By Laetitia Simorangkir
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 are just 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 as guilty?”. 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 have a 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.
Laetitia Simorangkir is an MA student at the department of Social and Cultural Antrhopology at VU University Amsterdam.