When you live in Africa, you cannot help but note the women around you, every day, carrying what seem to be impossible loads on their heads. It never looks like it’s something made to be carried on your head. Not that I would know, mind you, which items are or aren’t suited to be carried on your head. But still – a water bucket? A suitcase? Or a cage of chickens?
Anyway, I see these women doing their graceful balancing act every day, and every day I want to stop and take a picture. But since I’m usually in my car driving by, this is not very practical. Plus I would feel bad photographing someone else’s plight like that. As a result, my “women carrying stuff on their heads” picture folder is very meager and this blog post only existed in my head until now.
Come to think of it, filing through my pitiful picture collection, it is not only the women who seem to be carrying stuff, at least not everywhere. The above was taken in Mozambique, where apparently it is acceptable for men to help out. Maybe I should have called this blog post “Strong Women of the Zulu, Xhosa, Shona, (and probably a few more) Cultures.” Because you sure as hell will not see a man carry much more than a backpack along the roads in these parts. In fact, I remember reading in Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, how one of the ways to flush out terrorists aka freedom fighters disguised as women during the civil war in Rhodesia was to take a careful look at the ones not carrying anything on their heads. Because girls are trained from a young age to do this, men have almost no chance of learning that skill.
So a few weekends ago, as I was driving Jabulani to his rugby match and taking the shortcut past Diepsloot, I passed two women carrying even more than the typical load, each with a gigantic bundle of firewood perched on her head. I didn’t have time to stop right away, but as soon as I had dropped off Jabulani I went back the same way. It was just one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions. I really just wanted to ask if I could take a picture, but as soon as I had formed that thought, I realized how ridiculous it was. Me stopping in my big 7-seater car, asking if I could take a picture and then driving off without a second thought?
Strong to carry impossible loads of firewood.
We joked and chatted for some time while unloading (and cleaning, they insisted) the car. Everybody was in a jolly mood for having the job gotten over with so swiftly. I attracted some more laughs when trying to lift the bundle of firewood. Not on my head, mind you, just a few inches off the ground. As you can see, it takes two people to lift it onto somebody’s head. Which I still didn’t give a try, but I promise you I will, next time.My final question, before driving off to catch a rugby match, was this:
“How long will this firewood last you?”
“Two days,” was the immediate reply.
I drove off with “two days” ringing through my head for a long time. It is impossible to imagine leading such a life, and yet millions of people do. While things have gotten better since the end of apartheid and many housing areas have since been electrified and supplied with water, there are still substantial portions of townships where residents are relegated to carrying water from far away and using paraffin or wood stoves for heating and cooking. The shortfall in this so-called service delivery continues to dog the government and there is still so much infrastructure to be built up, it is mind-boggling.
And who will pay for it all? Surely not people who walk for hours to the landfill for some free firewood because they can’t afford to buy any. It would be a daunting task for the best of governments to plan and finance a lasting solution, so how can one have much hope for this one, where new scandals of government contracts given as favors surface almost daily?
And yet this country has come such a long way. Its people are indomitable, crafty, and strong.
Especially the women.