By Derek Davey
“Protection [of women] is the rock that all men push. We call it our burden, but it’s really our privilege.” — Lou Solverson
Oom Piet * is sitting one night on his farm stoep by a fire. He is alone except for his dog Butch, which lifts its head slowly as a strange figure steps silently into the firelight. Deep in his cups, Piet realises he might be seeing an alien, but it could just be a figment of his inebriation. When his dog wags its tail and goes to greet the tall grey figure, he decides to trust its intuition and, with a slightly trembling hand, offers the large-eyed, curiously sexless creature his glass of brandy.
Turns out, after a couple of dops, that the alien has been studying mankind since it arrived through the medium of Google, so it’s English is pretty much immaculate, though its Afrikaans is at best, patchy. Piet’s English is passable, but he prefers the Taal. The alien’s name is unpronounceable, and from where it hails (though Piet forgets that name too) they have no sexes, replicating from offshoots of their body which are then spliced onto … Anyway, it’s understandably curious about the whole issue of gender, and surmising correctly that Piet knows almost nothing of the experience of being a woman, it asks the oom for some firsthand information about what it means to be a man.
“Well, men are supposed to be stronger than women,” is Piet’s first reaction, to which the alien whips out an iPad and starts checking if this is indeed true. “Well, yes, men are stronger physically,” (1) confirms the alien, enquiring how this factor affects interactions with women.
“Well, we can use our strength to protect our women,” says Piet gallantly.
From what, or whom, the alien wants to know?
Oom Piet thinks a bit. “In the old days, it was against wild animals and other tribes and things, but deesdae, I guess it’s mostly from other men.”
The alien is busy with the iPad again. Piet notices its small mouth pull down slightly at the corners. “Or you can use your superior strength to beat your women. Many women, especially here in South Africa, experience violence, and often from their own partners. (2) How is this ‘protecting’ them?”
Piet fingers his beard thoughtfully. “Ja nee, things have indeed changed. A marriage used to be a holy thing, and men were more, how can we put it … more noble, more chivalrous. Like knights. But that strength I am talking about, it’s not just physical; men have to put up with a lot, they had to earn the money, and they can’t just break down and cry when the going gets tough, you know.”
The alien is consulting Google again. Piet is sobering up fast, realising he must think on his feet. Also, the alien has his glass of brandy and is showing no signs of sharing it.
“Yes, men don’t like to share their problems, as this may make them appear weak.” (3)
“Really? Ja. We also tend to dop when we are stressed,” agrees Piet. “But that doesn’t really fix the problem, it just postpones it.”
“And women, do they do this too?” enquires the alien, draining the glass of Piet’s favourite brandy, and stretching out a slim hand for more.
“I think so now, man, but they never used to. My grandma never touched a drop!”
“Times have changed in this regard, too,” says the alien. “Women now have more freedom and money, so they can booze it up like the boys. Or take ‘mothers’ little helpers’.” (4)
“You know, we humans are like that,” muses the oom, tossing a faggot onto the fire. “We can’t always see the bigger picture. Sometimes we don’t want to, so we create another problem, like becoming an alcoholic, and it obscures the first one.”
“Logically, if you wish to fix the drinking problem, you could go into a rehabilitation centre. Or work on fixing the problem that caused the drinking.” (5)
“You seem to have all the answers,” retorts Piet with a snort.
“Isn’t that what men believe? That they know everything?” the alien fires back.
“You haven’t said anything positive about us men at all!” shouts Piet, suddenly losing his cool and grabbing the iPad. Butch growls for the first time, sensing his master’s rising temper.
“I know how to use this thing, my granddaughter showed me,” he mutters, swinging into surf mode.
“Aha! I know what you’re doing. You’re man-bashing! (6)” he cries triumphantly. “You’re painting all of us men, decent or bastards, with the same brush. It’s nogal fashionable these days.”
“That was never my intention. Its just that so far, men haven’t exactly come up smelling like roses.”
“I’m starting to suspect you might actually be a woman, or even one of those blerrie feminists,” says the feather-ruffled Oom.
“Reproductively, I’m more like a tree. The ‘side’ I am taking is that of maintaining harmony, and sharing tasks equally (7). Such values are prized highly where I come from. From what I have read, it seems most men want sex, but few want babies. They leave them for the women to raise; they make a mess and expect the women to clean it up. They are poor or absent role models for their sons (8).”
