Changing Gender Roles: Widows crush stones to fend for families in Freetown

By Ibrahim S. Bangura

Change in social norms in most cases occurs gradually. This means that it could happen un-noticed by many, as opposed to political and economic changes, which often require mass collective action because of how obviously powerful the opposing forces are. Change in the traditional gender roles of men as the breadwinners of families usually occur when the husband dies, leaving widows to labour under the financial burden of providing food, shelter, clothing, medicines, and education for the children, in addition to other responsibilities towards the extended family. This was exactly what led two widows Mary Conteh and Isatu Kargbo to stone mining and crushing upon the deaths of their husbands, as a means of financially supporting their families. Their lives show clearly that individual action, responsibility and the maternal instincts of wanting their children and grandchildren not to starve or be deprived of an education which they never had, could make giants out of women who before then lacked drive and initiative.

They are bread winners and sponsors of their children’s and grand children’s education — both traditionally roles played by men in Sierra Leone where family organisation is mostly patriarchal.

They took upon this challenge when their husbands died.

Mary Conteh, is from Kapeteh, her mother’s village a few miles from the town of Binkolo in Bombali district, northern Sierra Leone. She is a very reticent and unexcitable character who unless it is necessary to coordinate work on the site, seldom speaks to anyone unless she is first addressed, a typical attribute of the social norms of her traditional background that women must be seen and heard moderately.

She is not literate because her parents did not enrol her in school, but rather gave her hand in marriage as soon as she became full breasted in a traditional ceremony which brought the entire family together in Kawteneh, her father’s village where, according to custom, it was appropriate for suitors to ask for a maiden’s hand in marriage. Subsequent years and events have proven her to be a woman of extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness although she was illiterate and did not afford the start which would have given her bigger opportunities in life.

When I asked how old she was, she responded: “…maybe I am fifty or sixty years old now, but I am sure that I have passed forty years,” which caused me to infer that her birth was most likely unregistered. She buys truckloads of boulders which she hires labourers to break into medium sizes, and after she uses a hammer to break them into smaller pieces appropriate for use in concrete aggregate which she piles about a hundred meters away from Aberdeen Bridge on the side of Sir Samuel Lewis Road, along the perimeter fence of the Sierra Leone Grammar School, for sale. She sells at prices ranging from Le 65,000 to Le 35, 000 per pile. The profits she gets from there she buys bags of cement and truckloads of sand and hires a labourer, whom she pays Le 12,000 per bag of cement, to mix with gravel which she gathers herself as the tide recedes from the low-lying areas on the banks of the Aberdeen Creek deposited there at high tide, to produce sturdy ordinary and ventilated cement blocks which she also displays on the side of the road for sale.

“I do not sell at a permanent price,” she says, “If the selling price which I ask for is disagreeable to the customers and I insist on it and miss the opportunity of selling to three or four customers, I will concede to a lower price to have money to put food on the table for my eleven dependants. If I don’t, we’ll starve for the day.”

She has been in the business of stone mining and crushing for 21 years now (from the year 2000).

This is how she has been supporting her family not only in Freetown but back in Kapeteh.

Out of the trade she built a house for her widowed mother back in the village of Kapeteh who had been kicked out of her husband’s house by her paternal uncles.

She surfaces from the depth of her sleep every morning at a time when other grannys of more favourable circumstances would be snug and warm in the cocoon of their blankets, looking forward to a day of backbreaking labour which include pushing, pulling, bending, hitting rocks with her hammer for hours on end which she says is taking its toll on her health. “It is a job of pain. After work, I do not sleep for most of the night, and after the few hours of sleep I get, I wake up not feeling totally well,” she says. She does no regular medical checks and constantly suffers from back and abdominal pains which she believes is the effect of years of bending over and hitting rocks. She only goes to hospital for major ailments.

She lives with her family of eight dependants in J. Mata at Murray Town in a house of two rooms and one parlour which she erected with mud blocks plastered with cement, using money she saved from the trade. “Although I sell cement blocks. I did not build a block house because it is too expensive, and I would have used all my savings and my business capital also. My family would have starved to death, and I would have had ‘a house’ but not ‘a home’, she said.

She takes care of three grandchildren and youngest daughter is still in school. She did the same for her older male children, but they did not complete school and have joined her in the stone mining business, sometimes helping her at her worksite, or working as hired labourers for other people.

She turned to stone mining as a final means of supporting her four children when, upon the death of her soldier husband who had been killed during the war, she travelled from Kapeteh where she had been living down to Freetown in the hope of re-joining the rest of the family which, unknown to her, had already been turned out of the Wilberforce barracks army quarter at Looking Town where they had stayed.

The quarter had already been occupied by an ‘Officer wae get button dem’ (a commissioned officer) and his family, when she got there and “as I started crying he scolded me sharply with the words ‘nor cry na ya oh we nor get berin ya,’ which translates in English ‘this is not a house/family in mourning’.

Widowed, homeless, with a suckling child in hand and worried about not knowing the whereabouts of two of her kids who had been staying with her husband in the quarter from where the family had just been evicted, she went away and started wandering the streets of Freetown feeling dejected.

She slept in the bushes in the dry seasons and the verandah of the Murray Town Army Municipal Primary School and the Sierra Leone Grammar School in the rainy season to shelter herself from the rains, but she soon observed others making a living out of stone mining and soon joined them.

Though she could not read, write, speak a word in English nor use a computer, she refused to allow herself to be consumed by grief, nor illiterate to the fact that although she was a widow, she had a responsibility to feed, shelter, clothe and provide an opportunity for the four children she had with her deceased husband to acquire an education which she did not have growing up.

Even some who had up to four Credit at WASSCE (West African Senior School Certificate Examination) are disillusioned and took to stone mining like Fatmata Bangura, another female stone miner and a single mother of one, took to the back breaking job of mining and crushing stones, as final solution out of poverty after she had up until the last minutes successfully completed recruitment criteria to be enlisted into the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces, only to be dropped under spurious circumstances on the eve of the commencement of army training. She cries foul and is so disillusioned that she refuses to say much about it because anytime she does it brings the painful memories of marginalization and disappointment. She believes that if her family had been well connected she would not have been in her current station in life. She blames her current situation to the unfairness of the society. However, she has not done so badly since then, because she has had a daughter attending a private school which she pays Le 3,000,000 (US$300) with money she gets from the stone mining business.

The stone-mining business is her lifeline now.

Fatmata’s mother, Isatu Karbo, also a widow raised her four children from stone mining business. Her husband, a former employee of the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board, died in 1993 when her first child was in class three. She says that her suffering would not have been as worse as it was had the brother of her children’s father not deprived her of the land and moneys which she says that her man left. “He took everything away from me and at that time the registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act and the Devolution of Estate Act were not in place prior to my man’s death although we had stayed for more than 5 years uninterrupted, I had no claim to his property. It was not easy I held pickaxes to dig and remove stone from the ground. School fees and feeding were upon me,” she said.

Note: This story was put together with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) human rights fellowship.

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