Of calabashes and men

At the risk of giving away all my secrets, I should mention that often when I come in from my morning coffee-on-the-front-porch ritual with nothing particular in mind to write about, I’ll do one of two things: sit in front of the monitor drumming my fingers and staring at the keys for a while; or grab a book and open it more or less at random. The latter approach closely resembles stichomacy, a form of divination most often practiced with the Bible. You pose a question and open the book haphazardly, without thinking – of course it can’t be random; we must assume some Force or Energy Field or some such is at work. Otherwise the whole exercise is meaningless.

If you want stichomacy to work, it helps to have a good, general question. Yesterday afternoon, I tried using an electronic stichomacy site to help me answer the question, “What shall I make for supper tonight?” The answers were difficult to apply to my situation without a great deal of dexterous so-called interpretation that would best be described as squishy. After a few such exercises, I decided that the gods wanted me to serve zucchini. Which was actually pretty convenient, because I have a ton of it in my refrigerator.

The problem with the electronic site is that it focuses on quantity rather than quality. I don’t care how many hundreds of romance and adventure novels you include, you’re not going to come up with a whole lot of wisdom. This morning, by contrast, I grabbed the massive Treasury of African Folklore by Harold Courlander, with the question “What shall I blog about?” on my mind, and found something right away.

This is from an English translation of a German anthology from the 1930s, Die Stammeslehren des Dschagga. Courlander titles the section “Teachings of the Chagga Elders.” The Chagga people live in East Africa, within the borders of modern Tanzania. The five pieces selected by Courlander are all fairly light-hearted yet conservative and moralistic in the manner typical of traditional oral wisdom. It interested me to open the book up to the following piece – which I had never read before – because I had just been observing the behavior of married couples the other day and thinking to myself, “The happy ones are the couples where the man has uncomplainingly accepted the fact that the woman is almost always right.” I don’t know if I would go so far as to frame this as a general proposition; I can think of plenty of women who are, often enough, quite flagrantly wrong (though not perhaps as often or as flagrantly as men would be). And I realize that I am skating on exceptionally thin ice with both my female readers here, merely by attempting to frame such a generalization in the first place. But hey, right or wrong, I had the thought and I’m not going to apologize for that. And let me hasten to add that I offer up the following more for the language and imagery than for any other reason. But guys, I think the message here is clear: don’t be touching the women’s calabashes!

Nothing on Earth is Cleverer Than the Female Sex
a traditional teaching of the Chagga elders

See, my grandchild! As I teach you, and you children in the older class teach each other, you think: We men are clever. If you see womankind and watch how four or five of them sit together and tell each other things, you think: Instead of chatting here, they ought ot get up, go home and cut grass. As you talk like this to each other, you think in your own minds: They are stupid and ignorant. See, my grandchild, they are not stupid. Nothing in the whole world is cleverer than the female sex. Know this, if you are as other men, you are not as intelligent as a woman. It is only that she is given into your charge. If it were you who were given into her charge, she would surpass you in intelligence. Therefore I tell you, a woman will keep a thing in her head better than you. See, my grandson, you live together and she is your wife. Drive a cow into the house and let her milk it. Now if you feel a bit hungry in the middle of the night, because you have not eaten your fill, then you say to her: If only you had cooked a milk dish, we would have easily eaten our fill! And she says to you: Oh no, there was not enough to cook a milk dish with. Get some more!

See, my grandson, you must realize that a woman is intelligent. For she wants to keep the milk until it is sour, so that when she puts it into the food it is strong enough to give a good taste to it. But you just listen and say nothing. The next day, when the sun rises she says to you: Help me and put a piece of banana branch for the cow, so that it can chew it slowly, while I go to fetch grass. The while you are cutting that piece of banana branch, you think: All right, I’ll examine the calabash to see whether she was deceiving me when she said there was no more milk in it, or if there really isn’t any it it. When you have cut the piece of banana branch, you seize the calabash, you pick it up like that and then put it down again. You don’t drink any of it, oh no! When she comes, you say nothing, get up and go out to where the men are. See, my grandson, the woman seeks out the calabash and thinks: I wonder if when he had cut the piece of banana branch, he took up and looked at the calabash? She goes, finds it and notices that you have turned it around, put it down in another position and were unable to set it down as she did.

If you do this four times, the woman will speak of it behind your back. Then if you are a little rude to her she will go to her family; and if you and they then discuss the matter, and the woman is not properly trained – no one has ever said to her “You must not say such things” – her education having been neglected, she says: Get up and go away from here, monster, you who lift up women’s calabashes. With such words she brings you into great disrepute and you are hated among men. They curse you and say: What is the point of touching women’s calabashes? And the women speak of you and say: I should not like to be married to a man who lifts women’s calabashes!

See, my grandson, as a man you are not capable of setting down anything anywhere so that you can see, as a woman can, whether it has been touched.*

Therefore I tell you: a woman is clever. And if you respect what is women’s business your reputation will not suffer. And your wife will honor you, because she knows that you have learned to keep quiet like other men.

*This does strike me as possibly being an insight of universal applicability. The rest of the lesson drawn here doesn’t seem too applicable to a society like ours where a strict separation between men’s and women’s business thankfully no longer exists, and where communication between the sexes is comparatively free and open. But the fact remains that most men have tunnel vision; we just aren’t as good at perceiving the total situation as a woman is. That much I believe.

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