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Reporter's Notebook : Some Sketches of a Global Sisterhood

July 18, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — A few moments and exchanges from the two world conferences marking the end of the Decade on Women here, where it is often being said that "sisterhood is global":

It is Saturday morning and the campus of the University of Nairobi is quiet and peaceful, a sharp contrast to the colorful and busy scene during the week when thousands of the world's women passed each other by, clustering in on each other, eavesdropping on countless conversations. A few Nairobi families, toddlers in hand, have come to have a look, and stroll around.

Under an arch outside the library a small group of young women, Americans and Kenyans, are seated on some classroom chairs, idling for a few hours. It is a laid-back conversation they are having, and one of the Americans is saying to a very young Kenyan, "so what do your parents think of your baby?"

An American black woman entered a meeting room at the Norfolk Hotel for a workshop and burst out to a friend: "Our dinner was ruined last night by a bunch of French women smoking those Gauloises. They smell like burnt tires."

Noticing two white women listening to her (who turned out to be Americans also) she laughed and said, "If you're French, je m'excuse ."

Betty Friedan is sitting under her tree, as she has said she will do every day of the forum. Three young Kenyan women are interviewing her for local papers, scribbling into their notebooks as Friedan tells them she wants to talk about the future of feminism, the evolution of the family, the fact that "feminism is on a collision course with fundamentalism."

She got the idea for the tree, she tells them, from having heard that sitting under a tree and philosophizing on the state of the world "is an African thing to do." Then people told her that it was an only a thing that African men do.

"Why should men have all the trees?" she cries out in amused exasperation, throwing her arms upward.

The young journalists are amused and so is the crowd that has predictably gathered.

"Betty, can you give us a list of your novels you've written?" one young Kenyans asks.

"They're not novels," she says of her books. "The Feminine Mystique," (published in 1963), "I'm told, by historians and people like that, that it is supposed to have started the modern women's movement."

At the Kenyatta Conference Center, where the official U.N. conference on women is being held under tight security, concession stands have been set up in the corridors, selling snacks, sandwiches, sweets and drinks. It saves time, especially since re-entering the conference center requires another trip through the metal detector and handbag inspection.

Karen Okari is running a cake stand. She is a tall, strikingly beautiful woman dressed in a long printed gown and matching turban.

She made them the cakes herself, and in normal times runs a small cake shop called Orignelle. Small cards identify her cakes: zucchini, carrot, marble, pineapple, lemon.

Is this West Los Angeles? Had someone told her this was what Americans would be looking for?

"Oh, no. People are just getting very health conscious. They don't want to buy all those cream-filled things. You can't sell them."

The Decade for Women and any conferences about it seem a figment of the imagination in this dark, smoky hut in the rift valley, some 100 kilometers and a world away from Nairobi, where the Masai live.

A group of Westerners is sitting around a fire--burning wood branches circled by five rocks--in the center of the tiny hut, slowly adjusting their eyes, making out each other's faces as they huddle on the edge of the low sleeping platform or squat on little stools.

The Masai woman who is our hostess has built this hut of rawhide walls, tree-branch foundation and dung-smeared exterior. She lives there with her husband, a former warrior-leader, and four children. His other wife, the woman's constant companion, lives next door in the hut she built. She is here in the woman's hut now, helping to entertain the visitors. They are wearing their best and even in the dark, their lavishly beaded necklaces and earrings stand out.

Tea or soda is offered. The hostess puts a saucepan of muddy water to boil on the fire, adds a handful of tea and sugar, and pours in milk from a beaded calabash hanging on the wall.

They expect their guests will want soda and they have made the long walk to a market to bring back Coke, Sprite and Fanta.

They had not heard of the women's conference. A Masai schoolteacher tells them that the women at the conference want to do away with wife beating.

Good, says the old warrior, choosing not to take it personally, capable of lip service in the interests of diplomacy.

And the Masai women are saying men ought to help gather firewood and haul water, and help build houses.

But that's women's work, he says seriously.

Later in another hut, a similar conversation.

In fact, the teacher teases, all the women of the world are fed up and want power. They are ready to take over.

There are some things women cannot do, a Masai elder says. They cannot fight the wars.

But women are going to do away with wars, he is challenged.

The banter is over.

Do you think they could do it any better, he asks, truly interested.

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