The seating arrangement at a Heifer training session in Fandene on a hot May day in 2010 was fairly typical for this rural region of a strongly Muslim country: men in the front, women in the back. Mame Penda Ndong, though, scooted her chair forward and sat boldly in the front row, keeping her eyes straight ahead so she doesn’t catch any of the disapproving glances cast her way.
“In Senegal, we don’t like women sitting in the front row, displaying themselves,” a male translator explained.
There were other things about Ndong that set her apart, too. Unlike the other women, Ndong left her head uncovered, and she embellished her short hair with shiny synthetic coils. In her lap she clutched a hot-pink leather purse, and a sassy purple bra strap peeked out from the neck of her anango, a traditional dress.
Ndong grew up in Fandene, and was lucky to get a much better education than most of her peers. She nearly finished high school, and her schooling earned her a job in the nearby city of Tataguine, away from the hot and sandy days of sun-up to sundown manual work, which the women who stayed in Fandene take on.
But Ndong clearly didn’t flee to the city, never to return. She comes home almost every weekend to help monitor the Heifer project she helped start. She brings along her two sons and one daughter, but her husband is far away, working in the United States. She’d like to bring the entire family home to Diarrere to stay if the Heifer sheep thrive, the improved seeds produce healthier yields and the project becomes successful enough to support more people.
After living in a city for years, miles away from the rigid gender roles that dominate village life, Ndong doesn’t hesitate to speak up or claim a chair for herself while the other women sit on the ground to leave the better seats for the men. Do the men deserve such respect and special treatment? It’s part of the Senegalese culture, but it’s a part that might be changing, she said. Encouraging other women to sit in the front row and take on leadership positions is taking some time, but Ndong said she’ll press on.
“Men speak a lot, but they don’t act much,” she said, nodding toward a cluster of men smoking and drinking tea nearby. Women are different. “You don’t see them speaking a lot, but you see them working a lot. If you look at the project here, you’ll see the women do more. If they don’t take the floor, they’ll be working on things they don’t decide.”