There’s nothing quite like aÂ festive African party.Â For an African woman,Â the preparation ofÂ the food is more than a labor of love…it is hardÂ work requiring skillful handcraftingÂ and hours of preparation.Â It isÂ within this arduous process that my adolescent memories ofÂ entertainingÂ linger, mostly because of the women who surround my mother toÂ assist in the cooking.
I vividly remember their arrivals.Â Some are wearing their “good” clothes…othersÂ carry fancy bagsÂ brimming with colorfulÂ lapas,Â Â lace blouses, high heeled shoes and headdresses.Â Throughout the morning, a chorus ofÂ greetingsÂ welcomes each new entrant. This intimate gathering ofÂ sisters…coming together to do some serious cooking while enjoying the camaraderie of jovial banter, gossip and laughter.
It is here,Â thatÂ we,Â our mothers’ daughters are embraced by theÂ earthen wellÂ of female wisdom.Â It isÂ within this circle, that theseÂ eldersÂ model the uniqueÂ rituals of what it means to be an African woman.Â Our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and older sisters shed all pretensions…naked womanhood is celebrated full strength, intertwined with wit, shared pain and laughter.Â
As for theÂ humorous banterÂ There’s lots of that…because as the African saying goes, if you don’t laugh about certain things, you will cry.Â The laughter bubbles throughout the day, much like the steamingÂ caldrons over the huge outdoor fires.. The savory smells are as enticing to us, the daughters, as the juicy tidbits of gossip that flutter through the air.Â We avert our eyes, eager to catch every morsel until a disapproving glance warns us to move out of earshot.
At times, we also see the pain of tears being wiped away followed byÂ hugs, supportive murmurs, words of counsel and the wisdom of shared experience.Â Â We are not the center of this circle, but weÂ cherish our place.Â We know that we are daughters…
To keep one’s mother in African tradition is one of the highest honors that a daughter can give to the one who carried her forth into life.Â It is to respect the dignity and strength that it takes toÂ survive in an environment where the harshness of the physical surroundings adds tremendous weight to the challenges of simply being female in a world that doesn’t provide a lot of external support.
This is why when I read the story of “A Most Amazing Village”by Liz Brody in the latest Oprah Magazine publication(May 2008), I instinctively understand the story of young Senteyo Lenaiyasa…a 14 year old member of an all female community in a village called Umoja, located in a remote part of Kenya.Â Liz describes the women of Umoja in this way,
“From what I’d heard, this community is making history-a gutsy anomaly of female bonding in a world where women are still treated as livestock.”Â
Senteyo’s story is a heart breaking account of a hard childhood with a poor widowed mother.Â Her uncles marry her off for a few cows around the age of 13.Â Prior to this she is circumcised…a gruesome practise which scars a womansÂ genital organs presumably to control her desire for sexual pleasure.Â Many women die from the procedure which is oftenÂ performed with rusty blades.
Senteyo ran for her life.Â Â It is inÂ this small village of brave women that she finds refuge and a place to heal and begins to build a life.Â It’s not a life without challenges.Â But these ladies have a strength which has been refined through the furnace of deep affliction and abuse.Â A passion nurtured by the deep communal waters of female support.
I am struck by the juxtaposition ofÂ another story taking place within the plains of Texas which is riveting the attention of our nation.Â It is also aÂ story about a community, but what grips my attention is the women.Â These Women in identical dresses with long hair.Â These Women with sad eyes and evasive mannerisms.Â Women who have lost the rights to their children because the State of Texas indicates they failed to protect their daughters.Â
The final outcome of this story will play out in the days and months to come, but the question remains this for me.Â Who was keeping these young daughters?Â How did they learn to what it means to become a woman?Â Where did things go so terribly wrong that their mothers chose to protect abusive men rather than their daughters.Â When the time comes…who will show these daughters how to become their Mothers’ Keepers?
Somewhere, we have lost our way.Â Â Somehow we have accepted the meager offerings of privacy as full payment for the loss of community. Â We have lost our understanding of what it means to have the right to be a full woman.Â
Men cannot give this to women…only mothers can.Â And only daughters can keep this sacred rite and continueÂ its’ tradition.Â When we link arms in loving support around wounded womanhood, we become bearers of an eternal flame. When we support other women who are suffering injustice, we learn that we are not alone.Â Â In this way, we honor the sisterhood and we become our Mothers’ Keeper.
The Project O Bracelet is transforming lives like Senteyo’s by providing jobs which allow women to provide for themselves and their families.Â Â To learn more about this project you can visit the village of Umoja directly via…http://www.madre.org/.
Picture courtesy of OziAfricana’s photostream on flikr.com