Sunday, May 27, 2007

Monique and the Mango Rains

I must have been projecting a little when I picked up Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali, because I apparently thought that the title was really Sara and her issues with the female body. I heard about the book, which is a Peace Corps volunteer's story of living with and assisting a midwife in rural Mali, on NPR one day, and was immediately fascinated. The author, Kris Holloway, was talking about her previous attitudes about women and their bodies and children - she had never planned on having children or even getting married, and avoided the topic of pregnancy in general - and how completely insufficient they were when it came to understanding the reality of childbearing and women's bodies in a world where birth control is not something most people think of as a right.

I was really fascinated with the story that Holloway was telling, but I was especially interested in the book because of her perspective; I've never felt well-acquainted or emotionally certain about the reproductive capabilities and difficulties that are inherent in the female body. In my body.

In fact, I've sometimes had the dark thoughts that being a woman is a simple curse, that femaleness is a medical pathology, and that the terrible fates that befall women and women only make feminism a heartbreaking fool's game. And even if women's bodies aren't sick, they age quickly into ugliness. I remember when the bad news about hormone replacement therapy beame big news, everywhere I looked it seemed there were people telling me that women's lives go directly to hell when they approach menopause. Hot flashes and mood swings and changes in sexuality - from the loss of the ability to bear children to changes in libido and conventional attractiveness, all portrayed as humiliating and miserable - it sounded impossible, and even if I was only 18, so very soon. And if this natural defecit in the female body were going to be addressed with HRT, all someone had to look forward to was a heart attack or cancer. Oh - and cancer. Breast cancer kills women in their 30s and 40s, and women who do not have children and breastfeed face a higher risk of it. Reproductive cancers kill women in huge numbers. Ovarian cancer is hard to detect and therefore highly fatal.

It was only a couple of years ago, through slowly increasing dread in the back of my mind, that I remembered: women generally outlive men. I don't know if it's just that medical alarmism sells well with women, but I swear that the Your Delicate Lady Parts Are Rotting Out of Your Body as You Read This! genre of journalism is awfully ubiquetous. Back to the HRT revelations, I was incredibly relieved when I heard a doctor (a female doctor) on the radio mention that it's only the minority of women who have menopausal symptoms that are severe enough that they seek treatment.

Between the alarmism about women's medical problems and thinly-veiled contempt for women's bodies that dare to change over time, it's really difficult for me to think clearly about the reality of women's health, and even my own reproductive health. I picked up the book imagining that Holloway would walk me through her own revelations about these issues, but alas, it was not to be. Fortunately, it was a really interesting story about an amazing woman, and even if it didn't hold my hand through my own fears and anxieties about women's health, I suppose self-reflection is really my job.

Holloway says in an interview that she struggled with not centering the book around herself, since she wanted to express Monique's personality and achievements more than stand in the spotlight herself, but also her editor's requests to acknowledge her place in the story and use it as an anchor for white American folk (like myself) to identify with when learning about a different culture and a different outlook on life.

And the outlook on life the people she lives with is quite different than my own. The people of the village she lives in, Nampossela, live knowing they have very little control over which children die or which children live, over whether the rain comes at the right time, and are somewhat content in their understanding that these life or death issues are ultimately controlled by God himself, so they ought to make the best of whatever is handed to them. There's also a strong sense of communal responsibility and ownership - crops are grown in communal fields where all the townspeople contribute labor. With these dynamics, there's little sense of individual responsibility for the things that happen. Maybe one family slacks off in the fields, or a woman's husband won't let her rest enough during her pregnancy, but when the harvest doesn't bring quite enough food, or the woman dies in childbirth, it's best not to dwell on the whos and whys, and just continue knowing that God has a plan.

As an American, I found myself thinking that there are some ways in which this just doesn't make sense, but one interesting way Holloway had of expressing the utility of this way of thinking came when Monique tells Holloway that her first sexual experience was being raped. Holloway is as shocked as a fellow rape survivor can be.
"'Ah Fatumata [Holloway's Malian name], it was this way for me, and for other of my friends,' Monique said, looking at me with a mixture of concern and confusion. She paused for a moment, watching me, moving slightly closer. 'It is normal. It happens.'

Her words made me feel less alone, safer. Yet I couldn't imagine that Monique, or anyone else, could think being forced to have sex was normal. But she hadn't called it rape, or anything violent. I had read about women and internalized repression, was this a sign of it? Rape, or forced sex, or whatever term one wanted to apply, was a reality faced by women all over the world, but Monique didn't seem to have baggage, no perception that she had somehow been violated, no shame or self-reproaching. That, I knew, was a great thing.
I'm still not sure what to make of this passage - I'm sure I'll be thinking about it for quite a while. One of the main themes of the book is the struggle between Holloway's instinctive tendency to look at Monique's life through her Western eyes, but to appreciate the lessons that Monique's way of thinking could offer in the face of poverty and sickness and death. Monique and Holloway spend much of their time teaching neighbors and friends about treatments for diarrhea, one of the most frequent factors in child mortality in the area, and their lessons clash somewhat with the "will of God" attitude about health and sickness.

Monique didn't lead me to any huge revalations about the cosmic fairness or unfairness of female reproduction. I am always glad to see that people's lives go on through the things that the media will sensationalize. I once read a long article about postpartum incontinence, and it had me pretty freaked out for quite a while. There are just so many things that can go wrong with labor, with bodies, with lives. But one evening, I was walking by a baseball field where families had gathered to watch their daughters play softball, and it dawned on me: just about everyone does it, and they don't seem crippled with shame or physical disability. I suppose it says a lot about the privilege I've been so fortunate to live in and my own general level of anxiety that I could be so shaken by the idea that life isn't fair, and that bad things happen to people all the time. There are plenty of things - mundane or not - that I can't imagine myself living through. But sometimes they happen, and I'm shocked to find that I'm still here, I'm not struggling with agonizing shame. And neither are the women in Monique's village, neither are the people all over the world whose lives aren't perfect. It's not any reason to let the chips fall where they may when there's something we can do to improve our own lives or the lives of others, but it's good to remember: life goes on.

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