The Patriarchy Becomes Them

by zunguzungu

It’s interesting to watch a patriarchy in action, but it helps to play a privileged role in it. Baba is, without question, an excellent patriarch: always seeming both somehow superfluous yet commanding. It’s clear, for example, that he’s higher up than her, but Mama is “in charge” of everything, and if there’s something you want, its clear that you go to her. In a sense, while she tends to rule the household through her presence, he somehow seems to be obeyed only in his absence. Does that make sense?

It’s an interesting dynamic, actually, like two different kinds of authority that don’t quite run on the same wavelength. Maybe because her authority is somehow grounded in the domestic space, while his is not? It’s very colonial of me to keep invoking the word “domestic” to try to understand what’s going on around me. But anyway, he’s always rushing in, intervening, setting things in motion or adjusting them, and then he’s gone again; completely in control whenever he’s–for the moment–in the room, but you always feel a certain tension when he’s there, a tension that you breathe out when he leaves, as he inevitably does. Baba doesn’t hang out; he’s got more important things to do. Mama, on the other hand, is always there, even if she’s not. She patrols the house, supervises, oversees, regulates, and lingers. She has a little shop window where she sells various small items, holds court with neighbors, and her presence just generally hangs over the place. I’m always surprised when I see her outside of the house; I’m always surprised when I see him in the house.

Now, I could note that in some traditional African social systems that I’ve read about, this sort of dynamic obtains because a polygamous household is arranged sort of like King Lear: while the husband is the highest authority, he moves from house to house, staying with one wife, then another, then another, only having his “own” house in the sense that every house is his, but in this exact sense, having no particular place to be. A strange position to be in, if you think about it; there’s no permanence, no settling. I heard an interview with a polygamous Mormon household in Utah once, and they all agreed (man and women) that 1. the women had a tremendous amount of independence and authority (because each houshold was her own) and 2. it took a very particular kind of man to be able not to be overwhelmed by all those females. Is there some connection here? Maybe.

But on the other hand, that was polygamy, and this is certainly not that. And, anyway, its easier just to bask in the facility with which both Mama and Baba negotiate their roles, like dancers that, because they never quite touch, almost seem to be dancing with themselves. If I try (as I am now) to imagine the two of them even speaking to other, I find that the images won’t even come into my mind, though the kids are concrete proof that they have indeed had some sort of interaction in the past. So how do you tell the dancer from the dance? Baba really does give the impression that every decision and every intervention he makes is the right one, and there’s a certain pleasure in falling into the flow that he dictates. Mama, on the other hand, is a sort of benevolent taskmaster, often harsh, often caustic, but always reassuringly present.

I say that it’s nice to have a privileged role because Anton and I are, of course, never ordered to do anything except take more food, but then I’m not completely joking when I call that an order. One can do things for oneself, one can abstain from ordering around those lower down, and one can be friendly and appreciative with sister as she cooks and cleans up after you (and, after all, joking around is one of the privileges of being higher up on the totem pole!), but the quickest way to make everyone uneasy is to buck the hierarchy. One doesn’t clean up after oneself (you’ll do it wrong), one eats when one is told to, and one accepts the privileges that are offered. When Anton and I were visiting with a neighbor and she asked us what kind of soda we wanted (soda she was going to walk down the street and buy in the little store), I said “Hatujali” which I was thinking meant “We don’t care” (that is, which kind of soda). She took it to mean “Don’t bother” and there was an instant of tension before I mentioned my preference for Fanta passion. “Usikatae,” she said, suddenly through a rigid smile: “Don’t refuse.”

Sister is the one who does all the work, both the first one up and the last one in bed. But she’s pretty opaque; always smiling, always shyly helpful, and its hard to imagine that behind her nunlike benevolence she might resent cleaning up after us, though, as I say, its hard to tell (and, quick note, she’s not really a sister, she’s the paid housegirl). But every time I’ve made problems, its been when I tried to either do something for myself and stepped on her prerogatives: there’s a certain order to how she does things and getting involved in it only seems to make it more difficult for her anyway. So it just seems easier to let one be taken care of, to bathe when one is given hot water, to eat when food is put before you, and basically to accept that while she might be doing a variety of things for you that, in the abstract makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable, you can’t really refuse. Luckily for me, I don’t particularly want to; if nothing else, it’s simply pleasant not to have to do the dishes, for example, or cook. But whenever I’m tempted to step out of the household’s rhythm, I’m reminded that this is a dance I don’t know at all well, and certainly not well enough to improvise.