Dum ko ligge fii rewbe. This is women’s work.

By Brandon Hebert
Oct. 6, 2015

I want to introduce you to a few people in this post. 

The person above is named Mulahdo and every day she is responsible for a multitude of things including, but not limited to, making breakfast, washing clothes, preparing lunch, cleaning the home, taking care of the children, cooking dinner and I am sure 20 other things I am forgetting.

I rarely see her sitting down or resting throughout the day, even during the (semi) mandatory nap time that falls in between lunch and dinner. Each day she does pretty much the same things without complaining and without help. Her husband is sick and in the hospital, so he is not there to help manage the household with his presence or help manage the household funds. She does his job and hers. She plays both of their roles in the community. All of this is done by herself.

Muhlado cleaning the pot after lunch.
Muhlado cleaning the pot after lunch.

I want to introduce you to another person who not only happens to also be named Muhlado (no relation to the previous person) but is also one of my favorite kids at site. Muhlado is about 8 years old and lives in a hut a few doors down from mine. She is a very sweet girl who is extremely intelligent and full of life. I spend a lot of time with her during the day while she does her various chores: washing dishes, washing clothes, sweeping the compound, running to the boutique for little things while her family is cooking.

Her mom lives in another village and she sent Muhlado here to live with relatives and help them out around the house. This is a common thing to do in Senegal and happens very frequently. In a way, she is sent here to work for the family day in and day out. She does go to school but after numerous conversations of investigating her situation, it appears Muhlado won't be in school much longer.

Once she reaches 13 or 14, she will have to drop out because she will absorb more responsibilities of the household. It is around this time that some girls in Senegal began to get married and even have children.

Farumba after cooking breakfast.
Farumba after cooking breakfast.

Currently, only elementary school is in session. In another month, the other levels of Senegalese education system will open and children around the country will return to their classrooms for another year of learning. But each year, a smaller number of girls return to school. Like both Muhlados, many of them are made to drop out to fulfill their duties as a woman in their household or as a new bride.

Of course men here do work and actively participate in society, but in Senegal work is more of a social activity than anything else. Men leave for work early in the morning and spend most of their time lounging, talking to other men, playing games or even napping. Each morning I walk from my hut to the health post and see men who are supposed to be “working” playing a game that is similar to chess in the dirt.

Throughout my day at the health post, the men spend a lot of time sitting, even me. We may see about 20 patients on a busy day, but most of our time is spent sitting under the mango tree or laying under a “challi” (shade structure with a bamboo bed frame underneath) while the midwives and other health post workers are constantly moving around to clean this, bring that or update these records.

I have attempted to help women when they are working. I have tried to help carry water from the well, wash clothes, sweep huts, cook lunch, even go to the market for vegetables and each time I am told not to do that. At first they find it amusing that the toubab is doing their work, but after a few seconds they become visibly frustrated and upset that a man is actually doing something they are supposed to do. They would take the items or activity from me and tell me that I could not do this because “dum ko ligge fii rewbe.” In English, “this is work for women.”

Women’s group meeting about Tabaski (upcoming holiday) plans.
Women’s group meeting about Tabaski (upcoming holiday) plans.

It isn't that women here do not understand the value of education. It isn't that women here do not have dreams of being doctors (like Muhlado), lawyers or even police officers. They have the desire to learn and the motivation to achieve those dreams but, like Muhlado, they do not have the opportunities that we have in the U.S. or that some women have in Dakar or other cities.

I cannot imagine what it would feel like to have my dreams crushed by culture, an invisible force that one actively participates in and has to obey even though it goes against your goals. The emptiness I feel from just thinking about it is depressing, yet women here are happy regardless. They have many things to be happy for as we all do, but they have a different kind of strength and respect than I may ever come to know or understand.

In the end, Muhlado (the young girl) will probably have to drop out of school at 14 or 15. Chances are she will have to take over most of the household duties (if not all) as she waits for her marriage to be arranged between her family and his. She will probably then move in with her new husband and continue the same cycle of cooking and cleaning day in and day out.

Eventually she may have children and some of them may be girls who will ultimately end up in the same cycle. History may repeat itself and culture may continue to dominate a woman’s life, but in time I truly hope young girls are able to follow their dreams, continue their education, and shake up the cycle “seeda seeda” (slowly).

Brandon Hebert