Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

The Beauty Is Only Batik-Deep May 28, 2008

Filed under: Pictures,Uncategorized — Jen @ 5:05 pm

I have this large batik hanging on my living room wall which I’ve loved because of the craftsmanship, beauty, and colors. However, recently I’ve started disliking what it represents. It started with a conversation I had last week with my conversation partner.

For the past few weeks, Sonia and I have been discussing “assigned” topics each week. Last week our topic was Mozambican Women. She started the discussion by telling me about the neck problems she had been experiencing since the weekend because she had carried large, 40kg (88lb) containers of flour on her head. It is a common sight to see women carrying capulana-wrapped bundles or large plastic containers on their heads. I know they’re heavy because when a woman gets off a chapa the cobredor (doorman), sometimes with the help of another person, must hoist a container onto her head. A woman can’t lift it up alone. Imagine a container two or more feet in diameter and a foot and half deep filled with fish or tomatoes. Or imagine a 25kg (55lb) sack of flour or potatoes. Now imagine those on your head. I’m always very impressed with these women. I experience shoulder and neck problems from carrying my heavy laptop for too long. But honestly I just assumed that because women here have grown up carrying heavy objects on their heads, they must have super-strong neck and back muscles. (And they all have excellent posture!)

However, Sonia described to me the neck and back problems so many women experience. She admitted that she was in pain because she’s not used to carrying such heavy weight on her head, but even women who do it regularly can experience a great deal of pain. I asked her why she did it alone, and she said there was no one else to help her, only young kids were at her house. And how else was she going to get the flour home? This is life without a car or cart or bicycle. It’s also life in a society where men do very little physical labor.

The life of a man, it seems, especially in the districts (rural areas) is to eat and procreate. A district man may have as many as six, seven, or eight wives. Sonia’s father, who was a well-known curandeiro (witchdoctor) in Beira, unusually (for the city) had 12 wives and 59 children.

The daily life of a woman is to walk to the fields (sometimes a couple hours), work there for the majority of the day, then walk home, prepare dinner for her husband and children (over a coal fire), and clean the house. It is her responsibility to harvest crops and carry them home or into town to sell, hence the bundles on heads. I’ve seen women with a load on their heads, a baby strapped to their backs, plus carrying other things in their arms. I rarely see men carry anything heavy.

So back to my batik. As Sonia and I were discussing the life of a Mozambican woman, especially district women, she pointed to my batik and said that it shows district life. It was then that I noticed the women outnumber the men – not unusual if a man has multiple wives. She pointed to the huts and explained how a man will build a hut for each of his wives and their respective children, and he has his own hut in the middle. The wives take turns visiting him on different nights. I also noticed in the batik that all the women standing have bundles on their heads. None of the men are carrying anything. Plus, the two women who are not standing are kneeling on the ground in front of a man on a stool. Kneeling before a man is a sign of respect in Mozambique, although not in the cities anymore.

Now I have mixed feelings about my batik. What I used to admire as a beautiful depiction of rural Mozambican life is now leaving me angry and sad about the lives of Mozambican women.


5 Responses to “The Beauty Is Only Batik-Deep”

  1. davyellen17 Says:


    Sonia is a brave woman. Clearly, to be a woman in Mozambique is not an equal opportunity experience. Is is so engrained in them that this is accepted that they no longer question the ways in their culture? Enough said… this post really gave me more of a glimpse into a culture quite different than mine. Thank you for sharing.

  2. John Hubers Says:

    This brings to mind when we were in Bahrain in the ’70s (yes, before you were born!) when we used to love going down to the old fruit and vegetable souq. It was so picturesque! Then they built a new souq out by the shore with bug zappers and fans and antiseptic looking stalls. It took all the romance out of it until we realized that it must have been miserable for those sellers to sit out in the hot sun having to wave bugs away from their goods. What was picturesque to us was a health hazard to them.

    Jaded westerners who wish to preserve quaint cultural artifacts (as opposed to the people themselves wishing to preserve important elements of their society) need to heed my father’s observation: “Those who get all romantic about the good old days forget what it was like to go to an outdoor biffy in the middle of the night in the middle of an Iowa snowstorm.” Or something to that effect . . .

  3. Rachel Says:

    Aren’t you glad you know, now, though? I’m going to look around at some of the pictures I have here that I thought were nice depictions of cultures I’ve been to/lived in.

    Thank you for posting that – I really appreciate learning the gender disparities in different regions of the world. Honestly, I didn’t realize that the differences were so stark…I mean, I guess I did, but the way you described it, I don’t think I realized the implications of the mores for women.

    I think you’re really fortunate to have your conversation partner to share her experiences.

  4. Jen Says:

    Sonia really is amazing. I’m learning so much from her. Her life is hard, but she admits that it’s easier here in the city than in the districts. For instance, she doesn’t go to the fields. And she doesn’t regularly carry things on her head, which is why it was so painful for her. But she does work really hard to care for siblings and nephews and nieces. She also has a great perspective on traditional (i.e. witchcraft/animistic beliefs) life versus Christian life because she’s lived both. She’s getting married in September and will live with her husband in the small flat that he currently rents. He’s a Christian, so she will be his only wife. And she says she only wants two children! We often laugh about how different her life will be from what she grew up with. Dozens of people live in her house now, so I think she’s looking forward to just taking care of herself and her husband.

  5. Batikgifts Says:

    Very nice story, next time i also will think about my batik before it will be finished

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