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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
16 Days - Day 9: “Grace a Appareil!”
December 3, 2007
By The IRC
|Yougoubare Veronique welcomes the women’s photo group to her exotic veranda. Most meetings of the KoupelaTenkodoko group were held there. Photo: Emily Holland/the IRC|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with writer, photographer and long-time women's advocate Ann Jones to give women in war zones an opportunity to document their own lives with digital cameras and make their voices heard.Ann is blogging from West Africa, posting new photos and stories each day for 16 days, starting November 25 — the kick-off of "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence." You can catch her earlier posts here and sign up to get e-mail alerts about new posts at theIRC.org/join16days. Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire On our first visit to KoupelaTenkodoko village an old woman accused the male translator of lying. (I described that confrontation in posting 6: Les Droits de l’Homme.) But we were stuck with him since no woman spoke French. Two weeks later, when we paid our third visit to the village, we found Malik the translator out of a job. The women had told him not to come to the meeting. My colleague Tanou and I heard the news as we sat with the women on Yougoubare Veronique’s veranda. Most houses in the village opened onto bare, well-swept courtyards of red dirt that converged with the neighbor’s. But Veronique’s doorway opened onto a secluded patio enveloped in lush, cooling tropical greenery. No one knew where she got the idea for this oasis, but we were all happy to gather there. Veronique, one of the first to volunteer for the Global Crescendo project, runs a little beer business in the yard. She buys maize to soak and dry and soak again in a long process of fermentation that transforms golden grain into tiny bundles of grey muck, which when mixed with water and filtered through old grain bags becomes a sour and fairly potent brew.|
Veronique’s niece, chief assistant in the backyard beer business, boils a new batch. Photo: Ann Jones So Tanou and I thought we understood when word came that the women from the other end of the village couldn’t come to the meeting. Ramadan had started, and hooch is haram. I should explain that Koupela Tenkodoko is a village in two parts: the Christian end of town (Koupela) where Veronique lives and the Muslim area at the other end (Tengodoko), with a common market in between. All the villagers are Burkinabe—originally from Burkina Faso—but most have lived here harmoniously for decades. These days, thanks to government backed racist propaganda about “Ivoirite,” Burkinabes and other immigrant communities are persecuted minorities and Burkinabe women easy targets for harassment and worse. The message from Tenkodoko sends the Koupela women into an uproar. That message doesn’t come from Tenkodoko women, they say. It comes from Malik. If he can’t come to our meeting, he won’t let them come either. So that’s how Tanou and I learn that the women have fired their translator. The Koupela women give us an additional reason: he is mean to his wife. Veronique pours a little beer while we mull things over. “If they can’t come to us,” Tanou says, “we will go to them.” It is agreed. We march out of the cool veranda into the heat and dust of the village streets. We pass through the sweltering market and make our way to the chief’s house in Tengodoko to pay our respects. We find him seated under the tree in his front yard, receiving visitors.
The Chief of Tenkodoko. During Ramadan, he once offered his reception hall to the women’s photo group. Photo: Ann Jones I explain that I need electricity to power my computer because we intend to have a slideshow—the greatest hits of the women’s first week of photography. The old chief graciously suggests his reception hall. An aide ushers us inside and produces an extension cord. The reception hall—the chief’s living room—is furnished with overstuffed vinyl couches and chairs. On the walls are large photographic murals of resort hotels with inviting swimming pools. “How is your photography going,” Tanou asks in French? “How has the village responded to the cameras?” Silence. Tanou looks around the room, smiling. But what does she expect? It’s all over, I think. We have no translator. Then Veronique says quietly, “You asked how we are doing with the photography?” Veronique is speaking French. “Exactement!” Tanou says. Veronique turns to the group; and thus a woman formerly intimidated becomes a translator.
KoupelaTenkodoko women watched the first slideshow of their photographs in the Chief’s darkened reception hall. Photo: Ann Jones Then the answers come quickly. The women say that “people” take them seriously now. Most of the men are proud of them, they say, for using a camera is a very special thing. But the men are jealous as well because this honor belongs to women. And they’re a little afraid of what the women might be up to. One woman reports that her husband, who never before shared the proceeds from the family field, now proposes to give a little something to his photographer-wife. Another reports that her husband, who never before provided money for a sick child’s medicine, rode his bike all the way to the health center to make sure that his photographer-wife and the child (who had gone on foot) were being served by the pharmacy. Another tells of her neighbor, an habitual wife-beater, never deterred by others who tried to intervene. When she threatened to fetch her camera, he stopped hitting his wife and ran away. In the space of a week, without anybody even getting a look at the women’s photos, the village has tilted. It is the camera itself—the appareil—that seems to have magical powers. It will expose bad behavior and petty tyranny. It will reveal the truth and command retribution. These are only the first reports of changes wrought in husbands and in photographers by the mere presence of the camera. The expression “grace a appareil”—“thanks to the camera”—becomes a kind of mantra. Even Malik’s mother, we learn, has turned against him. Now when he mistreats his wife, his mother takes the woman’s side.
The women celebrated their achievement with a dance. Photo: Ann Jones I download the photos the women have taken and display them on the computer screen, applauding every shot. They are transfixed. Then we dance and sing. Then we throw open the doors of the Chief’s reception hall and step into the blistering sunshine. I recall that when Tanou and I first came to the village, we sat out there under the tree and proposed our project to the Chief with the help of Malik the translator. Two weeks later we’ve held our meeting inside the Chief’s house, Malik has been fired, and the Chief himself, I see, is taking a nap, stretched out on the stones of his own front steps.