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What a fisherman in Ghana taught me about redefining masculinity

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Steven Arthur finishes bathing and dressing his youngest son outside his home in Abuesi, Ghana. On days when Arthur is not at sea fishing, he takes charge of these household chores before he goes to work in the morning. Photo: Jane Hahn/Oxfam America Steven Arthur finishes bathing and dressing his youngest son outside his home in Abuesi, Ghana. On days when Arthur is not at sea fishing, he takes charge of these household chores before he goes to work in the morning. Photo: Jane Hahn/Oxfam America

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When circumstances require it, traditional gender roles don’t always apply.

I’ve interviewed a lot of women survivors of domestic violence over the years. And by violence I don’t just mean the physical, as horrible as that is, but also the unending psychological assaults by men who are constantly telling women that the work to which they are relegated is not valued, making them worthless. The stress and unhappiness this imposes on women is a serious matter. It’s tragic because it’s this utterly pointless oppression society imposes, and men magnify as a means to project their power over women.

None of that has actually ever made any sense to me, having grown up with three very capable sisters, and having watched my divorced mother carve out a professional life in the early 1970s here in the US, when all these social constructs were being questioned. That was all before I came to work at Oxfam where for some time it always seemed like I was the only man in the room when we were talking about these gender matters (it’s gotten better the last few years, I no longer feel like I am the token Y chromosome all the time now).

So I’ve never felt like women should be limited professionally in any way – not only is it unjust and discriminatory, but it is inefficient and makes people poor. But almost everywhere I go I see examples of some pretty rigid gender roles.

But last month I got a nice surprise.

On Valentine’s Day I was interviewing people in a fishing village in Ghana’s Western Region, talking about their participation in the Oil for Agriculture campaign carried out by Oxfam and others to push the minister of finance to allocate money from the country’s oil boom to assist fishermen and small-scale farmers. I was getting some really interesting comments from a fisherman named Steven Bathesd Arthur, 42, who was on the beach mending his nets. Pressed for time, as I needed go interview a woman who runs a fish-processing business that afternoon, I begged Arthur for more time later.

“Can we come see you early tomorrow morning?” I asked.

Sure, he said, he would be at his house, near the beach, sweeping up and bathing his children between seven and about nine or so.

We got directions to his place, and I started to thank him when I said to myself, “Back up a second, sweeping up and bathing his kids?” This is in a very traditional sort of village, where men fish, women look after the house and children, and usually do another job like smoking and selling fish.

Arthur had already told us he is married, so my photographer Jane Hahn and I started asking questions, and here’s what we learned: Arthur’s wife leaves early every morning to take care of her elderly and ailing mother. She comes back sometime between eight and nine, and in this time Arthur does the household chores before he goes to work on his boat (on days when he is not at sea fishing anyway).

He told us this in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, without making any excuses or even implying that it was strange. I figured he had an elder daughter who was probably doing all these chores while Arthur supervised, but when we arrived the next day there he was with one of those short brooms made out of sticks that most households in Africa use, sweeping away in front of their one-room place. No daughter. He has four sons between four and 12. He got them all cleaned up and I interviewed him about the Oil for Agriculture campaign, and discussed his thoughtful recommendations for government programs to help fishermen with loans for boats, gear, and engines.

Seeing Arthur doing this important work at his house in Ghana was unusual for me, and I was impressed that Arthur himself never even implied there was anything strange about it. If he’s on shore, and not out fishing, why wouldn’t he do this? To him, practical needs trumped the normal concept of masculinity.

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