Piet is silent, looking down. This stuff is too close to the bone.
“But come, let us put the pad away and talk more freely.” The alien takes the pad softly from Piet’s hands, who does not object, and turns it off. “Tell me the good points of being a man! What are men good at?”
Piet perks up immediately.
“Well, we might not be good at the family stuff, but we’re good at some things, like building stuff, and fixing it. Men run countries (9) you know …”
“Isn’t that because women are busy with raising the kids?”
But Piet continues unabated; he is on a roll.
“Men are good at having fun! Women get too serious sometimes, too responsible. Men lighten up the situation, act more recklessly, misbehave; they love adventure!”
The alien leans unsteadily back into its chair. “Yes, yes, carry on!”
“Men take decisions fast; sometimes you have to. They’re not scared of taking control. They can kill a wounded animal to put it out of its misery. They can work together in a team well (10). What would we do without men?”
The alien giggles. “There was this one joke on the internet: if you can find a vibrator that can also mow the lawn, you don’t need a man.”
“Ja, but who would chase the goggos out then?” asks Piet. He stands up, starts pacing to continue his train of thought, gesticulates with his hands, rants about Da Vinci, Beethoven, Einstein.
“Without men, there would be no competition … no pursuit of excellence … no progress. No risks! Women just want security. Men are visionaries. Men know how to leave their mark. Men create history! We have even sent things out into space!”
And then he just can’t resist asking: “By the way, is it true that men come from Mars? Perhaps you would know?”
Piet pauses and turns, wondering why he is not getting a response. He sees the alien’s glass has fallen out of its hand and is spilling brandy onto its pyjama-like outfit.
“Hey … are you okay?” asks Piet, but the large, hairless head of his visitor has slumped forward.
The oom steps closer and takes a better look. Its grey skin is particularly smooth, almost translucent, and the fingers are finely sculpted. Closer up, the alien is, he realises, quite attractive.
“I’ve been lonely for too long,” thinks Piet. Then he goes inside and returns with a blanket, which he drapes gently over his guest. “Kom, Butcha.” Next morning, it is gone, and so is, he notices ruefully, the rest of his favourite brandy. Having not taken any photos (“It didn’t even leave a crop circle,” his brother observes), nobody believes the Oom’s story, but he did find my ear, and so, too, my pen.
* not his real name
Gender fact box
[Note: these are some of stories I suspect the alien found on Google]
1) Men are 30% to 50% stronger than women in brute strength. They also have more red blood cells and hence more endurance. But women definitely have a stronger grip on life — they live up to five years longer than men do, possibly due to a stronger immune system.
2) South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world, according to Interpol. The Law Reform Commission estimates there are over 1.7 million rapes a year; over three each minute. Around 19% of South African women report being subjected to marital or partner rape on one or more occasions. The statistics are probably higher as many women prefer to avoid the arduous process of reporting a rape.
3) Studies reveal that men under stress generally respond by becoming more withdrawn, and acting more as an individual. Women share their stress with others, hoping to elicit empathy. Many men caught up in gender stereotypes see health-seeking behavior, like attending support groups, as a sign of weakness.
4) South Africa’s drug usage is around double that of the rest of the world. Women catch up with men in addiction rates as they earn more and are freed from traditional familial roles, especially in developed countries.
5) Women seek help faster, but don’t enter specialised recovery programmes as readily as do men, due to family duties and the stigma attached to being an addict and a mother; thus they often enter programmes at a later stage of the addiction process.
6) “Depictions of decent men are strikingly absent online. The overall suggestion is that men are guilty until proven innocent; this only reinforces gender stereotyping,” writes Jake Wallis Simons on: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11228387/The-internet-hates-men-and-no-ones-a-winner.html
7) According to a United Nations fact sheet, women spend one to three hours a day more than men on housework, and two to 10 times more time a day caring for children, old people or the sick.
8) A 2013 StatsSA report reveals that only 36% of children below the age of four live with both biological parents. While 43% live with their biological mother, just 2% live with their biological father, and 19% do not live with either of their biological parents.
9) There have been over 70 female prime ministers and presidents in the world since Sri Lanka elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960.
There has still never been a US female president.
10) Men do co-operate better with other men than women do with each other, a phenomenon that may have evolutionary roots: men had to work together to find food or fight wars.
