(Editor's note: The people and places in this essay have been disguised to protect their identities.)
When The Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent, is written about in the Western press, it is often described as a sunshine-drenched tourist haven, a cheap beach party, a quick flight from colder climes.
On the coast, near the airport and the tourist hotels, the roads are paved and usually well lit. Normally there is clean water. There is often electricity. Sometimes there are usable sanitation facilities. Leaving the tourist areas and entering rural Gambia, however, the roads are so bad that vehicles have to crawl around the potholes and skirt the edges of the eroded shoulders. It takes half a day to travel 100 kilometers. The accessible clean water and electricity and sanitation facilities disappear. Moving upcountry into rural areas, it becomes clear why the UN Development Programme, in the most recent Human Development Report, ranked The Gambia 155 out of 177 countries. Yes, it is green and inviting and warm, but here in rural Gambia life is poor and difficult and often precarious.
In the rainy-season world, many diseases are common. Sneezing and coughing punctuate every sentence. Scratches fester and swell with pus. Pregnant and lactating women lose weight. The children suffer from malnutrition, adults from type 2 diabetes. Pneumonia is common, as is malaria, especially among pregnant women; they are at increased risk because they are bitten by mosquitoes twice as frequently as non-pregnant women.
There are no luxuries here. Even the necessities are scarce. Time is one commodity everyone has plenty of. People take their time. They have nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with. The hours seem to pass more slowly upcountry, especially for the women.
The women in the villages are not simply housewives. For many, life means toil: long hours working the fields, tending domestic livestock and vegetable gardens, gathering firewood, fetching water, preparing and cooking food, cleaning clothes, taking care of children, and managing household food distribution. Even now, as I visit during the Ramadan fasting period, the average rural Gambian woman works at least 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The fasting leaves everyone drained, but the women are still working in the fields, doing their domestic chores, and carrying all the heavy loads on their heads. Seventy percent of the agricultural workers are women. Visiting any market, it is immediately obvious that most of the buyers and sellers are women. Women are the main food producers, providers, and preparers. On many levels it is the women who hold the country together economically and nutritionally.
The men? They are the masters of the household and do not get involved in household chores. Most men see women's work as beneath them. They would...