] It took four women sitting around me in an almost-invisible room to finally see: I had been asking how all this time, and how is exactly what they had been teaching me. As Koni said of the lessons she learned from her mother: ow fo plant, ow fo wid, ow fo kuk, ow fo sell. These are the active verbs in a woman’s life. This is how they survive a way of life that, in my dictionary, is supposed to be impossible. Methodology as the closest thing to an explanation: possible.

Back at the public Bundu dance, another woman takes over drumming for a little while, and passes around a bottle of poyo. The initiates look expressionless, but the other women drink and laugh and dance around each other, proudly and easily. It’s as if there is no rice to pound, no meals to make, or no children to raise. But there are, and somehow that is the point. There is work to be done, work that you do not always get to choose or control, and it is as much as part of the circle as laughter and brightly-colored lappas against an overcast sky. There isn’t a utopia, a place with resolutions and without spin; there is only the circle, where you weed granat, sell salt, or plant rice, and hope the next day you can wake up and do it again. [22]

Ferries and airplanes and autobuses, unfortunately, only move in one direction at a time, which makes this (Big T, small t) truth hard to see, and harder to accept. Things fall apart: crops fail, babies die, rain doesn’t come. But women still dance in circles, and move in cycles, of bodies and of plants. The circle still spins, and the center holds.

In the evenings, I would teach Koni the words to that song from Rent, the one called “Seasons of Love.” [23] How do you measure, measure a year? we’d sing, my voice high and out of pitch, hers lower and unsure. I came to Kagbere hoping to find the timeline by which I could measure a woman’s life, so I could know how to measure my own. I left, and realized what I had instead was a collection of moments. Moments that were hard and moments that were confusing, and other moments – ones full of strangeness or absurdity or adorable kittens – that made up for those. You measure a year, or four weeks in Kagbere, or a woman’s life, in moments. [24] In step by steps, in grains of rice. In lessons in strength.

You tell me that’s not possible.

[1] Girl, where’d you get that swagger? Did you buy that at the store?

[2] Conversation with Sento, 30 June 2011. Hanging out on her porch, chatting about nothing, as was my method. “Ethnography is just deep hanging out.” Tony Lucero said that.

[3] Sento’s mother, Yai Colonai, is a big lady in the Bundu, the women’s secret society, and formerly Kagbere’s only traditional birthing assistant. Her son is a quiet boy with a big smile, around twelve, who takes care of a herd of goats and good-naturedly teases his mother because she doesn’t know how to write her name.

[4] Conversation with Sento, 6 July 2011.

[5] Same conversation. (I’m an ethnographer. I only ask the hard-hitting questions!)

[6] Conversation with Koni, 27 June 2011. “Boys take longer.”

[7] Same conversation: Saidu, nine months and twenty days; Curtis, nine months and eight days; Nyandeh, eight months and fifteen days.

[8] Though this sounds too easily like the African Woman Cliché, it is and isn’t at the same time. Clichés , though often true, flatten, while reality operates on multiple levels simultaneously, like one of those holographic playing cards that changes when you look at it from a different angle. Koni has little access to recognizable, public forms of power because she is a woman in a patriarchal society: yes. But Koni is also, in ways only vaguely recognizable to me, more powerful than other women in the village, and certainly better off. Her life to me seems hard – and it is – but there are other women whose lives are harder, in different ways. The card turns a few degrees to the left and suddenly I see how, when Koni visits me at breakfast, the women in Yai Kadi’s cooking hut offer her a seat, a piece of bread, a cup of tea. I don’t know why, and I do not even know how to ask why. This female reality that operates on different levels in different languages at the same time is another one of those impossible but possible things, both to articulate and to accept. I do not know how to do either of those things yet but I keep turning the playing card over in my hand.

[9] Conversation with Koni, 31 June 2011. Apologies for the spotty Krio translation.

[10] Weeding with Koni is unlike weeding with anyone else: she’s got work to do, and as happy as she may seem to have you with her, she isn’t going to slow down or check on you just because you’re a white girl who goes to university in America.

[11] Conversation with Yai Mary, 27 June 2011. A lot of what I know about Yai Mary only makes sense because she’s Yai Mary. You can weed an entire field of granat by yourself, because you’re Yai Mary. You can shelter abused women and their children in your four-bedroom house, because you’re Yai Mary. You can be my life hero, the person whose face I am most likely to get tattooed on my arm, but also the person who scares me the most, because you’re Yai Mary. Your life is impossible but, somehow possible, because you’re Yai Mary. Basically.

[12] There are not, as I initially believed, four Pa Alemami Konteh brothers running around Kagbere. Of the Konteh men of Yai Mary’s generation, four of them were all named Pa Alemami at one point or another, because they all served as section chief: one inherits the name along with the position. Confusion ensues. (From my interview with JKK, 28 June 2011)

[13] Conversation with Yai Mary, 27 June 2011. This was reoccurring theme of my weeks in Kagbere; she also told me on July 1st and July 5th. The third time she told me I waited until nobody was around and then I threw my hands up in frustration and cried, for a really long time. This is how I interacted with practical reality: sometimes I cried, and then I would have a Star beer.

[14] Interview with JKK, 28 June 2011. Though it seemed at first to me as if he was talking about women and children as if they were chattel, it isn’t that clear cut. (The holographic playing card metaphor again!) There is no such thing as an independent women na Kagbere, because there is no such thing as independent person; everyone belongs to someone else. For better and for worse.

[15] Interview with Philip, 30 June 2011, and interview with JKK, 28 June 2011.

[16] Interview with JKK, 28 June 2011. In a place where the word “answer”, like the words “good” and “bad” and “equal”, doesn’t quite mean the same things, plausible explanations are the most I hope for. And then on the rocky path to finding those, you hear awesome phrases like “that relationship done fade.”

[17] The sheer fact of existence itself in a rice shoot, a universe in a single grain of rice. Planted by who women who cannot lay claim to the land they work, or the universe they live in, but somehow still do, by running it anyway.

[18] Sento, was absent that day from the Bundu dance, sick with a headache behind her mother’s house. And yet when I passed her by she was very insistent that I go watch the dance without her, “because it is very beautiful.” 10 July 2011.

[19] A struggle not unlike trying to hold the phrase “Third World Woman” and the image of Yai Mary’s face in my head at the same time. Now there’s a tattoo.

[20] Though they would typically spend all of the initiation period in the bush, because of the rainy season’s cold temperatures the three initiates of this batch returned to Tapia’s house each evening.

[21] The next step. Kulu gugu.

[22] Though if I ever find that utopia, and I write my version of Eat, Pray, Love, I am definitely calling it Laughter and Lappas.

[23] Koni learned this song from a student before me, and the first time she sang it and asked me if I knew the words, I was so shocked I dropped what I was holding. And then I quickly learned the words, from a woman in a village in northern Sierra Leone. Possible.

[24] If you have to measure at all. Trained in all my Western Enlightenment rationalization, I have to confess: quantification is still something I yearn for.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Julie Mendel is an International Studies major.  She is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Jackson School Journal of International Studies.

Julie Mendel traveled to Sierra Leone during Summer Quarter 2011 as part of the UW Exploration Seminar “Ethnographic Methods & Cultural Production” lead by Professor Clarke Speed, Brook Kelly, and Reverend Kempson Fornah.