Gender over the Life Cycle

The early stages of life are undifferentiated by gender; later stages are differentiated as shown in Table 1. The duration of adolescence differs between the genders, reflecting that girls but not boys are initiated and that they marry at an earlier age.

Socialization of Boys and Girls

Adults generally say that they value boys and girls equally. Many couples desire an equal number of daughters and sons so that each parent later has sufficient help for their work tasks. However, women may value daughters more and fathers may value sons more.

All babies are cared for primarily by women—the mother as well as other females. Sometimes one girl or

Table 1. Named Stages of the Life Cycle leg dre kro: fetus and young infant leg yatroli: infant who can sit up leg gboli: infant who can crawl leg yali: toddler; child who can walk, up to 3 years old leg gbe gble gbe: middle childhood, approximately 3-11 years old

Girls tonag leg kakanikro: young girl,

11-13 years old tonag leg: young teenage girl, 13 years old to initiation (around 15) leg da: married woman capable of giving birth, a mother leg gbokro: old woman, female elder, from when she gets white hair

Boys zanag gog kakani kro: boy/young man, 11-20 years old zanag gog: young man, 20 years old until he marries gog da: man able to procreate gog sia: physically fit mature man gog gbokro: old man, male elder, from when he gets white hair woman (usually a relative) is designated as the official baby-sitter; this person carries the baby to and from the fields daily and/or cares for the baby in the village, and may develop a close relationship with the infant (Gottlieb, in press). Fathers and other male relatives enjoy playing with babies but rarely perform routine daily care.

By the time they are 2-3 years old, girls are expected to walk to the fields, while little boys often ride on the handlebars of their fathers' bicycles to their fathers' fields. In the fields, the youngest children nap, rest, and play around their parents, but they are soon encouraged to help in simple tasks.

In addition to agricultural work, girls learn domestic tasks. Between 1 and 2 years of age, girls begin by watching their mothers and other female relatives. What begins as play slowly transforms to helpful assistance. By 6, most girls can independently sweep, wash some dishes and laundry, carry light headloads, and do some food preparation tasks such as pounding corn in small mortars.

Boys and girls are not raised to become substantially different from one another. Children of both genders are taught to work hard, to share food, to value social ties with relatives and neighbors, to respect elders, ancestors, and (except for some Muslims and Christians) earth spirits, and to respect members of the other gender.

Puberty and Adolescence

Adolescence is a period during which boys and girls prepare actively for their adult roles as farmers. Nowadays, many teenagers are given their own fields to farm; even if they are not, as long as they are not attending school, they perform near-adult levels of work daily. Because of rural poverty, some teenage boys and girls now leave the villages to work for a contracted term, often a year or more, on a commercial plantation. They generally send home most or even all of their (usually meager) earnings to their parents, rarely returning with much cash for themselves. Beng teenagers have sometimes been compelled to work so hard by their bosses that they were given marijuana as a means of alleviating the mental and physical pains produced by the grueling schedule. Recent exposes of Ivoirian child labor practices in the Western media have put pressure on the Ivoirian government to reform such abuses (Greenhouse, 2002).

Toward the end of adolescence—usually between 15 and 18 years—girls of traditional (non-Christian) families in the villages are generally engaged by arrangement. Boys typically marry their first wives in their early to middle twenties.

Attainment of Adulthood

Boys do not undergo any gender-specific ritual passage into adulthood; for girls, the engagement ceremony mentioned above partly serves this purpose. In some ways, marriage inducts both genders into adulthood; parenthood continues this transformation. Expectations for adults include the following: adults should not run except in cases of emergency; adults should share resources with appropriate kin; adults should generally try to maintain their composure and practise self-restraint in the face of temptation.

Middle Age and Old Age

Elderhood is generally respected among the Beng. Children are taught from an early age to show deference to anyone older than they, and with the exception of joking behavior with grandparents (see below in "Other Cross-Sex Relationships"), this behavioral pattern continues through adulthood. Gender is generally irrelevant here; it is usually age that matters. Age may be the source not only of respect but also fear. Some old women who are widely feared by children because of ugly bodily features (e.g., chin hair, goiter, etc.) may be used to frighten young children if they are misbehaving. The mother or caretaker threatens to call over such an old woman to eat a misbehaving child; the child usually reforms his or her behavior immediately.

Despite the expectation that elders merit respect, the Beng recognize that the passage of age does not necessarily convey wisdom. When pressed, they may point out men and women who have become more foolish as they have aged. Nevertheless, no elders are ever completely abandoned—they are always fed and cared for by a relative who feels sorry for them.

There is no word for "menopause" in the Beng language. After they have stopped menstruating, the two changes that women may discuss are the cessation of the menstrual period itself, and an increase in energy levels and strength. Given the extremely active lifestyle of all healthy girls and women, osteoporosis and its debilitating effects seem to be unknown. According to the Beng, there are no emotional changes associated with menopause.

At death, funeral rituals vary by rank and age more than gender. Transformation into the state of respected (same-sex) ancestor occurs for all adults who die a normal death. Any ancestor may become reincarnated in a fetus of the same sex; they may or may not be related.

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