Women Take the Field

My amiable but ever preening friend Resaka had already warned me about the March 8 International Women’s Day holiday. He insisted it was less an opportunity for mothers, sisters, and daughters to assert their worth during their twenty-four-hour public platform and more of an invitation to become the target of ridicule. I took Resaka’s warning seriously.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in the small town of Tsihombe, Madagascar, I wondered to what extent I should participate in the Women’s Day festivities. I had already served seven months as a high school English teacher, and although I constantly plunged myself into the rich mercantile rhapsody of Friday market days, paid my respects to the dead at wakes and funerals, and celebrated recent births with the families of my students, I often felt like a voyeur, an observer merely gaping in wonder but not living as an Antandroy, the predominant tribe in Tsihombe.

Resaka forewarned me of the sideline laughter the women would incur by playing in the annual soccer game against the men’s team on Women’s Day. Instead of letting two teams of women take the field, tradition called for a battle of the sexes, pitting soccer-seasoned, middle-aged men against an unpracticed group of women, for whom playing soccer was, on any other day, a cultural taboo.

As my Tsihombe informant, political guide, and informal bodyguard, Resaka ran with me every morning on a rock-studded dirt road cutting through the spiny forest. We lumbered in the half-light past the profusion of sky-reaching octopus trees and low, thorn-furious brush. The silhouette of this dramatic foliage was reminiscent of a thriving coral reef long abandoned by the sea. As we rested near a pair of baobab trees, Resaka would divulge not only the history and cultural idiosyncrasies of the town; he would also bare its more sinister underbelly.

Resaka was no longer Catholic, he claimed, because the parish’s Spanish priest was rumored to head out after sunset with pockets full of candy and change to call upon young girls. This was a flock he had fleeced into learning lessons on bodily rather than spiritual pleasures. Resaka had dropped out of school before he had completed tenth grade of high school at the age of seventeen. Because of the high level of corruption in the region’s education system, he had concluded that any earnest endeavor to pursue a decent education in Tsihombe would be foolish.

Any number of middle- and high-school teachers consistently refused to work for months on end, and some male teachers gave female students high marks in exchange for sexual favors. There were families Resaka hesitated to visit because they participated in child servitude, housing students from the countryside, especially grade-school girls, in exchange for continuous domestic labor that often left the kids haggard, hungry, and without time or energy to focus on the studies that had brought them to town.

After deciding to hold an English Club meeting as usual that Saturday morning concurrent to the Women’s Day festivities, I continued to worry about what lay ahead. Only five out of the usual thirty students congregated in the shade of the schoolyard’s Neem trees. The rest had gone to watch the parade in the town center. Ushering my small brood to a fellow teacher’s house equipped with a stereo system, I decided to play them an Ani DiFranco song, one of her many gritty feminist assertions of men’s emotional vulnerability.

As my uncomprehending students mouthed the mysterious line, “Men are delicate origami creatures,” I knew I had made a mistake. Not only could I not explain “origami,” not being proficient in the art myself, but my dragging my students through a doleful example of embittered and embattled feminism seemed clumsy. The community of women who raised them and infused their social landscape with stoic strength were not wagging their collective finger at men. They were proudly marching in their finest jacketed suits, sweating through their jewel-toned silks.

After I let my five now slightly bewildered students leave early to watch the rest of the parade, Mr. Niri, a Malagasy English teacher, sensing my resistance to participate, asked about my involvement in the Women’s Day activities. Choosing not to share my suspicion that the day’s events might become a gladiatorial comedy for the pleasure of a jeering crowd, I feigned ignorance of the day’s proceedings and instead gave him a gnarled wad of paper I’d intended to be a crane.

“Well, then, you must participate in the football game,” he said in his gleeful English. “You will be playing with the leading women in town. You need them to know this community, Miss Leslie.”

Unable to deny his politic advice, I presented my sneakered feet and sports-bra-strapped self on the football field of loose dirt, broken glass, and cow dung. I was surprised to find the team, made up of both dignified middle-aged and spry young women, already jogging in place and stretching awkwardly but unabashedly in preparation. Most wore thin sandals as their only equipment against men girded in cleats and shin guards. The few women who did sport sneakers had borrowed them from their husbands or sons. A group of men, consisting of city officials and prominent business owners, had assembled at the opposite goal. They supplied the ball and brought the rest of the town in tow, who fleshed out the otherwise unchalked boundaries of the field.

