Tag Archives: women

Birth rates in Africa

deltalaine:

African baby carrier

I came across this blog post about the number of countries in Africa (54) after reading about world birth rates on the CIA World Factbook site. In looking at a list of the countries in the world with the highest birth rates, I saw that with the exception of Afghanistan and East Timor, all top thirty were African countries. Niger has the highest birthrate in the world (and is considered the poorest by most measurements) and Nigeria is ranked #13. Seeing those 28 slots taken by African countries made me think that that must be over half of Africa, and it is.

Originally posted on Blogala Maho:

The UN membership roster contains 54 African states, and that of the African Union contains 53. While the AU list includes suspended members, it does not include a count for Morocco, who has decided to stay out of the AU. Thus AU’s implied total can also be said to be 54. Of these, 48 states are found on the actual continent, while 6 are island nations.

However, Africa is about to get a brand new country. Within less than two weeks, South Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not to secede from the rest of Sudan. If it does secede, which currently seems likely, it would mean that the new total will soon be 55, right? Well, no, because the current total of 54 is true only to some degree.

Before I go on: what’s a country, anyway? I’m going to be somewhat untechnical here and use ‘country’…

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Uganda’s Christmas Present.

Uganda’s Christmas Present..

Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”

I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.

Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.

It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”

The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.

The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.

No weddings for Siras…

Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.

Nigerian women and conceptions of beauty

There is a trend among Nigerian women that I have lamented in passing in but never spent much time thinking about—skin bleaching. Teenage boys hawk skin lightening creams to passing cars on the freeways, and such creams are available in every beauty salon or beauty supply store I have entered. I had always thought of such beauty practices as being most common in India, however the World Health Organized (WHO) published that 77% of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59% in Togo, and 27% in Senegal. Last week, The Economist ran this fascinating story:

“Skin-lightening products are so popular in Nigeria they have given rise to their own terminology in Pidgin English. “Some people have a Fanta face from using bleaching products,” explains Esther, a shop attendant showing Baobab around the skin-lightening products that take up two aisles of the small cosmetic section in a minimarket in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. ‘Fanta face, coca cola legs’ she explains, describes the mottled complexion of someone who uses skin-lightening products on their face but not their body, which maintains its darker shade.

‘I don’t use them, I prefer to be chocolate,’ says Esther, ‘but some people use them so other people don’t think they work outside all day.’ Fairer skin is equated with wealth and working in plush air-conditioned offices, not toiling in fields and open-air markets under the blazing hot sun.

Nothing new there—Queen Elizabeth I of England famously used lead as a skin whitener. It became an increasingly popular practice among African women in the late 1950s. And it is a lucrative business. The industry is set to be worth $10bn globally by 2015, according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts. In Nigeria, skin lightening can cost anything from a few dollars for a cream or soap to hundreds of dollars for a treatment in a beauty parlour, and the increasing westernisation of young Nigerian women has bolstered the demand for more expensive products.

But the trend comes with hazardous health consequences. Many products contain mercury and hydroquinone, which can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discolouration and scarring. Excessive use may even cause psychological problems, according to the WHO report. Worryingly, some women in Nigeria actively seek out products that contain these harmful ingredients, as they are perceived to be more effective. But often those that do contain harmful substances, do not list them as ingredients.

In India, where nearly two-thirds of the dermatological market consists of skin-lightening products, a whitening wash for intimate female areas was launched this year. It provoked international outrage when a television advert implied that women who used it would be more attractive to men. When Baobab asked some Nigerian women whether they would try such a product, they replied with raucous laughter.

For some, the teasing these products can induce just is not worth it. “When people have this patchy face we call them bingo face,” explains Julie Ogidi, a cook, ‘Bingo—like the dog.'”

 

All-natural beauties.

