Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lunch and Equality

I'm out on a field visit the other day, with James and Peter, two of the Sudanese staff, checking out some of the organization's projects in a few rural villages for a story I'm doing. They've been providing financial support to build schools and clinics here, using a method called 'cash-for-work,' where they lay out the money for the materials, and to hire people from the village as short-term laborers to do the construction. It's a double benefit, as it not only stimulates the economy, but also helps communities develop needed infrastructure- once the story is finalized, I'll post it here.

After seeing the sites, we stop for lunch at a restaurant that was deceptively nice, considering the size of the town. This is 'nice' by southern Sudanese standards, of course- it's clean enough for this corner of the developing world, but I can only imagine the horror on the face of my brother the chef, or a health inspector back home if he or she saw the place. The restaurant, a big tin building, is big enough to have several tables, an open kitchen, fans redistributing the hot air, a stereo blasting Arabic pop, and (weirdest of all) two glass display cases for sodas and water, the kind you would see in any convenience store in the West, filled with 7-Up, Coke and Pepsi, all labeled in Arabic script.

The kitchen consists of a large area near the front of the building, where three guys scoop beans into bowls, fry eggs on a charcoal-fired grill, and mix a massive pot full of a combination of bread, beef, onions, and egg, a sort of goulash that gets dumped into a communal bowl for people to pick from, using their right hand only, of course.

Southern Sudanese food will never win any awards for culinary excellence; beans, meat, stew, bread, fried eggs. I ask for a plate of fuul Arabiya (Arab beans, as they're called here), mashed fava beans served with a small squirt of lime juice and a couple of surprisingly good disc-shaped pieces of bread. Beans have been my usual fare when eating in the field, as they're usually a pretty safe bet- they're hard to screw up, and less likely to make you sick. The fava beans are pretty bitter, but the lime (along with salt) helps.

One of the young boys waiting the tables brings our food- James and Peter, along with our driver, tear into the big bowl, while I dip the bread into the beans. People eat quickly here, and there's little discussion, usually. After we finish though, and are polishing off the sodas, James has a question for me.

"So, Nathaniel, are you married?"

"No," I answer. "Not married, no children." They find this incredibly funny for some reason.

James, Peter, and the driver chat amongst themselves for a moment, speaking Dinka. They turn back to me.

"In your country," Peter asks, "how much do you have to pay for a dowry when you marry?"


I pause for a second, trying to figure out how best to answer this.

"Well, in the US we don't pay a dowry when we get married," I answer, trying not to appear too taken aback.

If the answer about not being married was funny, this is absolutely hilarious.

"This is a very good system!" James says, guffawing- Peter and the driver do the same nodding their heads in agreement.

In Sudan, as in a number of places throughout the world, when a couple wants to marry, the groom is responsible for paying a 'dowry,' a price to the bride's family, as a way of owning the woman. In Dinka territory, where people have been raising livestock for thousands of years (with very little changing, aside from the occasional radio and English Premier League football jersey), the currency of choice is cattle. Around Malualkon a groom's family will likely pay anywhere from 30-80 cows, an expense that can translate to thousands of dollars. I understand that it's tradition, but the idea of 'purchasing' someone seems inherently wrong to me. I try to think of how best to explain it, without stepping on anyone's metaphorical cultural toes.

"Around here, some people ('like you,' I think to myself), think that men and women aren't equal, that men are higher than women, right? They nod their heads at this seemingly obvious truth.

"In the West, men and women are seen as equal," I continue. "If they decide that they love each other and want to get married, they just decide to do it, there's no payment involved. Sometimes the man will ask the woman's family for permission, but it isn't required. Also, both families will usually help pay for the ceremony, the food, the music, and that sort of thing, but there's no price for any person."

"That is a good system," Peter says. "But here, it is very different."

No kidding. There are any number of arguments that can be made about 'culture,' and how something perfectly acceptable in one place may be criminal somewhere else. In grad school we talked a lot about the concept of 'universalism,' the idea that there are a certain set of basic human rights to which everyone should be entitled, regardless of culture. I know that I'm imposing my 'Western' values on a country that it feels like time forgot, but still, the idea of buying or selling anyone just seems wrong. If there's one thing I've come to realize in my time working in the developing world though, it's that I'm not going to change much, no matter how much I might wish it were different. Social change is a slow, indigenous process, and has to come from within.

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