Women trying to compete in a “man’s” world

March 27, 2013

Hello. It is nice to be with you again.  I’m Jim Tedder in Washington.

Today we hear about some Africans who have moved to Moscow hoping for a better life.  Also a look inside the human body at trillions of tiny bugs that often are good for us.  But first a story about women trying to compete in a “man’s” world.

In the African nation of Sierra Leone, about 80 percent of all agricultural workers are women. Many are poor. While women have a right to work on farms, they often cannot own the land. But things are beginning to change. There are new efforts that give more power to women in rural areas.

Abibatu Sankoh operates this machine at a place called Mile 91 in northern Sierra Leone.  The device cleans rice before it is sold.  She says the machine helps her to work faster and sell more rice. She earns more money, and is now better able to feed her six children and pay their costs for schooling. Her community is taking part in a joint program between Sierra Leone and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.  The program operates business centers that teach farmers better ways to market their products and keep records of what they sell.

David Mwesigwa is a manager of the program. He says women are given important jobs at the centers.

“Many are treasurers because of their trust of handling money.  Many are secretaries because of their knowledge in terms of writing and record keeping.  Those positions are very key.”

But women in Sierra Leone find it difficult to own farm land. A woman has a legal right to her husband’s property only after he dies and when he alone was the owner. In rural areas, local chiefs give land to men, while women are often left with no home after their husbands die.

An independent Italian organization is teaching these women to read, and understand their rights. Roisin Cavanaugh is with Cooperazione Internazaionale.

“It is very difficult for women to advocate on behalf of themselves when they don’t even know the documents they are putting their thumbprint to, when they could be signing their rights away to land.  So we are trying to get women to a functional level of literacy.”

Roisin Cavanaugh says her organization also has taught women how to appeal to get land returned to them. She says this has led to 120 lands rights cases. Probably half have resulted in women getting their land back or receiving payment for the land.

The human body contains about 10 trillion human cells. It also has about 100 trillion microbes. The microbes are naturally forming bacteria that can be helpful. Some are even necessary for good health. Taken together, all these cells and microbes make up what researchers call the human microbiome. Now a Citizen Science project seeks to expand our understanding of this complex relationship. Bob Doughty has more.

The microbes in our gut – the gastrointestinal tract – help process food and fight bacteria that cause disease. University of Colorado scientist Rob Knight wants to learn what nutrients aid the helpful microbes, and understand how they act with each other.

“What this research could ultimately lead to is a world where no infectious disease goes undiagnosed.”

To reach this goal, he has launched an online campaign called the American Gut Project. People all over the world are invited to take part. They are sent questions about their diet, health and use of antibiotic drugs. They also are asked to collect microbes from their mouths, faces and waste material. Then, they return everything to Rob Knight’s laboratory.

Chris Lauber directs the laboratory work. He says most studies of the human microbiome involve laboratory animals or people with a clear health problem. He believes that the openness of American Gut Project will provide new knowledge.

“Anybody can enroll, and we don’t care what their disease state is and whether they’re on antibiotics.  We just want to know about them.  And what microbes are in their gut.”

An increasing amount of research shows that gut microbes can easily be killed off. It happens through poor nutrition, overuse of antibiotic drugs, pollution and eating junk food. In countries with traditional food and less antibiotic use, health problems like allergies and asthma are less common than in the West.

Everyone who takes part in the American Gut Project will get a report on the microbes they provided, comments about their diet and their answers to health questions.

After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Africans in Russia started to face discrimination from white power extremists, or “skinheads.”  Christopher Cruise is following the story.

When Russian nationalist skinheads insult the “chyorni,” or the blacks, they often mean Muslim immigrants from Central Asia.  But thousands of Africa students also work and study in the Russian capital, Moscow.  And they also are targets of hatred from the skinheads.

Rukunayi Pisou has been one of these targets.  He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but now lives in Russia.  He told VOA that he once escaped 15 skinheads who chased him into a building.  He said he jumped out a window, but suffered a broken foot.  Mister Pitsou says the Russian skinheads do not like seeing black people in Moscow.  He says when the skinheads attack, they beat their victims without pity.

A Protestant religious center in Moscow says it recorded 16 physical attacks against Africans in the capital last year.  One victim died.  Eric Merlain from Cameroon advises Africans not to get involved in fighting.

“The only thing is for you to be very calm and avoid fighting.  Because if they beat you, just look for a way and escape.  If you engage in fighting you might lose your life.”

Another Congolese immigrant, Peguy Nkodia, advises Africans not to come to Russia.  He notes the expense of living there.  Ibrahim from Mali says he earns 20 dollars a day passing out paper flyers.  And he says this is not enough to survive on in Moscow.

Mister Nkodia says African migrants sleep 10 people to one room.  He says it is not the rich nation he dreamed of moving to when he lived in Kinshasa.  He also advises Africans not to come to Russia if they do not have a job or a place in a university.

Still, some Russians say people of color are still objects of friendly interest, as they were during Soviet rule.  A top official of the People’s Friendship university says safety tips are given to hundreds of Africans who study at the school, once called Patrice Lumumba University.  But he believes Moscow is now more accepting of African students.  I’m Christopher Cruise.

And I’m Jim Tedder in Washington.  Thank you for joining us for “As It Is” in VOA Special English.  At the beginning of next hour, you can hear world news on the Voice of America.