We grow up learning that family and motherhood are what give a woman her worth. Motherhood in Congo is something that is sacred. A woman who has no children is like a tree that does not produce fruits. This is what stays in our head. Because of that, in some families you suffer prejudice for not being able to have children.
I suffered from this prejudice because I was studying, and those who study do not have time to have children. Those who study need to focus on the study. The whole family supported me in order for me to able to finish school, but they were always saying, ‘What does she think she is doing? Where will she go with this diploma?’ But for me a diploma was my right, a real achievement. But the prejudice was too strong – a woman had to get married and go through motherhood.
So I went through motherhood, and to be honest it changed me a lot. My vision about it has changed. Motherhood initiates family, it’s where we come from. It is why families and societies exist. But it doesn’t have to be as they say.
I kept studying and working. I studied to be able to work in the future. But what I had achieved in Congo, because political problems, they were taken from me. After arriving in Brazil my life changed a lot – everything I had planned changed. I tried to fight to get back everything I had lost, but I haven’t gotten everything yet. In the beginning it was very difficult. You leave a country that speaks French and arrive in a place where the language is Portuguese. Communication is difficult for us here, but it gets better. There is a book here that mentions me. It says ‘she was a lawyer in Congo and became a maid in Brazil’, which means I started from scratch. I started knocking on doors asking for a job, cleaning from house to house. I’ve managed to stabilise myself in the job market now and am improving my situation, step by step.
Brazil is a country where you see racism everywhere.
In Congo, many families send the man to school and leave his wife to do things at home. That is the sexism of the culture, sexism is a big issue in the country. When I started to study my father said, ‘Let your brothers go to school and you stay at home.’ But I didn't want to. I kept going to school, but he didn't pay for me to go. I once said to my father, ‘I will not bring my diploma here if you do not pay for me to go.’ I wanted to show him that a woman can do it too. This sexism is everywhere, it is felt at all levels. I see more gender equality in Brazil. In Congo, in our tradition, women are always at the bottom.
Congo is a very sexist country. Women come home from work, they have to prepare food, do the laundry, everything. Taking care of children is a women's task, and when it doesn't work, women are scolded. In Congo our laws are tightened by culture, which means that for women to have rights they have to be married. Only a married woman gets her rights under the law. And if the husband dies today or leaves her, that woman has no right to anything. She has to leave the house the same way she entered it – empty handed. Sometimes she even leaves the house without any clothes, because the man was the one who bought her everything. This sexist culture leaves women in a vulnerable situation in Congo. It means that if a woman wants to divorce her husband in Congo, the husband needs to agree or she will not have a divorce. Because she is a woman, because she is inferior.
Things are tough for Congolese women living in Brazil too. Brazil is a country where you see racism everywhere. Imagine what the situation is for a black and foreign woman, for a refugee, in a racist country like Brazil. We went through so much struggle and pain to get here and then need to endure a lot of difficulties after we’ve arrived. We need to try to set aside everything we went through, once we get here. We arrive in a country where we don't know the laws or the culture, and then everything bad that happens to you, you have to swallow. You swallow quietly, you can’t complain. But we need to speak out. Today, as Father Paolo says, ‘Refugees do not need to be given a voice. They need to take the microphone to speak because they have always had a voice.’ These are opportunities that we are looking for, to be able to put out everything that we go through here in Brazil.
Talking about freedom, I think Brazil has given me back these notions of freedom in many ways. We feel it inside our houses, on the street. I take the path I want on the streets. I can do things and go to places without having to tell anyone. That's why I got married in Brazil. I felt free to do what I want, I felt free even with my husband. I felt that he had became a more liberal man. So I have made some decisions in my life.
But, there is also a side of this ‘Brazilian freedom’ that is not freedom. There are many practices here that leave you tied up, especially if you are a black woman. It is a very racist country. For example, once I took the lift inside of a large company. I was going to speak at a seminar that was happening there. Then a person in the lift, told me ‘aren’t you leaving yet? Isn’t it time for you to leave now?’ For this person, as I am black, I am simply a cleaner, and if I wasn't cleaning it anymore I had to leave.
But that day I was not a cleaning lady. I was actually a guest in that building. I was even a very important one.
S. M., Seven years in Brazil
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