Oom Piet and the heavenly feminist
Like the last time he received a visit from Ally the alien, Oom Piet was sitting by a fire on his farmhouse stoep, just after the sun had gone down. And, as before, it was his dog Butch that alerted him to Ally’s presence. Butch was older now — it was two years since Ally last appeared in the firelight — but he remembered Ally clearly, greeting her with a soft woof, ambling stiffly over to greet her and lick her long fingers.
Oom Piet had mixed feelings about seeing his mysterious visitor from another world again. On the one hand, he was glad to have some company — aside from a few farm hands, he was very much alone on his farm. On the other, he knew that he would have to keep Ally’s visitation secret, as last time he had told his brother about her, and his boet had been downright sceptical … even scornful. “She didn’t even leave a crop circle, Piet!”
“Hi Pietie!” said Ally in her soft voice, in the perfect English she had learned from studying the internet from space. “Hoe gaan dit?” She had clearly made an effort to learn Afrikaans, too.
“Goed, ja! You’re back!” said Piet, trying to inject some humour into the exchange to hide his mixed feelings.
“I wondered if you still had some of that brandy?” asked Ally. Last time she had passed out after drinking just two glasses.
“Seker maar!” said Piet. He had kept a spare glass by the braai every night in case she returned, but naturally he didn’t tell her that. As he poured a dram and passed it to her, he asked: “So, have you come to educate me about women again?” Their last conversation had been about feminism. As the Oom was long divorced, it hadn’t changed his life much, but his daughter had remarked in one of their long phone calls that now he seemed to actually listen to what she was saying.
“Well. Don’t you think that your female leaders are doing a much better job handling this Covid-19 crisis than their male counterparts?” asked Ally (she was only Ally in Oom Piet’s mind. As he was unable to pronounce her real name, he had given her this nickname. Ally the alien. Kind of logical).
“Well I wouldn’t really know,” replied Piet. “There is so much information and theories out there on the net. I don’t know what to believe anymore, actually. And half the time my reception isn’t that great. So I just get on with running the farm.”
“How is that going?”
“Not great. All the restaurants are closed, so hardly anyone wants my meat. I’ve had to scale back on my operations. If this carries on, I won’t be able to pay my staff. But tell me more about the women leaders?”
“I’m sorry to hear about your hardships,” said the alien, sipping carefully at the mampoer. She was not only graceful but tactful, thought the Oom. “Your women leaders have responded fast to the crisis, and have made hard decisions, but with compassion and empathy. They have minimised the impact of the virus, and they collaborate; thus, they have inspired the support of their people. There’s a lesson in there.”
“While our male leaders have made made a complete hash of things?”
Piet found himself reacting slightly aggressively. Just like last time, he was defending the male half of the human race, without have consciously decided to.
“Not all of them. Mainly the populists, what you call the right-wingers, the conservatives. They really have reacted slowly, and now the US, the UK, Brazil … these countries are overrun with the Coronavirus.”
“Maybe we get what we deserve,” retorted Piet. “Thank goodness the Nats aren’t running the show anymore here. Imagine how they would have messed up our response to the virus.”
There was a pause in their conversation. Both of them stared up at the Milky Way.
“There seems to be many folk in your country who are unhappy with the lockdown Cyril has imposed,” said the alien, stroking Butch along his head.
“Hmmph!” said Piet. Suddenly he had a brainwave.
“Isn’t there anything you can do about the situation?” he asked hopefully. “Things are getting pretty desperate down here.”
Did Ally smile? It was hard to tell.
“We are not allowed to interfere with your world. We just observe it. You humans are quite interesting to us: advanced in science, backward in the way you get along with each other.”
“So you’ve never changed the course of our history?”
“Not directly. There are, perhaps, a few hints in what you call The Bible about strange things appearing in the sky at certain times. Nothing too incriminating.”
Ally put down her glass. Her brandy was finished. She stood up and stretched; Piet sensed she was about to leave.
“Okay, Mrs Mysterious, just tell me one thing before you go. Why do you come and talk to me about this stuff? About women, especially?”
“Well, you know how your daughter is doing so well in politics these days?”
“I’m not actually allowed to tell you this. And you must promise not to tell anyone. Especially her.”
Piet could feel his heart beating faster. He nodded again.
“She’s going to run this country one day. Quite soon. Before you join me in the sky.”