icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Africa, Mental Health, and Bill Poe

The host on “On Point,” an NPR program carried by WUSF Radio, kept trying to get his guests back to the point. He was interviewing (by telephone) an expert on Africa from an American university, as well as an African man and an African woman in Nigeria. The frustrated host was attempting to talk about the kidnapping of more than 200 teenage girls (we now know that it was closer to 300), and his guests kept turning the discussion back to President Goodluck Jonathan and the upcoming election.

All but screaming, the moderator tried to rein the evasive panelists: “But 200 girls were kidnapped, and no one is looking for them!” Except for a brief acknowledgment by the woman, which was deep into her memorized discourse on Nigerian politics, none of the would-be answerers addressed his question. Both sides of Nigeria’s civil war seem equally indifferent to this crime by Boko Haram, young men who are equivalent to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Do you remember that when “Taliban” first was used in the English-speaking media, we were told that it meant “student?” That’s true, and these young men did indeed consider themselves to be students in madressas that implanted the most extreme form of Muslim conservatism (to men, of course; women were not welcome at school or anywhere else outside of the home). Like the Taliban, Nigeria’s Boko Haram is similarly opposed to secular education: the kidnappers rounded up the boarding-school girls and forced them into trucks when they were taking a physics exam.

They were moved to a jungle, where they clearly are being used as sex slaves, cooks, and other traditional use and abuse of women. Although Nigeria has airplanes and other military equipment – much of it supplied by the US – the government has let weeks go by without rescuing these young women. The most recent story I’ve found said that 53 girls have managed to escape, so authorities should know where the militia’s camp is -- but no one has followed up on this important intelligence, and these true terrorists go free.

(By the way, it is The Times of India and the British Guardian that have reported most closely on this story. I’ve been following it largely through Women’s E-News, an online service based in New York that does an excellent job of compiling news related to women. Let me urge you to subscribe: Just go to www.womensenews.org. )

In Kenya, thousands of miles away in northeastern Africa, the legislative body voted last week to allow a man to simultaneously wed as many women as he chooses. Islamic custom had been to permit no more than four simultaneous wives, but apparently that is not enough for some greedy men. (And yes, of course, this only works one way: a woman is not free to marry more than one man.)

Most Americans are shocked that polygamy still happens, but it does, and the direct result of polygamy is to encourage war. Indeed, it is both cause and effect, as old and wealthy men take more than their share of young women and then stir up wars so that young men kill each other. I have to say that I recently re-read the Old Testament and was struck by this close connection between polygamy, war, and the killing of rival males.

I had previously thought about polygamy the other way around, as something of a benign institute with warrior tribes on the American plains. It was not uncommon, especially between a man and the widow of his slain brother. Some anthropologists explain that as a reasonable way of providing for the economic needs of widows and children. But now that I ponder the practice in more detail, that justification doesn’t really bear up.

Because property was communal in these cultures, widows would not be left to starve. Moreover, women did virtually all of the work anyway. The men merely hunted buffalo (and each other), while women butchered and preserved the meat; tanned the buffalo hides; and then built the tepees from the hides and manufactured the clothes and moccasins. Women, of course, cooked the food, bore and tended the children, and gathered the firewood; if vegetables were grown, women did that, too. When a tribe moved between summer and winter quarters, it was women who walked long miles carrying belongings, while men rode the horses.

Many European explorers commented on this, noting that men spent most of their time smoking pipes and gambling, including betting on sports played by younger men. Native American women, I think, didn’t need the institution of polygamy nearly as much as men did. It not only gave them a variety of sexual partners, but also encouraged the basic culture of promoting war: indeed, much of the purpose of war was to kill other men, kidnap women and children, and either use them as slaves or hold them for ransom.

The connection between polygamy and war was true in the ancient world, too, as a close reading of the Old Testament will confirm. Although I’ve never seen a book with this thesis, it occurs to me now that it may be more than coincidental that the first religion to promote monotheism also promoted monogamy -- to the point that, by the New Testament, monogamy (or even celibacy) was assumed to be the only moral choice. There’s a real gap on the evolution of this huge historical point, and I’d love to see some scholar address it.

Anyway, the point is that the status of women in any society is fundamental – and especially Africa, where civilization began, seems to be taking a surprisingly long time to understand that. Like women in America’s native tribes, women there are the primary farmers and sellers of produce, yet in both the continent’s Muslim and Christian cultures, they often do not get basic respect. Rape appears to be a natural tool of war, and governments can’t be bothered with rescuing female victims, let alone prosecuting their rapists.

The most definitive measurement of the status of women in any place or time is their elevation to high office. Africa -- a huge continent with more nations than any other -- has elected exactly one woman as head of state. That was in Liberia, the country on Africa’s west coast created by American liberals in 1821 for liberated slaves. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president there in 2006 and re-elected in 2011, the same year that she also won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even the conservative magazine Forbes called her an “icon,” especially because of her work to reconcile opposing sides of Liberia’s earlier civil wars. Born in 1938, she now is well into her 70s. Nigerians who want a good president would do well to look to their western neighbor and emulate it, finding a wise old woman who understands that decent treatment of women and girls is key to a flourishing society.

* * *

This also ties into the current news about LA basketball owner Robert Stirling. I was glad that the NBA clamped down hard on his racism – but was shocked to discover that the NAACP had given him a Lifetime Achievement Award and apparently planned to do so again, all because he gave generous contributions. Yet that money pales in comparison to the two billion dollars that he is said to be worth, and no one should be able to buy an award from any organization true to its founding goals. As I said, I was shocked.

And yet not surprised. Almost nothing was said about Stirling’s behavior towards women, and very little about his family – except that his wife was suing his mistress for return of the millions that he gave her in gifts. Instead the conversation revolved around the problem of racism, with little mention of sexism, a problem that is at least as complex and damaging. Most of all, though, virtually nothing was said about why a sports owner should make billions in the first place. Our priorities are just so wrong.

Then came the news that former mayor William Poe had died. He was so very exceptional in refusing to accept the county’s so-called Community Investment Tax that some of us (not me) voted to impose on ourselves in 1996. Although some CIT money goes to other projects, everyone knew that the main purpose of the half-penny tax was to allow the new Bucs owner, Malcolm Glazer, to build a new stadium. People who never voted for a tax in their lives supported this one, putting supportive bumper stickers on their SUVs and pick-up trucks with the bizarre slogan of “I’ve Got Mine!”

Bill Poe, a Democrat, thought that this subsidy of a particular profit-making business was an unconstitutional use of public taxes, and he spent a stack of his own money to take the case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. He lost, and governments since then have gone hog wild in spending money to enrich the already rich.

The Republican legislature did it again just last week, when they voted to give still more dollars to private schools whose students do not have to meet the same accountability standards as public school kids. The county government did it again a couple of months ago, as it voted to subsidize the national outdoor sports chain Bass Pro to build in Brandon. Ignoring their own rhetoric about the importance of small business, they enabled wealthy outsiders to compete against mom-and-pop stores that have paid county taxes for years.

Rest in peace, Bill Poe, knowing that you did your share. But when will others ever learn?

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author