by Marc Romyjos
We could scarcely distance ourselves from empathy founded on gender issues upon reading the ethnographies of Nisa and Rigoberta Menchu embodied in the books Nisa, the Life and Words of !Kung Women and I, Rigoberta Menchu (An Indian Woman in Guatemala). The kinds of suffering that these two women had experienced are not necessarily by-products of their womanhood, but as I see them, circumstances aggravated by their biological configurations. Thus, upon reading their life stories, it can not always be argued that being a woman signals eternal damnation in the cultures of these two women. Both of them had borne oppressive conditions from the start, but deflecting hardships became a matter of coming to terms with their own bodies and the roles prescribed for them by their societal milieu as women.
Hence the special attention that the theme of suffering will receive in this essay will be allied to the context of womanhood. There are potentially meaty reasons for such a choice. First of all, a difficult life presupposes strong responses from a person, and over the course of living these responses are bound to develop forms of resistance that are either inspired or limited by their experiences as women. I shall attempt to cite specific instances wherein both subjects struggled liberating themselves in ways that befit their nature as individuals as well as how both women had been molded by their cultural and environmental specificities.
The formation of the self will define responses preferred, be they futile or incensed resistance, by any of these two women. On several occasions both Nisa and Rigoberta had embarked on self-interrogations regarding puzzles in life and the environment. Their senses were either intentionally deployed or pushed to function by unfolding events that seemed strange, unjust and irrepressible on one hand, or totally empowering and provocative on the other. Moreover, both women are grounded on cultural traditions that exert both affirmative and discouraging pressures in the construction of their identities, and such cultural standards can not be ignored in the process of identifying their “selves” as differentiated from another sense of being defined by their respective cultural systems of origin. They are squeezed into roles that contrast with the unfamiliar persona they encounter while shifting territories. Therefore, ruminating about the self proves to be a rich, and consequently, chaos-inducing habit for these two women.
This is not to say that the processes leading up to their self-awareness always have to be enforced. Arguably, majority of their identity definition is culled from perceiving their environments in seemingly passive perception accompanied by tumultuous processing of ideas. Certainly, almost all individuals and not Rigoberta and Nisa alone are weighed down by a lack of comprehension for the multiple stimuli afforded by the immediate environment. By the term environment I mean to include the conditions of living that appear overwhelmingly larger than the individual and therefore seemingly uncontrollable. For Rigoberta, the coffee and cotton plantations are tainted by the hand-to-mouth existence that drives the rhythm of her life from which there seemed to be no escape. As for Nisa, the direct relationship that her people have with the natural environment is a source of survival, and is therefore complicated by its unpredictability. Nisa and her kindred are forced to bend themselves to the caprices of nature by altering certain habits in their nomadic lifestyle during periods of drought. The environments that engulf the two women had proven to be overwhelming hotbeds of feelings and association. They can appeal to the senses in very much the same way first sexual encounters or brushes with pain can— by inflicting, to a certain degree, that feeling of strangeness that can not be detached from the unexpected.
It is through such activation of the senses that both women developed ideas about their sex. Their sexual developments have always been framed by the things they come into contact with physically or psychologically, and are almost always linked to the general character of their lives. Therefore as nature rattles an individual’s indifference, questions about one’s existence are compounded by the physical aspect of existing—and this includes an awareness of the body and how to ply it in order to conform to the demands of people other than themselves.
In general, such formation of ideas about the self as initiated by the conditions of living and the receptivity of the subjects’ senses are carried over to gendered reflections about reality. Facing reality does not merely require a stable sense of personhood, but the advantages and drawbacks of being women in their respective milieu undoubtedly serve as pressure points for altering or adjusting their behavior. Hence, this is why we shall speak of the two subjects as women and not characters alone, for ultimately, the task of having a gender is not an instance but a formation they will have to progress in life with.
Lastly, being a woman also favors a unique form of commiseration that provides the contact and comparison with others who have suffered alongside them or who have more or less gone through the same difficulties. As I have observed in the two ethnographies, sharing angst and misery is not as easily fulfilled, even with subjects who were needing as much sympathy as Rigoberta and Nisa. It is only when they realize their suffering in terms parallel to or conflicting with another person’s that they derive enough confidence to pursue the action that appears right. With this, resistance is tackled in its two strains—one that is knee-jerk and gut-derived in nature but not necessarily unmotivated and another that is calculated and enlightened. As the first step towards fighting oppression is realizing that one is being oppressed, so does dialogue with other people who are more or less in the same position kindles the process of reasoning with oneself. The one who suffers begins to ask herself questions. How is she suffering? How is her suffering unique from what others are experiencing? What are the causes of her suffering?
Once these basic questions are answered by the subject for herself, she becomes more critical of certain power structures that brought her to such pittance. Nisa and Rigoberta may not have shared the same forms of suffering, but being women, they both became capable, in a gendered manner, of hurdling grievances that befall them by having profound visions of reality and the underlying structures that set it off to their disadvantage.
At first glance the contexts of the two women appear irreconcilable. Nisa had grown up in a subsistence economy, hence, one might be tempted to subordinate the gravity of her situation to that of Rigoberta. Rigoberta, on the other hand, had stared exploitation in the face as early as her childhood. Perhaps the proper labeling of her suffering is a more evocative device for the readers to identify with the subject of the ethnography. Nisa initially appears to be the more unfettered of the two women because there was supposed to be relatively more freedom to be enjoyed in an egalitarian, hunting-gathering and nomadic society, and power relations that are blatant in Rigoberta’s accounts do not seem as resounding in Nisa’s case. But at face value we can not dismiss Nisa’s suffering as more shallow. In fact, I do not think it should be our business to determine which woman is more vulnerable to suffering.
While Rigoberta’s travails stem from the dismal and inhuman realities of the finca, where they are subjected to the wily devices of landowners and the brute authority of the guards, Nisa’s own precarious situation is sourced from the uncertainties of her life. In fact, in the first few pages of Marjorie Shostak’s description of the field area, the ethnographer made reference to the Bushmen’s incessant begging for money, tobacco and employment—signs that contact with the outside world had disrupted the smooth functioning of !Kung culture. Indeed, Nisa was not immune to the same kind of poverty that Rigoberta knew so well. Both women, vague as the similarities of their circumstances may seem, are both circumscribed by a pervasive power structure whose realities are very much felt and yet, in the case of Nisa, concealed. One of the remarkable and yet overlooked facts of Nisa’s ethnography is the vast cultural gap between her and Shostak, the ethnographer. People see Shostak’s work as a form of reaching out, of embracing the idiosyncrasies of the other. That is palpable, to some extent. But the meeting of the ethnographer and the informant will always have an air of immiscibility for, in the mere choice of documenting a !Kung woman’s life, Shostak had already acknowledged the gap put in place by her privileged position as a Western woman and Nisa’s distant character. In fact, Shostak was wise in orienting her readers on the relationship of dependence nurtured by previous Western fieldworkers among the Bushmen. The latter have learned the ways of a dominant culture and have been lured by it; consequently, the stability of their existence was shaken by a foreign intrusion, however well-meaning it could have been. Suddenly, money was a problem, employment was a problem, and even obtaining tobacco was a problem. Such is the speed by which changes sprout in Nisa’s environment, and can be a very valid source of anxiety. Throughout her life Nisa had always grappled with phenomena she could only furnish simplistic explanations for, such as the fact of having to give oneself up to a man and his village upon marriage, of the painful persuasion into the sexual act whose logic she could not make sense of given her physical and psychological immaturity, and even the slight trauma of almost having been a witness to infanticide. Nisa had her share of decisions being imposed upon her despite her lack of preparedness. Her tradition had already demanded so much from her as a woman, and it seems that her marginal position will see no end once a larger system of power is introduced, the kind that Western fieldworkers have carried with them to Africa for all their development projects.
Rigoberta’s suffering seems to take on a more intense form, as descriptions of seedy working conditions pervade her ethnography. But she seems to exude a greater sense of control for her own marginalized position due to the exigencies of a cruel reality. She had frequently described how, in their Indian marriage customs, the grandparents of the betrothed parties launch into bitter accounts of land dispossession and murder under the unforgiving regimes of the ladinos. And Rigoberta herself had not lived these brutalities vicariously. She had seen her father tortured, her friend and siblings dead from having to endure squalid conditions, women from her own and the neighboring village repeatedly raped by soldiers. The effect on her is sore enough to last a lifetime. Being a woman, she could no longer fathom how such traumatic events could ever lead up to the possibility of her getting married and bearing children who will only be heirs to her victimized status. Moreover, she had also witnessed how women of her kind have taken to what were considered less than dignified ways of making a living such as cleaning up after snooty ladinos as maltreated maids or venturing into prostitution.
The impact of these traumatic events on Nisa and Rigoberta’s perceptions about themselves as women is a big factor in developing their respective ways of resisting oppressive conditions. Naturally, both of them were reacting to pain caused by the uncertainties of life and the exposure of their senses to pain that is physically manifested. For instance, Nisa’s reaction to the changes in her body caused by the onset of menstruation was one of withdrawal. She refused to go hunting with her husband. Also, as marriage customs among her tribe demanded her to make concessions about her body, that is, to give it up for sexual intercourse to a man she barely knew, she acquired the habit of running away periodically from her husband’s village and going home to her family. Taken as they are Nisa’s actions seem to simply border around the usual instincts against fear of unfamiliar experiences. However, drawing from her narration, such experiences were not alien to her at all. She had seen her mother menstruate, and during her pubescent years, she had picked up knowledge about sex from her playmates. But such innocent conceptions did not spare her from the transition to adulthood, a stage in life that lent weight to previously untainted ideas about sexual maturity and tradition. It was only when her own body became familiar with the more complicated aspects of these physiological phenomena that she was pushed to rebel. Nisa rarely had a clear design for resistance, and perhaps this points to her own ambivalence in responding to provocations that are completely beyond her comprehension.
For Rigoberta, pain was certainly rooted on her labors, and there had been times when her sexual development was overshadowed by her difficult life situation. She would bitterly recall that she had no childhood, for she had spent most of her days slaving away in the finca. In a way her sensibilities as a woman would have been permanently crippled had she not discovered the sufferings of other women. To begin with, she had seen how women suffer in her culture through her mother. Eventually, when she went out into the city as a maid, she became more aware of the double burden she was bearing—one of being considered of an inferior class and another of being a woman waiting to be taken advantage of by the patriarchal world as a sex object. Her fellow maid had confided to her how she had been commanded to initiate the sons of their mistress to sex. Furthermore, Rigoberta’s interaction with the raped women of the neighboring village allowed her to come to terms with her own anxieties as a woman. She began hypothetically placing herself in the same situation as her unfortunate counterparts. From then on, the status of women in the society she belonged to took on a concrete shape, and her role as a member of that society evolved from a pushover to a revolutionary. It can be said that Rigoberta’s critical self blossomed out of commiserating with her fellow women, and this gave her the chance to define her womanhood in more realistic terms.
Thus the role of others in alleviating suffering can not be downplayed. Fundamentally, exposure to persons who undergo the same or different difficulties provide answers to the laments enumerated before. In Rigoberta’s case, carrying her own cross did not seem an effective way to counter it. In fact, in her situation, it could have been difficult to detach herself from collective experience, for once the Indians have set in their minds who the perpetrators of the corrupted social order were, they realized their only weapon was to depend on each other for protection. Hence, on the subject of resistance, being a part of society gives an individual the edge to surmount her personal travails by turning to others for education about the self and ultimately, the whole realm of structures that profoundly affect an individual’s life. This point was very strong in Rigoberta’s ethnography.
For the two women who were tackled in this essay, achieving the means to resist situations that threaten to curtail their freedom involved a lifetime of conditioning. Their stories are actually accounts of such conditioning. Resistance came to exist for them as a process and not as an instantaneous undertaking. Furthermore, the development of their differing means of resisting was heavily influenced by their relationships with themselves, with others, and with their environments.
Summarily, the core concept evoked to provide insight to the idea of suffering as related in the two ethnographies was the formation of the self, and in an inextricable manner, the evolving concept of womanhood for Nisa and Rigoberta. Through the conditions they were subjected to in their environments, both women came across ways of viewing themselves at certain critical points in their lives when they were already being confronted by their society’s expectations from them as women. These exigencies were also accompanied by their increasing knowledge of the uses and capacities of their bodies, i.e., their child-bearing potential, the sexual roles they may have to play as a wife or as an exploited person, and unfortunately, even of the vulnerability of their bodies to abuse. They did not encounter these realities by themselves but always with the help of others during moments of commiseration, pure counsel, or simply in observation. Their environments also sensitized their experiences enough to keep their personal development rolling psychologically and emotionally. All these elements accrue to a clear comprehension of suffering and to individuated resistance to it.