 

Falling birth rates across the world, some more than others

I am currently in Italy analyzing the field data I gathered last year in the Niger Delta.  The transition has clearly been challenging, as I am re-adjusting to being a place with clear rules, and where I can spend more time being professionally productive and less time “surviving,” e.g. finding potable water, clean food, sources of electricity, etc.  However, one of the more startling thoughts I had my first week here occurred to me when I was roaming through the streets of Florence among a sea of silver-haired adults. I realized that I was only seeing perhaps one baby per day during my daily commute, and almost all of them were with mothers who had clearly immigrated to Italy from another country.  I asked myself, “Where are all the babies?”

In subsequent research, I have learned that Italy has the second lowest birth rate in Western Europe this year, at 1.4 children per woman. The CIA World Factbook, a reliable statistical source, says:

A rate of two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, resulting in relative stability in terms of total numbers. Rates above two children indicate populations growing in size and whose median age is declining. Higher rates may also indicate difficulties for families, in some situations, to feed and educate their children and for women to enter the labor force. Rates below two children indicate populations decreasing in size and growing older. Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.

In stark contrast, Nigeria has a birth rate of 5. 38 children per woman, almost four times that of Italy. Nigeria has the 13th highest birth rate in the world, in country that is already the most populous in Africa. This average probably would show a stark contrast between low rates in major cities and high ones in villages. As an anecdote,  the women I interviewed in rural areas typically said they had 6-9 living children.   Just from my observations, I recall that between 1/4 and 1/3 of rural Niger Deltan women I’d see would be carrying a pekin (baby) in a wrapper on their back. No wonder I noticed the missing babies here in Italy.

Italy’s low birth rate is coupled with a low mortality rate and longer expected life spans. The life expectancy in Italy is almost 82 years. Conversely, in Nigeria it is just over 51 years. Italians get 60% more life than Nigerians! Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a youth bulge and has been for decades; it is one of the driving explanations for ongoing violent conflicts in the region.  Europe, Asia and Russia do not even have replacement birthrates. While African governments struggle with feeding, educating and housing booming populations, Europeans and Asians are worried about who will pay into the social security necessary to care for aging populations.

The stress of the youth bulge: Lots of young people without older ones to help ensure stability.

Sociologists and economists hypothesize that the poor financial state Italy, Spain, and the U.S. are the reason for plummeting birth rates in those countries, but I will add a caveat.  In modern industrialized countries, I will buy the argument that people have less babies during times of economic strain, because in those societies children are financial burdens.  However, birth rates in developing African countries remain high because children there are not just burdens, they are also viewed as labor for rural families.  In agricultural areas, it makes just as much sense for families to actually produce more children during times of economic hardship, under the belief that they children’s labor will overall produce more resources than the children will consume. This is the reason that I don’t buy the historical argument I have read that the American birth rate in the U.S. went down during the Great Depression because of economic conditions; at that time, as is true in rural Africa today, children could create capital through their labor. The relationship between birth rates and the economy is not so clear to me.

Have any thoughts on this?

Italy’s population

Nigeria’s population

Daily bread v. liberty

A long-standing (but perhaps unnecessary) debate in the field of human rights is that of economic security versus political freedom. States that stress collectivism such as China and some Islamic states, argue on the global stage that without financial security, political freedom is meaningless. They see sound economic conditions as a precondition for the enjoyment of political freedom. What good is the vote if the people have no shoes in which to walk to polling stations? Conversely, advocates of the latter argue that individuals can use free speech and their own autonomy to create the conditions that lead to economic prosperity for themselves and society as a whole. This notion is highly compatible with laissez-faire free markets and cultures of self-sufficiency, e.g. Western European countries and the U.S. It is far better that some people walk barefoot to polling stations on voting day than not have a voting day at all.

Although my interview subjects in rural Nigeria have not heard of this debate, they struggle with it all the same, just framing it in different terms. I asked them a series of questions about how the oppressive military rule of the 1990s, namely that under General Sani Abacha, compares to today’s democratic administration, albeit a less-than-flourishing one. It was in the 1990s that many of the most notorious human rights abuses were committed in Nigeria, and Ogonis in particular suffered some of the worst. During this decade Nigerian dissidents were killed, tortured, disappeared by state agents, women were raped as a means of asserting political power, and there was virtually no free speech. Today, endemic corruption debilitates government and for the majority of citizens, Nigeria continues to be a really…unfair place to live. However, political freedom is vastly improved from what it was 15-20 years ago. Surely Nigeria must be a better place for Niger Deltans now than it was then, right?

