A book review by Alice Friedemann of Ann Jones “Looking for Lovedu. Days and Nights in Africa”. 2001.
The book deserves 5 stars in terms of hardship and difficulty. It ought to be required reading in schools to alert women to their fragile rights and what lies ahead if they don’t pay attention. Those rights could be taken away with just one negative Supreme Court decision, and are already disappearing at state and local levels every day.
I give this book three stars because I felt like I was also trapped in the Land Rover through the agonizing mud holes, sand trap desert, menacing roadblocks, and endless Missionaries. It reminded me of a month-long road trip in Europe where we drove so much (the other couple weren’t in very good shape), that I felt like the window was a TV screen and I might as well have stayed home. At times it’s like a Land Rover Reality Show sponsored by Land Rover. I wanted to get out of the Land Rover and walk> I felt sorry for Jones having this iron monster albatross around her neck that she couldn’t abandon.
Here’s a passage that captures what it is like to be in the Land Rover with Ann Jones with her macho traveling companion for hundreds of pages:
“…I drove steadily south, strapped in this..capsule like an astronaut in unrelenting orbit. Beside me, also strapped down, sat my constant companion, sucking a red licorice stick. He loved licorice. I loathed it. He ate licorice. I didn’t. Was this what remained of my individuality? This negative choice? Here was the dimension of our journey that I hadn’t foreseen: the togetherness, the tight confinement to this tiny space that seemed to close in around us like one of Poe’s horrific shrinking chambers. Africa rolled by in the background, like a distant view of the planet Earth seen from a space capsule, but always in the foreground, eclipsing the scene, was my fellow voyager. He took up more space than Africa, certainly more space than I. And even as his hand disappeared again into the bag of licorice, it seemed to rest on the controls. I cajoled, I argued, I fought chin to chin, and always our vehicle seemed to proceed on the course of his choosing, as though he held it in orbit by the sheer force of his personality”.
In the Congo, the roads were the worst of all. After 1960, the 31,000 miles of roads “dissolved, disappeared, or-worse-devolved into a kind of purgatorial proving ground for people foolish enough to want to go somewhere.” By 1980 only 3100 miles were still drivable. By 1996 it was unclear which roads could be driven on, no one was keeping track.
Jones believes this was deliberate. Mobutu let the roads fall apart because it kept the people divided and conquered. His rivals couldn’t grow wealthy trading goods because the roads kept them from doing so. Armies couldn’t revolt when stuck in the mud, and a rebellious spirit is squelched by the despondency and demoralization of the isolation the bad roads enforce. She says it’s the “potholes” that really get everyone down – endless troughs of water and mud, many over half a mile long. Trucks sink into the mud in the rainy season for up to 10 days despite a small army of local villagers digging trucks out. Jones came upon a truck that had only gone 37 miles over 5 months.
The best part about being dug out of mud for over a month is that it gives you a chance to meet the local people. They are way off the beaten path, the perfect opportunity to meet real Africans seldom encountered by tourists.
Except that the “real Africa” of colorful isolated tribes in the brochures disappeared a very long time ago. Then encounter endless Christian Missionaries who have given them second-hand clothing from American, not nearly as pretty or colorful as the former hides and bird feathers people once wore. She describes the donated clothing of Baptists in Indiana to one mission as:
“The men wore tee shirts too or polo shirts bearing the logo of the Chicago Bulls or the L.A. Raiders or the inscription CLINTON FOR PRESIDENT. The shirts frayed about the edges and blossomed with holes. The men tied the tattered ends together to make a kind of African lace.
If you’re hoping to encounter wildlife, forget it
“..as we drove south, we realized that what was important about Malawi was what we didn’t see. Wildlife, for example. In the uplands of Nyika National Park, where great herds used to roam, we spotted only a few animals-mountain reedbuck, eland, bushbuck, roan-all running scared. Three-quarters of the park’s animals had disappeared long since into the cooking pots of hungry people in Malawi and Mozambique, just across the border. Trees had disappeared too, felled to make room for people and fields of cassava and sugarcane, and thrown into the fires that heated those cooking pots. There were about ten million people in Malawi, most of them clustered in the south, and as we drove southward we could measure the rising population by the disappearance of the trees. The hardwoods-ebonies and Natal mahoganies-had gone to woodcarvers, and the rest were for sale along the road in great stacks of firewood and giant bags of charcoal five feet tall.”
Women do all the Work
“What I’d found-everywhere-was women in charge mostly of hard work. I’d been reading “The Africans” by David Lamb, who noticed the same thing. He writes that if work is what liberates women, African women are the most liberated in the world. Their labor is the one great constant force of the continent. They feed Africa, producing something like 70% of the food. They sell to Africa, running the market economy of village and town. But their work has grown harder over the years thanks to colonial administrators, missionaries, bureaucrats, and “experts” of international-aid and technical-development projects-all advancing theories of social progress that discount women’s work, preclude women’s education, set women back. Colonial governments and missions established too few schools for boys, and in 80 years of colonial administration almost noe for girls. Colonial development projects set up monocultural cash-crop plantations with men in charge on lands where generations of women had run subsistence farms. Postcolonial aid organizations still give agricultural grants to men to buy modern farm equipment. Never mind that it’s women with hoes who tend the sambas.