Play began, and so did the sideline laughter. All the women ran like a hoard of bees, swarming the ball in a helter-skelter frenzy that even the paunchy older men evaded in simple side-step maneuvers. Though our team rarely got possession of the ball, we ran with a sense of triumph even as the goals mounted against us. With each failed tackle, sputter of exhaustion, or missed kick, our sense of fun increased. Laughter bounced in contagion from one gasping teammate to another, while those of us with enough breath shouted, “Get him!” “Run!” “Go, girl!”

Our giddiness was palpable, as though our simply taking long strides out of keeping with daily routine was enough to secure a moral victory. The game ended when both teams were sufficiently fatigued, without a whistle being blown or a grandiloquent speech to conclude the day’s affairs. We exchanged handshakes, and along with the crowd, we dispersed: some of us to home, others to market, and the rest to bathe in watery holes that pockmark the dry riverbed.

As befits any worthy holiday in Madagascar, a picnic was in order. It took a month for the mayor to deliver on his promise to honor the town’s women’s club with a sheep and free transportation in a camion, a truck better suited for cattle than people, to Faux Cap, a village on the southern coast eighteen miles from Tsihombe.

MY PARTICIPATION in the soccer game had unofficially initiated me into the women’s circle. I was summoned to group meetings delivered in fast, heated Malagasy, which I haltingly tried to comprehend, and was even invited into yards to talk about strategies for beating the men’s soccer team next year.

The morning of the picnic went like any other day involving planning and coordination. It featured waiting for the truck, waiting for the sheep, and waiting for the sake of waiting in recognition of the tradition of fotoana malagasy, or Malagasy time. When I arrived at the point of departure for the picnic, already crowded with women, babies, and bags bulging with pots of cooked rice, I sat next to Delphine, a woman who in past months had stared at me in mirthful curiosity through the chinks of my wooden fence and had spoken my name instead of calling me vazaha or “foreigner” like most passersby.

Akore, gea, Lesselee (Hey, girl, Leslie),” she would say and smile as though she suspected me of being her long-lost sister. It was on this day that Delphine and I became fast and faithful friends and stopped being curiosities to each other.

As we talked about the heat, she untied her wailing baby, Armendine, from her back and waggled one of her breasts at her and brusquely popped a nipple in her mouth. I must have been staring a bit too fixedly, for it was at this moment Resaka’s mother, Rose (pronounced Roose), a widow still supporting her six grown children, determined to begin my education as an Antandroy woman.

“Those are the breasts of a woman with a baby,” Rose instructed, pushing her pursed lips in the direction of Delphine’s chest. “See how big they are?”

“And these,” she added, revealing her own, unceremoniously tossing them in her hands, “are the breasts of an old woman without a baby. See the difference?”

This was to be the first of many lessons I would get throughout the day and the remainder of my time in Tsihombe. Even when my knowledge of the Malagasy language failed, I was drawn into the women’s group all the more intimately. Still waiting for the cattle car to arrive, Delphine, after repeatedly trying to explain why she could not venture into the ocean at Faux Cap, grabbed my hand in delighted frustration and placed it firmly on her crotch and laughed, “Fotoana vehivavy (It’s a woman’s time)!”

Suddenly, I had access to the words of women I could not obtain from students or colleagues at school. While I walked on the beach with Delphine later in the day, she gave me the words for male and female genitalia. I now had it as secret ammunition that I would never use except to heckle the constantly mating pigs I saw among the cactus lining the streets of Tsihombe. Throughout the next year, I gradually learned a new and intimate language and was drawn into the matter-of-fact, brusque nurture of Tsihombe women. Once I could leave the classroom, where in my English lessons I attempted to expose my students to some of the life from which I had come, I could step out from the artificial America I had created and into the close circle of Antandroy women. Whether sharing a sweet potato in the market, telling anecdotes during the peanut harvest, or simply sitting in shade to manao tantara, to beat out stories with rock against rock, I was no longer among them but one of them.

Leslie McAbee was born in Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1984. She earned her bachelor’s degree at North Georgia College and State University and the University of Georgia. She is currently working toward a master’s degree in English at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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