One week after arriving in the small farming town of Berruguita, Colombia, I found myself knee-deep in a quick-running stream, watching a woman beat a huge pile of laundry. She sat half in the water, on the end of a long board where she piled the clothes of her husband and five sons and pounded out the grime with a flat stick. She spends three or four mornings a week in the river.
Fresh out of college, I was just starting out as a development and peace volunteer with the Mennonite church. It’s part of my job to work on gender issues. In college, I had spent hours with my woman friends discussing the mysteries of femininity and the occult power of patriarchy, writing spoken-word poetry and shaving my head as liberation. I was eager to get started here, in a place where womanhood seemed like a cage.
As the woman labored on and the pile of clothes got only slightly smaller, I became unsettled. I felt lazy. I was used to sharing about gender issues over cups of coffee, not household chores. I was shocked to realize that here, I am the only woman who has time to stand in the river and chat. If she didn’t finish the laundry in time, her husband would come back from the fields and have no lunch. Without her, things would fall apart. I could imagine her saying to me, the upstart gringa, “I know about machismo, but who is going to wash all the damn clothes?”
She said she stands up to machismo by teaching her sons to wash dishes. I shrugged that off as too superficial of a change.
Now a year and a half later, I’m not so sure. I have heard women lament being tied to the home, but I have also heard them proudly declare that they do half the work required to grow crops. For two older women who always cook extra in case someone stops by, the kitchen is a place of welcome and generosity, not a prison.
When the woman finished washing, I helped carry the basins of clothing up to the house. Now if I visit when she is doing laundry, I wash the dishes.
I can never pretend to understand what it’s like to be a Colombian woman, but I can change my habits to recognize the life-giving elements of a woman’s role here. I wash my laundry in the river. I gently but firmly encourage male friends to wash their own dishes. When I visit homes, I go first to the kitchen to greet the women.
Larisa Zehr spends her time cooking with male and female friends, no matter where she is in the world. Reprinted from Geez (Spring 2013), a quarterly magazine that untangles the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers, and religio-profiteers, and does it with holy mischief rather than ideological firepower.