It’s not every business meeting that starts with a poem, but I think the best ones do. Today, on a field visit to Dona, a small village near Segou, one of the regional capitals of Mali, before we got down to business, the village told me the story of Nyeleni, complete with poetry, dance, and applause.
Meet Nyeleni (actually, meet Salimata Coulibaly, but for today she dressed and danced as Nyeleni). Nyeleni is the brave woman farmer of Bamabara (the majority ethnic group in Mali) legend. Nyeleni was a girl who was so gifted a farmer that she always succeeded. She was her parents’ only child, so even though she was a girl, she was allowed to run their farm, and it was wildly successful. So successful, that many men wanted to marry her. Once married, a woman becomes property of her husband’s house, so when Nyeleni wanted to marry, her parents worried that they would starve. Nyeleni promised that she would take care of them. And she was so successful, and such a hard worker, that she was able to feed two households—an unheard of feat for a mere woman. So Nyeleni has become the woman farmer to which Malian’s aspire. That’s why in Mali, they call the Pathways program Nyeleni. The people who participate in the program are tapping into a cultural value and norm that can help them combat biases and inequality.
It’s an odd contradiction, this story of female strength in a place where women are usually not considered to be farmers. They grow many food crops, and most vegetables, but that is just for home consumption, so of course it doesn’t count. In most communities in Mali, women don’t have access to land, can’t make decisions about what to plant, and can’t even really talk to their husbands about what they think they should do for their families. A Malian proverb says, “A woman is always a stranger in her house.” At birth, the family does not invest in her, because she will eventually be the property of her husband. Once she’s married, the husband doesn’t invest because he may want to divorce her and send her back to her parents.
But in Dona, Salimata (our Nyeleni for the day) tells a different story—a story of change. She doesn’t feel like a stranger in her own home anymore. Instead, Salimata says that since she and her husband participated in couples’ dialogue, and he has seen the success she has been able to have in the field she shares with other women, her life is totally different. “Before, I couldn’t even talk to my husband. We would never sit in the same space to learn together or make decisions. Now, we make every decision together. We sit and discuss health care, our children’s education, what to plant this year, what to sell and when. We work hand in hand for a better future.”
It’s not just the conversation that has changed. When Salimata and her husband participated in an exercise called the “Daily Clock,” where men and women write down their different tasks for the day, he was appalled at how much work she had. “He went out and bought a wagon so it would be easier for me to cut wood and bring it home, to gather water for the house, and to travel to far away fields when I needed to.” For Fatimata, this is the biggest change the project has had in her life.
It’s a change we see over and over again. If you change the expectations about what women can do, and what they are doing, you can change the game. Women have an easier workload, more productivity, and more power over their own lives. Tapping into stories like Nyeleni’s helps people understand that women being successful is not a cultural imposition from the west, but part of their own heritage. Starting with a poem gives us something to celebrate, and reminds us that women can do it all.
Contributed by Emily Janoch