Blog: ‘Vat en sit’: South African men through the eyes of the women?
While conducting fieldwork for my research on the orga-nization of care arrangements in South African communities, I surprisingly often ended up in situations where my female respondents started to see me as ‘one of their own’. An unexperienced, ignorant one though, but still, ‘one of their own’. They enjoyed telling me about their communities and teaching me about their ways of living. One of the topics we discussed regularly, was the difference between men and women, especially their efficiency and usefulness within the household.
During my fieldwork, I stayed at an organization that works in the communities, but also functions as a so-called ‘place-of-safety’, for children that temporarily need shelter. The organization takes care of six children between eight months and two years old who live in a low, colourful, brick building, existing of three compartments of each two connected rooms – a kitchen/bedroom and a playroom – that is lovingly called ‘The Babyhouse’. Three mama’s (as (adult) women in the community are called) are working here, taking care of the babies in shifts. This place became a wonderful source of information during my fieldwork, as I could easily walk in to help with the babies and chat with the mama’s. As I already had some experience in working with babies in places-of-safety, and one-year-olds arejust great fun, a relationship with the mama’s was quickly established. We would often start talking about baby-food, HIV-medication or the horror of screaming babies during night-shifts, and end up discussing drug or alcohol abuse, religious sects in the community, boyfriends, or how to count from one to ten in Dutch, Afrikaans, Indonesian and Tswana. Very often, these conversations led to all kinds of ‘insiders-information’; personal narratives, the explanation of local traditions and the kind of emic descriptions that we as anthropologists really like to receive. An example of this is the ‘vat en sit’-concept.
At some point, it occurred to me that people in the community would usually blame (only) mothers if there was not being taken good care of a child. One morning, when we were feeding the babies in the Babyhouse, the mama’s and I were talking about one of the babies, who had been left in a bag in someone’s backyard. One of the mama’s said that she would report the mother of the baby to the police if she would ever run into her. I then asked the mama’s: “why is it that people always talk about the mother abandoning her baby, is the father not asguilty?”. They answered me that, if the father had not passed away before the baby was born, he indeed was as guilty, and he could or should have the responsibility to care for the child as well. But one of the mama’s added that it is usually the mother that takes care of the baby, and that the father is not always around. According to the mama’s, men are “often not interested in marriage anymore”. They would go around and have girlfriends, getting them pregnant, and leave again, but no one really seems to know why they do this. When they told me this, the mama’s looked at each other, started to giggle and said: “vat en sit, we call that vat en sit”. I had to ask them to repeat it three times before I realized the saying was in Afrikaans: vat en sit (‘take and sit down’), which refers to men coming around, ‘taking’ the girls (getting them pregnant) and then sit and watch how the women take care of their children – that is, if they do not ‘walk out on them’ at all.
In the eyes of the women I spoke to, walking out on your children (and their mother), which was also referred to as ‘not taking responsibility’, is the comparative of vat en sit. Interestingly enough, though, when asked what would be a characteristic of a ‘good man’, almost all men would answer ‘to take responsibility’. They all found it important to take responsibility for their family and children, and they seemed quite serious about achieving this. Yet women would complain that only few men actually did.
It took me a while before I realised that the whole point of this ‘responsibility-problem’ seems to be one that is actually very familiar to anthropologists: a difference in perceptions – in this case of the term responsibility. The men I spoke to that mentioned responsibility as an essential characteristic, would see it as ‘providing for the family’, understanding ‘providing’ in a financial/materialistic way. However, in the eyes of the women, taking responsibility referred to both helping the woman in the household with the daily chores (for those lucky enough to havea man in the household) as well as to ‘just’ recognizing one’s child and thereby taking (at least financial, but preferably physical) care of it.
This might explain why the women would tell me that in their communities, “only some of the men are responsible”, while most men themselves actually felt they were doing very well: financially providing for their family, and therefore being responsible. Obviously, the ‘vat en sit’-issue is much bigger and more problematic than I could explain in this short text – just like almost every other issue that I tried to research in the past three months.
Yet, it is a small piece of the care-arrangement puzzle that I am currently trying to solve; and I am lucky to still have a whole master’s thesis to devote to the South African people and their daily lives in the communities.
Photoblog: Pregnancies, high-school drop-outs and personal struggles: The joys of anthropological fieldwork
Now that I completed my thesis (on care arrangements in South African communities), I can really say that I love anthropology and do research. But there were times I did not like my work at all. In this blog I will explain why.
