No, not a mythical race, half-oyster, half-woman, who appear to travelers at sundown and offer three wishes to them. Something a lot more mundane: a group of women (sort of a worker's collective) who gather oysters in the mangrove swamps near Denton Bridge, and then shell, boil (or smoke), and sell them, at the market and on the roadside. Last week on GRTS they were featured on "Baati Jigen-nyi" ("The Voice of the Women"). The presenter went to the actual gathering sites, and sat down and had a very candid conversation with them. They explained their problems: how they have inadequate protection and lack a sense of security (the allegedly murdered corpse of one of them was discovered earlier this year in the swamps), how smoking the oyster (which clients prefer to boiling) is really bad for their eyes and over time leads to sight problems, and how the work itself is just so hard, even though they earn so little for it.
Midway through the interview, our housekeeper (who was at home watching with us) recognized one of the women. "She has held a position many times as a maid, but she always abandons it to go back to the oyster business", she told us, with some disdain. According to her, there is a divide in the housework employee-base (i.e. those women from whom the local supply of house-helps, domestic maids and cooks are drawn): whilst some are willing to work the relatively safe, monthly-wage-earning house jobs, others prefer the riskier but daily-earning oyster trade.
The presenter of the show was very steeped in feminist theory, and kept giving her questions a "lazy husbands" slant, barely keeping check her outrage that these women were here working so hard whilst their husbands stayed home. This, rather than being "empowering", only got irritating after a while, and took the focus off the pertinent issues which the women face everyday. But it also exposed something that I believe is the strongest force opposing any movement for "women's liberation" in The Gambia - the fact that most of the women themselves are quite - if not happy - given in to their lot as the normal state of affairs, not seeing anything wrong with doing 'feminine' tasks, without asking for or receiving help from their male counterparts. At one point in the interview, she asked one of the women (the most vocal, who had confidently stepped into her role as PR person for the other women), where her husband was. The conversation went something like this:
Presenter: Where is your husband?
Woman: At home.
P: Why? Can he too not gather oysters!
W: That is not a man's work - he does other things.
P: Like what?
W: This and that - to try and raise a bit of money at home too.
P: But you do the majority of the work?
P: And he does not help?
W: Not with the oyster gathering itself, no.
W: Because that is not work for a man.
P: But why!
W: Ah - because it is woman's work.
...and so on.
The oyster women have sold oysters as long as I remember. They are one of the things that have not changed at all over the years in this country - it is still the same group of tired-looking women with saggy breasts and baskets on their head, wading knee-deep into the muddy swamps with a machete. At the end of the program, the presenter sent out "an appeal to all Gambians" who might be interested in taking up the cause of improving these hard-working women's lives. Nothing will probably come of it: oysters are just a little too unglamorous, just don't sound as chic, or make as much advertising sense as - say - the latest short-lived World Cup winning campaign of the Under-20s team. Which is a pity, because these are genuinely hard-working women who deserve to get a break.