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In her book Woman: An Intimate Geography, biologist and science writer Natalie Angier challenges conventional conceptions of women with a bold assertion: Our ancestral mothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and grandmothers may have lived most of their lives out in the fields foraging for food, helping a child-bearing member of the family nourish a child. Our female progenitors were not languid homemakers as they have often been portrayed, but major food gatherers on a par with men, and therefore co-creators of civilization. If the studies that Angier cites are right, then modern culture will have to redefine its views of women and "women of a certain age." Angier's hypothesis shatters conventional thinking: that ancient men hunted and ancient women stayed home; that after a woman has gone past child-bearing age, her physical make-up deteriorates, and sooner or later the only place for her is home. These notions are now being questioned by a new breed of scholars and thinkers like Angier, using the tools of evolutionary biology.

The study points out that the young of the tribe depend for their nourishment more on the rootcrops from the women, rather than on the meat from the men.

Angier, a former Pulitzer Prize winner, cites a study on a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers, called the Hadza people, now living in the northern part of Tanzania, who are considered Stone Age relics. The study, conducted by anthropologists from the University of Utah in the U.S., found that the Hadza women today gather food alongside the men: while the men go out to hunt animals for meat, the women graze the land for rootcrops. The study points out that the young of the tribe depend for their nourishment more on the rootcrops from the women, rather than on the meat from the men. Also, when a Hadza mother gets pregnant and gives birth to another child, and is thus unable to search for food, her mother does the food gathering, if not her female cousin, aunt or her husband's mother, and sometimes, even a distant female relation. The older women help the child-bearing women in feeding and rearing the children. The study portrays the Hadza women as comprising an extensive, efficient and reliable support system which allows the food-gathering, thus the nourishment and care of the children, to continue for years.

The study implies that the Hadza's female ancestors did not stay home most of the time. Because the women, more than the men, had to feed the children, they had to go out into the fields to search for food. They crossed borders to find new lands in which to graze and used their creativity to adapt to new environments. Thus, they contributed to human mobility, freedom, blazing of new trails, human resourcefulness, intelligence and creativity. In short, civilization.

I have not read the whole of Angier's book, but the statement on women and grandmothers being out there "creating civilization" resonates with something that dates back to my childhood. I grew up in a variation of the Hadza female network.

I did not grow up knowing a lola (grandmother) because both my maternal and paternal grandmothers died long before I was born. However, I was surrounded by aunts who were at the same time grandmothers to my older cousins' children. My knowledge of grandmothers comes from the imprint of these numerous aunts, as well as from my mother who in my youth was busy playing lola to a bunch of nieces and nephews. From years of living with her at a time when she was busy rearing her apos, (grandchildren) I have always known that grandmothers played an essential role in nurturing children and promoting family life.

I remember that when my oldest sister Elsa had her first child, Roel, she would sometimes bring him to the house in the city (where the family moved after all the children had finished elementary school) and left him in my mother's care so that she and her husband could tend their farms back in the province, that is, earn their living. In the days of the early homo sapiens, woman stayed in the house (cave or tent if you like) to nurse a child, while grandmother went out to the fields, foraging for food. In the home I grew up in, Inang (mother) stayed home to take care of an apo, while my siblings and their spouses went out into the world to earn their livelihood, their contribution to the work of civilization.

Changing diapers, waking up at 2:00 o'clock in the morning to feed the child, and not getting any sleep when he ran a fever were never seen by lola as a burden, nor an imposition. It was the thing to do, period.

The temporary shelter and care that Inang and the rest of us provided to the apo would last for months, usually corresponding to the planting and harvest seasons. And my mother and father welcomed it; the unmarried and younger siblings, including myself, gave their assent and took turns in taking care of the child. The child was a welcome addition to the household, often a source of joy and delight, never seen as an encumbrance. Changing diapers, waking up at 2:00 o'clock in the morning to feed the child, and not getting any sleep when he ran a fever were never seen by lola as a burden, nor an imposition. It was the thing to do, period. The question, which was really never asked, was: Who else would take care of the child?

