Sunday, March 6, 2011

International Women's Day in Russia and Somalia: How Not to Get the GIrl

For anyone looking for an undiscovered niche market, I can confirm that there is an opportunity to open a florist's in Bosaso, the capital of Puntland in north-eastern Somalia. Business might be slow most of the year, and the lack of flowers in the region might prove a slight constraint, but sales are guaranteed for International Women's Day.

More of Puntland in a minute, but I first became aware of the cultural importance of March 8 while working as an aid worker in Russia. As a Brit, I was vaguely aware of the occasion, although I had no idea when it was or how seriously it was taken. That all changed on March 8, 1993 in the Ural Mountains.

There was an air of expectancy in the office as my American boss Jeff and I entered, but I thought nothing more of it, or the fact that there seemed to be quite a lot of flowers in the secretary's office; perhaps it was her birthday? No came the reply when I asked my Russian friend George, today was International Women's Day, did I not know?

I forgot about it until the end of the working day, as the female staff clocked off and looked at us rather accusingly. I had no idea what we had done wrong, but it was obvious they were not happy with us.

"So what are you doing for Women's Day?" asked George, after the last lady from admin left. "They were expecting something! Come on, this is March 8 in Russia!"

Jeff and I looked at each other blankly and then at George, who explained that this was the day when women are appreciated by their male counterparts, especially their bosses, and especially their foreign bosses.

It was time to find a florist.

Looking for flowers in Russia in the early evening of March 8 is a little like looking for a turkey on Christmas Eve - you either find a real bargain or you go hungry. Luck was not with us for more than an hour as we scoured known floral haunts until finally, we came across the last bunch in the final shop we knew. A rather sad bunch, but a bunch all the same. Convincing each other that it was the thought that would supercede all else, we thought we would begin with Masha, the cutest of the office girls.

Her joy at seeing these two foreign knights arriving unannounced at her door was only mildly tempered by the withering offering in their hands, but it was clear over the welcoming vodka that we had saved the day. We were both lost in her pale blue eyes and could have stayed a month, but we had three more girls to find, and we were not sure that the flowers would live that long.

"Masha, it has been great to finally visit your apartment, and Happy International Women's Day once again," said Jeff, who was gearing up for a reluctant exit. Masha's beaming smile was a joy to behold. "We better get moving and take these flowers to Marina - she's next on our list."

How to lose a beaming smile and watch luscious pale blue eyes turn to stone in one sentence.

Lesson learned for next time. One bunch per lady, no sharing.

Nine years later, the evening of March 7 found me under armed guard in a compound with four Kenyan colleagues in Somalia, with Wanjiru being the only female. Conversation somehow turned to marital rape and I sat there in shock as the guys openly discussed this within the African context, stating quite categorically that there was no such thing as marital rape in the African context, for if a man could not have his wife when he wanted, what was the point in giving all those goats as a dowry.

I could see Wanjiru was uncomfortable with the conversation so I tried to steer it in another direction by asking if International Women's Day was celebrated much in Kenya. Her eyes brightened and she told me that it was a big day in Kenya and, although she was locked up in this hole of a compound in remotest Somalia, she knew that at least one of these marital non-rapists would have made special provision. Jovial murmurings of assent led me to believe that something was in the works.

The big day came. No flowers.

The boys came up with macho excuses as to why they had not provided, but it was clear that Wanjiru was crushed. I was crushed for her and determined to get her some flowers, whatever it took.

My initial research was not encouraging. Three local staff members laughed when I asked them where I could buy flowers in Bosaso. It must be possible surely? Their mockery only strengthened my resolve, and I asked the office administrator if I could borrow a car to find a bunch. He laughed too, but succumbed when I pestered him.

'Borrowing a car' in Puntland was a little more complicated than simply hopping in a jeep. As I was not allowed to drive, I required a driver, reassuringly known as Arafat, keffiyah and all. My pink skin was valuable to would-be kidnappers, so out came the armed guard as well, for I was forbidden to leave the building without one. I thought back to Masha and knew how proud she would be at my efforts all these years later.

"Where to, boss?" enquired Arafat.

I explained my mission and he laughed. Loudly. There were no flowers in this town. I told him to drive to the market, then another, then another. In this dusty, coastal desert town, flowers seemed indeed impossible to come by, but I couldn't let Wanjiru down. I told them to drive around and see if we could spot something.

And there it was.

Crawling up the wall of (and perhaps my memory is playing tricks with the nationality) the private residence of the Dutch consul was the most attractive pink bougainvillea I had ever seen. Flowers! I bade Arafat stop the car, explain our plight to the guard at the gate and beg a few cuttings for the deserving damsel back at HQ. The guard went inside, was granted permission, and reappeared with a knife and one of the ubiquitous blue plastic bags that blight Somali towns.

Within minutes, we were homeward bound. A triumph! The local staff were clearly impressed as I appeared with my plastic bag offering. I wasn't really sure how to package the bougainvillea, so decided to leave it as is, working on the premise of nine years ago that it was the thought that really mattered. She had her back to me, deep in some auditing spreadsheet.

"Wanjiru." Grunt. "Wanjiru, Happy International Women's Day." She stopped and began to turn and I could see a smile appearing. The guys had come good!

Until she turned and saw her prize. She looked at the bag, looked at me, turned back to her spreadsheet and muttered:

"Is that really the best you can do?"

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