From the perspective of most of my respondents, it isn’t. All but three of my interview subjects said that either there is no change at all now from how the government was under military rule, or even more surprisingly, almost half of them told me that things were better in the 1990s. There are several explanations for this. They may have wanted to make their current conditions seem as dire as possible because they hoped for money after the interview, or because they viewed me as representative of some Western power that could help them. Some research indicates that people tend to remember the “good ol’ days” while their current difficulties seem more salient. For my middle-aged research subjects, they may not have had the adult responsibilities or political consciousness to view the state in the same way then that they do currently. For example, a 20-year-old may not think about the importance of fair taxation in the way that that same 40-year-old supporting a family later on thinks about it.

Of those who told me that life was better in the 1990s, there were two types of answers. One smaller group said that society was less chaotic then and the public sphere was more orderly. The strong arm of Abacha ensured that petty thievery was minimized and that economic transactions were regulated. Women described markets where they sold goods as being more organized and predictable. They said they could plan out their family diets better because they knew how much goods would cost in coming weeks and months.

A more common answer though was simply that things were cheaper in 1990s relative to their income. That’s it. The women I talked to wanted food, medicine, clothing, and housing to be affordable. They viewed inflation and unstable prices today as infringing on their well-being more than the threat of village pogroms and extrajudicial killings of family members. They care about fair elections far less than they care about the availability of zinc roofing. They care about the number of independent media sources far less than the amount of cassava their naira can buy. Although I think their responses are a reflection of political marginalization of Nigerian women and the widespread notion that politics are a male realm, they also indicate that their current economic conditions are so precarious that they are willing to living under tyranny to be able to purchase more than a day’s worth of food at a time.

I haven’t done the background reading on this finding yet, and I am sure other research out there has found the same in the global south. It makes me wonder how vastly different human rights deliberations at the EU would be if they weren’t dominated by rich men and had a few rural African women present.

Related articles

Women roasting cassava for gari.

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (I)

I had the lucky timing to arrive to Bane, Nigeria, the hometown of Saro-Wiwa, on a Thursday morning. This was fortunate because every Thursday at 6 a.m. the women of the area, and a few men as well, conduct their weekly prayers and fasting at Saro-Wiwa’s tomb. The event lasts until the afternoon, and includes singing, dancing, reading of bible passages, and even a nap when the temperatures rise.  It is a sight to behold, a completely unforgettable experience to be a part of.

Before Saro-Wiwa’s death in 1995, members of the Ogoni movement fasted with him once a week. After his execution the gathering became more popular and community women incorporated prayers to a greater degree. Today, around 25 women continue to gather once a week and it has become almost indistinguishable from a Christian church service.  The attendees take turns touching the grave, the language used is derived heavily from the bible, and women refer to Saro-Wiwa as a martyred living Christ. Their purpose in coming together is to pray for another “messiah” (their term) to bring them out of their conditions of poverty.  They also spend all day Sunday at church as well, meaning that two whole days per week are spent in worship for some of them. They bring all Ogoni flags designed by Wiwa, all wear matching t-shirts depicting Ogoni pride logos, and some also have matching wrapper tied around their waists.  Because of the high level of Ogoni identity inherent in the prayers, I was happily surprised at how open the worshipers were to an outsider like I am.  I gave a speech about my interest in Niger Deltan history, answered their questions, and they welcomed me warmly.

The two days per year when the tomb is visited most are November 10, the anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s death, and Ogoni Day on January 4, which attracted a reported quarter million people on its first celebration in 1993. The grave site is kept locked and sometimes guarded on days other than Thursdays and these two holidays, so my arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

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Saro-Wiwa's Tomb.

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Singing hymns.

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Ken Saro-Wiwa's grave.