I can only skip around the sticky stuff so long before I get stuck. The elephant in the room is demanding she be let out. So here it goes – the elephant is out in Bukwaku, Uganda.
This summer has been the first time I’ve worked completely in science and research for more than a week at a time. I’ve done so along a boy that is my age named Jacob. Something quite frustrating has happened twice since our arrival. When Jacob gets asked about his future education plans I get asked whether or not I like to cook. Or how big of a family I want someday. Anyone who knows me at all knows that my own father refuses to eat anything that I even try to cook! Additionally, nothing engages me in a conversation more than talking about my education! But rather I reply with a brief explanation to why I dislike cooking and listen to Jacob describe his educational goals.
Often times this summer, I’ve been the only woman in the lab, in the field, and in the office. There are a few other (wonderfully intelligent and inspiring) women that I’ve gotten to work with, but the majority of the people that I’ve directly worked with have been men.
Here it comes, get ready for the elephant.
The culture that I’ve been working with here has an incredible people, with bright clothing, bright homes, and bright personalities. The women also have almost no public voice, aren’t supposed to talk freely to one another in public, and must kneel whenever they greet a man. If there is one chair in the room and one elderly woman and one younger man, the woman will kindly find a place on the floor.
Today when we arrived in the village where I was conducting a focus group and I stepped out of the car, the little girls that came to greet me fell to their knees. I did the same. They all giggled like I didn’t understand. I knew just fine. Those are the little ones that I have boundless hope and respect for.
The focus group discussion was absolutely incredible. The translator and I worked and probed to find out the best ways that we can get information about agriculture to farmers in Uganda. We even brainstormed new ways that we could help them adopt the push-pull technology. One farmer has a dream to make their entire village a “push-pull community” to help achieve a higher quality of life and consistent food security. Many other farmers want the opportunity to travel to Kenya to see the push-pull plots that are working there so that they can see with their own eyes the long-term benefits of adopting push-pull.
But when I was trying to find out who was more proactive in learning agricultural technologies between men or women in their village, the women grew quiet. The men had lots to say about how they were more mobile, more educated, and faster learners. But women remained silent unless to agree with their husbands, brothers, and fathers.
This would be fine and well if I didn’t know better. When I interviewed the farmers one on one many farmers, men and women, said that women were more proactive in adopting the agricultural technologies.
I wrote down the results from the discussion and politely moved on. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. When we took a vote on the gender agricultural involvement one courageous women of the forty-three farmers rose her hand for women. It hung there in the air for a long time, alone but unwavering.
Aloice, my mentor and “Kenyan Father” asked me how the women are generally treated in my culture. I said that boys open the door for girls and men stand up on busses so that women can have a seat. In formal environments, women go ahead of the men in line. He was very surprised. The more I thought about it, the more confused I was too.
I remember being very young and absolutely infatuated with my science class. That was until I had a teacher tell me that I shouldn’t get used to being better at the boys in science or in math, it wouldn’t last long.
I also remember being on an industry visit with Nebraska FFA, where a sponsor shared with me he was very disappointed that my state officer team had more females than males. It was, in fact, only boys in the “Golden Days.”
So what are the differences between gender discrimination from one culture to another? In Uganda, the way that women are treated unfairly is very visual – easy to find, even easy to observe. It’s not that simple in the United States. The discrimination is hidden, it’s shy, it’s even sneaky. It’s in the form of lower salaries, stereotypes, kitchen jokes, and leadership norms and expectations.
Where do things like culture and religion come to play with what is right and what is wrong? In many rural places of Pakistan and Afghanistan it is against the religion to teach a girl how to read. Across the globe the literacy rate for women staggers behind that of men. Many cultures in Africa understand the duties of the woman in the household and say “she is too busy to receive a proper education.” No! She’s too active and too full of potential to not receive an education.
Please note, there are already women doing incredible, life-changing work in science, including agricultural sciences! The Director General of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Dr. Segenet Kelemu, is in my opinion, one of the leading faces in scientific research in Africa and beyond. One of my mentors, Matilda, carries the title of mother, student, producer, farmer-teacher, wife, and women-empowerer. My purpose, additionally, is not to blame men for cultural or religious norms that were set thousands of years ago. My purpose is simply to inform, to share, and to admire the women in the world that are working hard to make scientific advancements. The women that are doing everything in their power to feed their families or recieve an education in agriculture. The women that do so under unfair treatment, unfortunate norms, less than equal salary, and discriminative expectations.
This conversation is a slippery slope. It’s easy to get stuck in pride and culture norms on both sides of the road. Where exactly is the line between following a cultural or religious belief and discriminating against women? And what does it mean if I sit in the yellow plastic chair? What does it mean if I find a place on the floor next to the women that I admire dearly?
These are questions that I’m not ready to answer. I need more face-to-face interactions with different culture norms. I need to be a witness to even more challenging situations for women across the world. The elephant is out, no more pretending. Here’s to a journey in agricultural science – not as a woman, but rather because I am a woman.