I lived in a small village at the edge of a large salt lake. We did not have much that we didn’t make or grow ourselves, or trade for other goods. We had existed in this place, on this dry, inhospitable land for as far back as our collective memory and stories went. We followed a careful social order which kept everything and everyone stable and status quo. We each knew our duties and responsibilities — to our family, to our neighbors, to our small tribe. There was a strict hierarchy, and we all knew our place. The chief was at the top. His was only law we knew and the only law we needed.
One day, some wazungu arrived on a small bus driven by a man known by our chief. The driver spoke our language and also that of the mazungu. Some of the men in our village had seen white faces before, in the city, but never had they come to us.
They were completely strange creatures to most of us women…not just their skin color, not even the texture of their hair or their impractical clothing… but the way the conducted themselves. There was no chief. The women laughed and talked among themselves, mostly ignoring the men, who never thought to scold or beat them. What kind of women were these? Where were their children? Did they have no important work to occupy them? Why did they behave so freely, so foolishly, as if they had no care in the world? Were they not aware of all the misfortunes that might befall a woman if she let down her guard even for a moment?
We stared at them, and they stared at us. The driver told our chief to tell us to simply ignore them as they came from far away and wanted to watch us go about our lives in our usual way. For this, the driver paid the chief a few shillings. As he kept the entire amount for himself, he was quite happy with this arrangement.
After that, they came approximately once a moon, sometimes more, sometimes less. This went on for many years. Sometimes the driver gifted us all with a large bag of rice or beans, and then perhaps we might have a feast.
These wazungu were pleasant and friendly enough even though we could not communicate with them in words. Mostly, they wanted to watch us women doing our work…fetching water, cleaning grain and pounding it into flour, weaving thatch, gathering wood and making a cooking fire, nursing our babies. They liked to see inside our huts, where we slept. They seemed to particularly like watching the children, playing and climbing and running.
They pointed their small boxes at us but it was a long time until most of us understood what the purpose of that was. None of us had ever seen a photograph of ourselves. I doubt I would even have been able to identify myself in a photograph. Some of the friendlier wazungu seemed to ask permission before pointing their camera box at us, but since we had no idea what they were doing, we just shrugged and smiled and let them do it. We found it inexplicably strange.
We became accustomed to the visits. Some groups were nicer, more friendly, more polite than others, but mostly they were a waste of our time. Usually, we could truly ignore them as we went about our business but sometimes, they got in our way and made things more difficult. And for our compliance, we got nothing for ourselves.
We villagers knew better than to ask them for anything as compensation. That arrangement was strictly between our chief and the driver. The visitors also understood this and never offered us anything.
And then one day, the village was turned upside-down.
The wazungu came and their visit was going as they usually did.
There was a woman, in the village, of very low status. Her husband had left her and their infant son, and run off to the city, (so we were told.) She had been a bad wife (for why else would he have left her?) and now she was a burden to the rest of us.
This woman, I shall call her K, was always far more fascinated by the wazungu than the rest of us. We used to tease her that one day she was going to hide on the bus and go away with them, but of course, it was a joke because where would she go? What would she do? She might have been low status in the village, but at least she was cared for. Would any mzungu care for her out there? She, as we, knew the answer.
Then, one afternoon, just before the guests climbed back into the bus, one of the mzungu women pulled the colorful scarf from her own head and gave it to K.
This small, soft, useless square of cloth nearly started a war.
After the bus left, K tied the scarf around her head, the way the mzungu wore it, and strutted around the village, acting better than the rest of us, behaving higher than her status. She wore it like a crown and carried herself like a queen.
This immediately caused anger, resentment, and jealousy among the village women. The girl had done nothing to deserve any such honor, and in fact, she’d only received this gift because she’d lingered too long around the bus people, and let them hold her child, when she should have been working. It seemed doubly unfair that she was rewarded for her bad behavior.
We grumbled and gossiped, but she pretended not to care. This went on for several days, until one afternoon the chief’s first wife walked across the village, her eyes burning with anger and purpose. She walked into K’s small hut , pulled her outside, struck her knocking her to the ground, pulled her hair, grabbed the scarf off her head, and triumphantly tied it around her own. K lay crying and moaning in the dust.
Violence among women was unheard of in our tribe, and this was shocking. None of us had liked K’s attitude but we were appalled at the behavior of the chief’s wife.
The women were immediately divided in opinion. Some believed the chief’s wife did the right thing, that it was the only choice. Some believed that as badly as K had behaved, nothing justified violence. And along this line, we fell into two camps.
The rift threatened to tear us all apart. Finally, the chief himself, who tried as much as possible to remove himself from the petty problems of women, stepped in to settle things.
It was a delicate matter since his wife held high status, and it would be a humiliation for her to beaten publicly. This would only cause further problems. He had the right to beat K, if only for her inappropriate behavior in the days prior. But he could not beat one without beating the other, and fortunately for all of us, he was not the kind of man who enjoyed giving beatings.
He consulted with each woman alone, and heard some other opinions (whether he wanted to hear them or not.) In the end, it was arranged thusly: His wife returned the scarf to K, and in turn K made a show of giving the scarf to the chief to use as the village flag.
The wazungu never returned.
Throughout the rest of my life and even now, my mind returned to those few days. I recognized how close we came to being destroyed by divisiveness and unrest and lack of forgiveness; how easily the fabric of our society might have become completely unraveled despite the fact that we depended upon each other for survival.
We were fortunate to have a wise leader who resolved the problem in way that satisfied everyone, and allowed us each to learn some important lessons. The wrong decision might have destroyed us.
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