The arrangement was as natural as the sun rising in the East, or paying your taxes in the West. In fact, my mother seemed to begrudge it when Manang Elsa and Kuya Poling would come to the city after the harvest season to claim their child back. It always felt sad to say goodbye to a lovable creature you had grown a fondness for. You felt the urge to keep a photograph, the child's doodles on paper, a toy which you thought the child would come back for, any small memento.

The house did not feel the same after the child had left, and everybody longed for his smile, laughter and antics. Amang (Father) would sometimes create dog shadows on the walls with his hands and let out a bark, but would catch himself after realizing that no giggly child was around to applaud his feat. And so, everybody, especially Inang, always looked forward to the next visit of the parents—and the child, which always came after a few months.

The same routine happened with my other sisters Mely and Loly and brother Jun. When they started to have their own children, all of them would often bring their children to lola's place—sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time. This allowed them and their spouses to go on with their work in the office, in school, in the farm, wherever—their individual springboards to civilization. They had all sorts of valid reasons in "depositing" the child in my mother's house, and nobody questioned them: a maid left without notice, a house was being built, my brother was out of work, my sister was stricken with asthma, or my brother-in-law was running for mayor. Who would turn his back on these circumstances? Not Inang or lola. Not Amang, or "Pop," which the grandchildren would call my father. And neither us, the rest of the family.

During the times that my sisters and brother were bringing an interminable band of grandchildren to my mother's place at the same time, everybody really got busy: cooking meals, mending socks, ironing clothes, treating knee bruises, concocting home remedies for diarrhea, getting a drowsy preschooler to school, herding a bunch of kids off to church on Sundays, not to say calling the right name for the right child. But nobody complained. Somehow, each and everyone, at the orchestration of Mother, fell into his groove and completed his or her fair share of the manifold tasks. Father even learned how to hum a Beatles tune to put a grumpy child to sleep. Everything was as natural as floods in Manila in July or ninong and inaanak in recent-day Philippine politics.

Even now, when my mother is 82, she still helps in caring for grandson Paolo. Father is gone now, and so nobody hums new tunes anymore, but Inang still thoroughly enjoys "babysitting." She would go to lengths cooking Paolo's favorite meals of fried eggs, greasy hotdogs and chicken legs, until the doctor would say no more, the poor young boy was getting obese. Lola would impinge on the money discipline my sister is trying to develop in her son by giving him extra allowance for snacks. I imagine that if we stopped Mother's small indulgences, she would resent it. Besides, lola needs activity, and so we just let her be. We let her act out the food-laden, "civilizing" code meticulously inscribed by her forbears thousands of years ago.

...but she has created innumerable situations where these young ones could be nourished, sheltered and cared for—a function of the true, ancient female.

Mother has not had to do actual food gathering herself, as is the case of the Hadza women, to feed a slew of grandchildren, but she has created innumerable situations where these young ones could be nourished, sheltered and cared for—a function of the true, ancient female.

In many poor societies, especially in agrarian areas, the role of the ancient woman still holds true. In rural households, grandmother continues to live with her daughter or son, tending the young as the parents go out to work. Unlike her progenitor, she may not go out into the clearing to gather food, but she stays home and mans the fort: feed the kids, scrub the floors, make life easier for the family. However, in some cases, especially in urban areas, an enterprising lola sometimes goes out of the house, peddles kakanin (native cake) on the sidewalk to contribute to the household coffers, thus help feed the family—continuing to perform a function deeply embodied in her genes.

In wealthier communities where grandmother does not live with her children and grandchildren, we might not see this happening. Here, she has been supplanted by daycare centers and paid help, if not by technology. Still, in industrialized Korea, around my house in Itaewon, I hear the voice of ommoni (grandmother) all day long—cooing an infant, cajoling a young girl to get ready for school, bidding a carousing group of young boys to be quiet, calling a grandson home at nightfall. She is at home tending the young, while the parents are out there in the battlefield of work, grappling with the so-called IMF crisis, "engaged in creating civilization."

So, here and there, grandma continues to hold forth, proving true once again the words of Angier: that women are the bedrock of the past, co-creators of civilization, partners in creating the future, different from, yes, but not less than men.

This essay first appeared in the May 6, 1999 issue of The Korea Times.

© Loreta M. Medina

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