Even the Pygmies treat their women like slaves. After helping the men hunt, unsuccessfully, the women later gathered wood, cleaned and cooked rice and beans, wove new leaves into the walls of t hunts they lived in to keep them watertight, tended babies and other chores – while the men sat together smoking and drinking.
Jones comments on this to her guide Augustin, who replies “And if the men had killed an animal, the women would have carried it home and cleaned it and cooked it and served the best parts to the men.”
Jones summarizes the work of women in Africa: “All around us, all along the way, we saw women doing nothing but work….women hoeing, planting crops, weeding, harvesting, gathering wild edibles, shucking maize, pounding maize, grinding maize at the mill, carrying maize meal home, chopping wood, gathering firewood, carrying firewood home on their heads or on their backs, building fires, cooking, serving food, washing dishes, scouring pots, making clothes, buying clothes, washing clothes (after first carrying the laundry to the river, or carrying the river water home), selling clothes and food and baskets in the marketplace or beside the road, building houses, painting houses, gathering thatching, preparing mud plaster, polishing floors with cattle dung (to keep out insects), scrubbing floors, weaving palm fibers, making mats, making baskets, making hats, dying fabrics, sewing, knitting, embroidering, making pots, minding children, doctoring children, teaching children, feeding children, washing children, dressing children, plaiting hair, milking cows, feeding chickens, butchering chickens, shopping, making brooms, sweeping houses, sweeping yards, cleaning churches, cleaning wells, planting trees, and keeping accounts.”
Women have no rights
In Malawi, Jones went to buy the well-known fabrics of Margaret Mazembe. She went from barely surviving selling donuts to one of the most amazing craftswomen in that part of Africa by buying a sewing machine with her donut profits. Then the government gave here a class in making tie-dye, batik, and screen-printed fabrics, and any money she made, she reinvested in her business. Women in Kenya came to buy her cloth. She even hired five tailors to make men’s shirts and ladies’ dresses that were sold in far away markets. Then her husband came and took away four of her six sewing machines and most of her supplies. The husband told the police she brought over that the property was his because she had used it in his house. The police agreed. Her husband sold the sewing machines and moved in with another woman. She didn’t have the money to get started again, and despite a proven track record, no one would lend her any money.
Like women everywhere, men beat them up: “In Mali, when we were on the road to Bamako, we stopped at a village and I jumped out to ask directions. A young woman, smiling, with a baby in her arms, came forward to greet me. Suddenly a little wiry man leaped out of a hut and rushed between us. He turned on her and pummeled her about the head and neck with his fists and forearms. He hit her about the head and neck with his fists and forearms. He hit her resignedly and hard, the way I’d seen Africans club their donkeys on the head and neck to make them turn, as if this were the only signal the stupid beasts might understand. The woman did as the donkeys do; she hunched away without a sound.”
“80% of women in Cameroon are farmers but they can’t own land. They can’t own anything-not even their own children. Women have no say in who they’ll marry or how many kids they’ll have. It’s like slavery.”
The journey transforms Jones into a new person
I think the most interesting part of the book is the long-term effect this had on Jones when she came back to America:
I found “I couldn’t bear the wealth of goods that seemed to be everywhere in America, and the way people worked so long and hard go get things. It was stifling. As stifling as once again being shut up indoors with central heating and air-conditioning and windows impossible to open. …I left my job and my apartment, gave away most of my things, and….drove west with my cat and my old horses and came to rest in a one-room adobe house in the desert. I threw open the doors and windows and let the dry winds blow through, brining heat and dust and birdsong, and when the monsoon struck, toxic toads. But at night the coyotes yipped and set to barking all the German shepherds and Dobermans that lurked behind the walls of my neighbors’ houses, guarding their acquisitions.
Although Jones came to Africa to find Lovedu, where women rule a prosperous land using peaceful diplomacy, the reality of Africa is that women do all the hard work, which is true nearly everywhere fate of all women everywhere. I don’t want to spoil the main theme of the book of what happens when she finally meets with the Queen, but I don’t think it’s not going to be a huge surprise to anyone given the universal oppression of women in Africa .
I’m also disappointed that Jones never mentions birth control and family planning as a way for women to claw their way out of this situation. Raising fewer children would give women a lot more options, slow down the ecological destruction, and prevent the extinction of some of the most wonderful and amazing creatures on the planet.
Even in America it hasn’t been long since women couldn’t own property, could be committed to mental asylums by their husbands, and couldn’t vote. Women who dismiss feminism really ought to read this book to understand how quickly the freedoms they take for granted could disappear. We could easily go back to those days again. You can see it happening already with the endless attacks on abortion rights and whittling down of the number of clinics that can provide this service (and birth control).
I predict that the rights of women in America and Europe will disappear as the “Limits to Growth” suddenly appear and there is less to go around. I can only hope that some women will keep the dream of women’s rights and equality alive as we go back to the days of “Might Makes Right” and men dominate women once again in the age of wood.
I would like to find a book about pre-fossil fuel cultural traditions where women protected each other from being beaten up by their husbands, made their own music, dances, and stories to transcend the everyday slavery and brutality of their lives, participated in ruling. I don’t know if any society pulled this off, certainly most of the anthropology I’ve read is pretty dismal as far as the lot of women in tribal societies, and it’s still true for most women in the third world. The most recent book I’ve read that gave me any hope was Jack Weatherford’s “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire”