Saturday, August 26, 2006

The perversity of the African broom

A sight which never fails to shock me, driving round Abuja, is that of countless women bent over sweeping the city's roads. Picture this if you will: a woman bent double, hundreds of metres of highway before and ahead of her, sweeping dust onwards and onwards. Sisyphus incarnate. I'm sure almost everyone driving by her at speed (inches away from destroying her being) does not even spare a thought for the torture of this kind of labour, and its sheer needlessness.

The FCT administration could easily replace the intolerable cruelty of this prison-labour work with roadsweeping machines, which would do the job much more effectively and quickly. As for the employment opportunity lost - well there are enough filthy and badly maintained buildings in Abuja to keep all these women busy. But the issue isn't simply one of wrongful employment and the avoidance of using modern urban maintenance infrastructure and equipment; it is the fact that these women are forced to use the African broom - that two foot long switch of reeds that requires one's back to be parallel with the earth. The stress on the body of using this form of broom must be immense over time, leading to postural and back problems. Why a full length broom could at least be used, allowing a more vertical posture while sweeping, I cannot imagine - unless it is a combination of thoughtlessness, patriarchal control ("the sweeping woman must be bent double") and an unquestioned application of tradition.

Development, if it is to mean anything other than westerners living in secure compounds in African cities driving round in SUV's with big antenna sticking out the back and diplomatic plates, must come from the inside, and must surely begin with a question asked after tradition in the context of contemporary practice. The African broom is a cruel, outdated technology, especially when applied to keeping a city clean. Men and women alike should not support poor women being forced to slowly break their backs sweeping long empty roads..


chibs 12:50 pm  

Here, here. Down with the african broom but up with what? There are very few carpets in Nigeria so no vaccum cleaner. And the long handled brooms take longer to clean up the place. I've tried. So I guess we'll just have to keep using these terrible old fashioned igbales.

Anonymous,  1:04 pm  

no we don't have to keep this old fashioned igbales. there are some traditions we need to revisit. I loathed them I was younger and the moment I could, I stopped them using them. I have actually conducted interviews with some of the women Jeremy is referring to here in Abuja. It is interesting to hear what they have to say: 'but what can we do?', 'nay your back dey suffer', 'you know my friend got knocked over the other day', 'few men dey do this job, but they get long brooms'. Now it is the last statement that caught my interest. Lets stop and ponder why the few men are giving the longer brooms to do the same job? why are the women not giving the same?

I don't care if the long handled brooms take longer. It is preferebly to women breaking their backs at work and not to talk of the other back breaking activity they have to engage in after work.


St Antonym 3:02 pm  

Igbales are lovely, actually, though I do see your point.

As for posture, African women in general, and Nigerian women in particular, have the best posture in the world, broom or no broom.

Too much slouching in sofas has wrecked American and European backs.

the flying monkeys 3:37 pm  

Sheer needlessness !

I agree with you Jez but have you also considered a more unusual or perverse idea: that the European NeckTie is so cruel, and may be affecting the thinking of our policy makers on a continent such as Africa.

Men and women alike in their ignorance should not support poor salarymen being forced to wear a necktie to work at the risk of entanglement, infection, and vascular constriction.

In fact I read on wikipedia that the wearing of a long tie is a subconscious effort by a male to draw females' eyes down towards the male genitalia. Is this true?

Anonymous,  5:12 pm  

African women may have the best posture in the world (though this is contentious), and the Igbale may be aesthetically pleasing, the reality is that many of those female road sweepers are beginning to complain about back aches and many of the contractors responsible for cleaning abuja are not listening to them. They just replace them with new backs. When we ask them why do they give the few men in the sector longer brooms, the response is 'they are not used to sweeping at home so their back is not use to it'. What more can I say!!

Anonymous,  9:49 pm  

absolutely nothing wrong with the igbale. they are on sale in most african shops in south london. I use one for sweeping parts of my back garden & for some quick jobs inside the house. I live in dartford kent and even my white neighbours think the broom is handy. I also own the long brush, but I could never get used to that. the igbale does the job so well.
I don't think of myself as 'technologically challenged'
infact, I carry around more tech. gadgets than most men. ipod, ipaq mobile etc.
This is something that has become part of my cleaning routine, from the long years of sweeping everyday back home. As for my posture - they dont come better at my age. and as they say - 'black dont crack'. long live the igbale

somborri,  10:53 pm  

err so there's nothing wrong with my darling igbale oh! , you just aint using it right. i personally find long brooms and vacuums quite ridiculous. true it wasnt designed for sweeping long stretches of road and the FG needs to look into that. that's why these women are having back trouble. my grandparents that have been using igbale ever since are not bent like these women you see in amrix everyday so jeremy i think you're a bit off there. its just like saying carrying heavy load on the head affects the posture. in some cases, it does, but in the majority of the case, these women carry the headload with their bones and not their muscles. western women could not do that and this is a scientific study oh could it be that nigerian women sweep in an analogus manner? all i know is that i have seen far more crooked ppl in the west and everything is not always as it seems

Bisi,  2:40 am  

The african boom is fine for domestic use, but not for sweeping roads, surprised anyone sweeps the roads in Abuja anyway!
It is a back breaking, primitive and outdated instrument. I was practically ecstatic to use a European long hand broom for the first time and have never looked back.
As for Nigerian men using the long brooms, that's just typical of the sexist, backward, neanderthal ways of the average Naija guy to put their needs before a woman. God Nigerian men piss me off!

Funke,  2:53 am  

Chill Bisi! not all naija guys are like that. but I agree with you, I hate, hate, hate the African broom!

Anonymous,  8:47 am  

Bisi, I totally agree with you. for domestic use, igbales perhaps maybe fine, for long stretch of roads, it is not only inpractical, it is also very dangerous and thoughtless. As the sweepers are bent away any car could just crashed into them. So lets stop romanticising about the Igbale. It should be restricted to domestic use if it must be used. I got so tired of African men and their complicitous women saying there is nothing wrong with Igbale - whether for domestic or public use. If there is nothing wrong, why do the men use long brooms then. As anon said 'cause of their back. So women have a special back?

Jeremy thanks for highlighting this issue that pissed me off everytime I see it. I nearly crashed into one of those women on IBB way.


Shango,  11:30 pm  

Wrong target, numbnuts. It's not the African broom (which does a spectacularly efficient job as brooms go) but the fact poor women are hired at great risk to sweep roads.

Is it necessary to sweep roads? Yes.
Is it necessary to endanger people to do so? No.
What better ways are there? Get the fsking road sweeper machines.

Is there such a thing, I wonder, as an Asian broom, or an Australian broom? I thought saw a British Broom once, but it was just his grace, the Duke of Cornwall leaning against a wall.

Aaron Rowe 11:38 am  

Good post Jeremy,

I've often seen these ladies in Lagos, they do quite a good job considering the circumstances they are working under.

However on my way to the office this morning I took special note of them because I read your post, and I noticed that here they are all using the standard long handled brooms.

Sounds great except the broom heads are still far too small and look very worn out. They are sweeping the dust into small plastic hand held dustpans that they have to bend down to scoop the dust into. then tipping the dust into black plastic refuse sacks.

Most of the dust pans were broken leaving the poor ladies with shards of plastic to scoop dust.

Although jobs are vital to this country nobody should have to do such dangerous work as this. They should buy the machines, but THEY WILL NOT BE MAINTAINED PROPERLY! God, Please help Nigeria.

pelegius_the_heretic 1:11 am  

O how peversly we hold on to our traditions, reflecting not whether they do us good or ill. If it is any comfort, Jeremy (I still find this informality difficult, my nature is to call you, being twice my age and educational level, Dr. Weate), the sam holds as true in the U.S. and Europe as in Africa, it justs looks different.

A society without traditions would soon fade away, but one with too many senseless traditions will collapse just as soon. How many have died becouse it was easier to stagnate than to change? How many have yet to die?

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