Strong Women of Africa

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?

Strong women of Africa

I can only imagine what a fool I’d make of myself trying to replicate this feat, even with the smallest of bags, and yet there is something in me that makes me want to try. Maybe I will. If other expat bloggers can walk around in a burka all day, it seems I should be man – or, rather, woman – enough to carry a load on my head.

But I’m a chicken when it comes to these things, even though I never cease to prod my kids to be daring enough to do the unconventional. I didn’t even use the minibus taxi the other day when I REALLY could have used one, what with my car in the shop and pressing appointments all around and no “reputable” taxi available for hours.

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.

Strong women of Africa
Another feat fascinating me to no end is the artful way African women tie their babies to their  backs, using cloths or towels in a way that never seems to slip. Who needs money for a Baby Bjorn with such an ingenious system?

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?

Diepsloot township
Diepsloot Township in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg

This is how I found myself carefully steering my car over pot-holed dirt roads teeming with children on a sunny Saturday morning, giving a ride to two beaming women and a carload full of firewood. It was actually a bit of an act to persuade those two to climb into my car. I’m not sure if they thought I wanted to steal their firewood. But I did prevail, and a nearby security guard, curious about the commotion and always grateful for a diversion, came to lend a hand. We pushed and we shoved and got it all in, and then rode into Diepsloot like royalty, with everybody stopping what they were doing to watch this strange procession.

The ride was far too long to contemplate anyone having to do it on foot with a heavy load. What would have taken several hours now didn’t last more than 10 minutes. But I almost wished it had lasted much longer, I had so many questions.

“Where are the strong men to help you with this hard work?” was my first one.

I just got a mirthful laugh in response. Speak to an African woman about the men, and she will quickly display her disdain.

In Africa, it is the women who have to be strong.

Strong to walk on foot for hours to a job to help provide for her family.

Strong to take on a relative’s kids and raise them as her own when that relative gets killed in a car-crash or another senseless stabbing.

Strong to take care of her ailing mother suffering from diabetes.

Strong to find the patience to wait at the health centre all day to receive medicine.

Strong to be separated from her small kids because her job, the only source of income for the family, keeps her away from them weeks at a time

Strong to carry impossible loads of firewood.

a morning in Diepsloot
As you can see it was still early morning but these women had already walked miles
Strong women of Africa
My car stuffed full of firewood
Strong women of Africa
At this point a man showed up to help. But where was he before?
Strong women of Africa
The sweeping of my car afterwards. Trust me, not a speck of dirt was left.
Strong women of Africa
I did ask for a picture. Hefting the…
Strong women of Africa
…load back on took two people.

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.

Strong women of Africa


If you like this story, check out the corresponding article on CNN’s iReport.

And read Strong Women of Africa: The Sequel.

Share this: