…of a domestic goddess

Domestic Goddess by Wren Miller

Domestic Goddess by Wren Miller

Women (men too if you like), why not wear our sieves with pride? Who knows what forms of household transcendence it could lead to.  In fact it is clear to me that this particular  manifestation of the Domestic Goddess (Wren Miller’s tribute to International Women’s Day) has much to teach us. But more of that in a moment. First a little about her creator, fellow Shropshire-dweller and eco artist, Wren Miller.  Wren is a specialist in large-scale sculptures (i.e. bigger than this one which is a domestic piece in more ways that one). Her materials are found things, or donated possessions such as books or even old trainers. They are not altered in any way, but ‘compiled’ into witty and spirit-raising structures somewhere on a landscape near you (if you’re lucky). She also creates art works in Mali, West Africa. The resultant creations are usually temporary, with the aim of sending the component parts on to a good home. For instance, Wren’s children’s book sculptures have later been shipped off to Mali where many children would otherwise never see a story book, let alone get to hold one in their own two hands. Through her ‘Send a Book to Mali’ scheme she collects books in both English and French. For more about Wren and her creations go to: http://www.wrenmillerart.co.uk/

Now to get back to to why Wren’s domestic goddess so took my fancy. Well quite apart from the fact she is beautiful and made me laugh, which are two good reasons for sharing her, it seemed to me that there were  several points of congruence with my ‘womanplace’ posts.  As is often the way with goddesses, this one gave me a whole new slant on things. She made me look at what I had written, but this time in relation to my own usually negative attitudes towards housework. For isn’t it an irony that in the industrialised world where we have more labour-saving, domestic gadgets than time or spare hands to use them, we generally consider doing housework an act of drudgery that makes us both ratty and resentful? We see the whole thing as an imposition that denies us the leisure time we believe we are owed.  So when we see women in non-technologised rural communities filling every waking hour with heavy manual labour we are appalled. We identify with their plight, in our minds multiplying our own sense of oppression several times over. It is a concerned/outraged/kindly response: the  ‘why should they still live like that?’

Now this is in no way to deny that millions of rural women work grindingly hard. But along with their labours they also take great pride in their domestic practices and skills. This may seem perverse to many of us, but an African woman might well be offended if a man offered to carry her heavy load of firewood; she might take it as a slight that she is not capable of doing her work properly. Indeed research has shown that African women carry loads on their heads that should not, at least in theory, be physically possible in relation to the deemed weight-bearing capacity of their spinal columns and their often poor levels of nutrition. Yet in the face of all the scientific data that tell them they can’t, carry those loads they do.

Here’s another instance. By our standards we might think it unquestionably good that village women are saved long trips to fetch water from the river by  constructing a well near their homes. But again, this might not be wholly true. A good friend in development agriculture once told me how, in a village where he worked, the women were very put out by the provision of a new well. It meant they could no longer justify spending hours away from home, time they spent meaningfully with other women as they drew water, or did the washing, or bathed their children. How could they discuss all the personal matters they usually discussed, and at the length they discussed them, in the middle of the village with all the men around? All of which boils down to being careful how we think other people’s problems can best be fixed.

Of course once we realise this, there is also a possible payoff, at least for us, the housework haters. In fact we could well learn something of great utility from the women we feel sorry for. It’s obvious really, but if we honour the fact of doing our ironing in the way a Maasai woman honours the building and maintainence of her home, or take pride in the hoovering of carpets in the way a Kikuyu farmwife scrupulously sweeps her compound, we might well find ourselves on the path to domestic deification; at the very least we’d feel happier in the doing of such work: ‘our day’s career’ as Faith Waithera says in my Power-play poem (…of womanplace). So as I said at the beginning, let’s wear our sieves with pride, but before I go here’s another image of transcendent womanhood:

Maasai womanphoto: Creative Commons: javic (www.flickr.com/photos/javic)

Maasai woman
photo: Creative Commons: javic (www.flickr.com/photos/javic)

text: copyright Tish Farrell 2013

International Women’s Day 8 March

House BuildingCreative Commons photo: Jerzy Strzelecki

House Building
Creative Commons photo: Jerzy Strzelecki

I’m thinking of women whose life is immeasurably harder than mine. Could I, for instance, walk the Maasai woman’s barefoot daily trek across wild bush country, searching for firewood, fetching water, taking produce to market? Could I have reared children in the dung and wattle hut that I had built myself? Could I live obeying a husband’s commands even when I thought them wrong? What kind of bravery, tenacity and inner strength would I need to live this way, and to still live well? These days, things are slowly changing for Maasai women, not least because campaigners from their own communities are pressing for girls’ education, the end of genital mutilation and forced teen marriages. But for outsiders visiting the Mara it is all too easy to see only the grinding poverty and the reconstituted, fit-for-tourist shreds of former warrior glamour. But before jumping to too many conclusions about what is really going on, here is my version of a Maasai traditional story that sheds some light (literally) on their own views of the man-woman relationship.

And the moon still shines

Long ago Sun wanted a wife
so he married Moon and they made a pact,
to ply the sky in endless round,
Sun ahead, Moon behind.
And each month, tiring of the trek,
Sun carried Moon-Wife on his back.

But then one day they came to blows.
Moon crossed Sun and Sun lashed out,
beating his Moon-Wife black and blue.
Moon struck back. She slashed Sun’s brow.
He gouged her cheek, plucked out an eye.

Later Sun fumed: I’ll shine so hard
that none will ever see my scars.
While Moon tossed her head:
Why hide my wounds?
I still light up the night sky.

Creative CommonsPhoto: William Warby (flickr.com)

Creative Commons
Photo: William Warby (flickr.com)

Text: Copyright 2013 Tish Farrell

…of womanplace

photo: Oxfam International, Eddy Mbuyi 2013

photo: Oxfam International, Eddy Mbuyi 2013

Still mindful of last week’s International Women’s Day and the fact that many rural women all over the world spend much of the day hauling firewood to cook by, here’s a poem about it. I wrote it after visiting farms in Kenya’s Central Province in 1997. There had been elections at the start of that year and the farming community concerned had given financial support to a local politician on the understanding that he would bring electricity to their farms. He didn’t. So here’s what happened: it’s a case of woman living creatively or the triumph of art over adversity.


 Joe Maina, small-time farmer

says before the polls he paid

some local boss three thousand bob

to bring the power lines down the Rift.

Their broker won, but now as ever

Faith Waithera Maina cooks githeri,

bending at her hearth,

three rocks to hold the pot,

sleek skin cured  hide in smoke-house fug.

Next, slogs like an ox to fetch more wood.

Our days’ career – she shrugs.

Till dusk she lights her sofa room with fumy lamps,

where hanging on the wall,

with keep-safe snaps and family memorabilia,

a cast-off city sixty-watt

has second lease –

recharged, of course,

to make a perfect vase

for trailing sprays

of purple


On the farm in Kenya's Central Province

On the farm in Kenya’s Central Province

Text and photo collage: copyright Tish Farrell