“Naoko told me that Salma had come to tell her that she was pregnant. Although the women were not related, Naoko seemed to take a parental-role towards Salma.” A fellow student, who reviewed the draft of my thesis, commented on this statement saying that I should explain more about the parent-child relationship: “Don’t leave it end so flatly. I want to hear what happens between them!”. When rereading my field diary, looking for more notes on these women, I realized I did not have that much information about them. And soon I remembered why.
Salma was a girl that had been taking care of her mother for a couple of years when she was ill. When her mother passed away, Salma’s younger siblings were taken into fostercare at a place-of-safety, but since Salma was eighteen at the time, she could not come with them. At the time I interviewed her, she was twenty years old, living on her own in her mother’s house and in her Matric-year (the year in which South African high school-students take the graduation exam. On average, students are eighteen years old when they ‘finish Matric’). Naoko was the principal of the Afterschool Care that Salma attended to get help with homework, get a meal or just to chat with the people there. Naoko had told me her personal story as well.
During our interview, Naoko had already explained that she had become a mother on a very young age, when she was 15 years old. Only later, when sitting outside her office on the dusty ground, waiting for the children to come out of school, she told me that she had become pregnant because she was raped by a friend of the family. After having her child, life was difficult for her. She had to finish her school, which did not work out great: after failing Matric twice, she decided that “maybe Matric wasn’t for her”, and she dropped out. She was very proud to tell me that she went back to school a couple of years ago, to do the subjects she had failed in Matric. In 2011, she passed them and hence got her Matric. Interesting were the comparisons between Naoko’s story and that of other women in the community. Marcella (now thirty-five years old), for example, had become pregnant of the boyfriend who helped her pay her school fees when she was eighteen and still in high school as well. Both Naoko and Marcella had had a child at a very young age, which made it difficult for them to finish high school and to start working. In both cases, their pregnancies did not happen intentionally – one was raped, the other ‘necessarily’ had a boyfriend.
Naoko had explained to me that many people in the community struggle, due to the high unemployment. Fact is that this discourages parents and often has as a consequence that parents are not really trying to motivate their children for school, but sometimes also that parents completely ‘opt out’ by leaving their children home alone to see friends or lovers, and/or getting addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling. This makes that children often do less good in school, and thereby lose interest as well. Very often, this has as a consequence that children drop out of school, especially when the parents are not stimulating the child to persevere. There are a couple of ‘ways’ to go for children who dropped out, but it was common knowledge in the community that these children will have difficulties finding a job and establishing a full, stable income. Especially for boys, this might lead to hanging around on the streets, not having anything to do, and maybe ending up in crime. They will also start hanging out with friends in the same situation, and sometimes find temporary jobs or small jobs that will get them some money for a little while. And money attracts, even if it is temporary. When having money, they can find more ‘friends’ to hang out with and, even more important, girls. Especially girls like Salma, or Marcella when she was young: girls that (whether they are in school or not) need money and maybe some company as well. In Naoko’s words: “in exchange for the money, boys require that the girl sleeps with them. And these girls are often young, they don’t know. They think ‘maybe it is normal that I sleep with him, because he gave me money’, but they will not always use contraceptives. If you tell a boy to use a condom, he will say ‘I don’t eat a sweetie with the package on, I take it off. Don’t be silly’. And then when you get pregnant they will just send you away and say ‘why didn’t you use contraceptives??’”.
Recalling these stories, I remember why I did not write more on the relationship between Salma and Naoko. When I tried to write about the patterns I saw in the stories of girls and women in the community, I, at some point, had to write about Salma’s pregnancy, and something inside me snapped. I closed my laptop, walked to the back of the farm where rarely any people come, and just started walking up and down the road. Being confronted with another example – the situation of a girl not so much younger than me, only pregnant while still in high school and living on her own – was quite painful to me. On the one hand, Salma’s situation confirmed the patterns I thought I was discovering, which could be considered a ‘breakthrough’ in terms of research. However, what it mostly did to me, was affirming the vicious circles I actually feared to find. Putting together the pieces of this research-puzzle did, in this case, not feel victorious at all. Rather, it saddened, frustrated and angered me to such an extent, that I decided not to look into it further, and hence not to write about it. In the meantime, I finished my thesis, without mentioning my personal struggles described above. Now I hold a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology, but I am not done with discussing these struggles. Maybe I will have the opportunity to elaborate on it later. And maybe this blog was a good first step.