The unapologetic ingenuity of Indigenous women
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(In honour of International Day of Women and Girls in Science)

LOOKING through the United Nations’ list of International Days, I saw that today was designated as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and to tell you the truth, I wasn’t happy.

Yes, it’s incredible that women have been making strides in the field- so much so that there is an entire day set aside to recognise them, but for me, this is an indication of something fundamentally wrong. Women should not be celebrated for being involved in something, it should just be normal. Don’t you think?

On that note, let me tell you about my admiration for Indigenous women, in particular, and their involvement in science. The female gender has been undoubtedly subjected to aeons of entrenched inequalities and for me, the Indigenous women have been subjected to even further inequalities.

In my history studies, the indigenous way of life has never been accepted as anything beyond ‘primitive’, largely because of the eurocentric subjections. Maybe even to this day, many would not recognise their way of life as anything beyond simplistic.

Regardless of cultural imperialism (the European culture being deemed superior and imposed over that of the Indigenous people), their culture has been retained largely due to women.

A recent study conducted by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs and the United Nations Child Fund (UNICEF) in nine of the 10 administrative regions, in 12 communities, showed that while Indigenous people are vulnerable, women and children are the most vulnerable groups.

Zeroing in on women, the study showed that while men may leave the communities to seek employment in Georgetown, the women are left behind to provide for their family. This is where their own ‘science’ comes in handy because they have to rely on it to provide for themselves and thus allow cultural retention.

Take cassareep for example. The gooey liquid is an indispensable ingredient in the Guyanese cuisine, especially at Christmas time for all your scrumptious pepperpots. But do you know how it’s made?

Recently I learnt how cassareep was made from a Moruca supplier (a woman, of course) Magerine Rodriguez. Suffice to say, I was blown away.

She explained that cassareep is made from the ‘juice’ extracted from the bitter cassava. You see this juice is toxic, but the indigenous women must be credited for crafting ways of using it in spite of that property.The juice is squeezed out when grated cassava is stored in a long, cylindrical nibbi extractor called the matapee.

This liquid is boiled in a huge pot for several hours until it becomes viscous and appears dark brown, almost black. Throughout this process, the scum forming on the surface is continuously skimmed off. And finally, after this long process, the cassareep is eventually created.

Could you imagine that it takes about 200 pounds (90.7 kilogrammes) of the cassava root to acquire just enough ‘juice’ to make enough cassareep to fill a 750 millilitre Banko wine bottle?

Making cassareep can be easily overlooked as a simple tradition of the indigenous people, but really, it is an incredibly scientific process- using almost basic materials.

What is perhaps more inspiring for me is that these women continue to make these and other products as they know, unapologetically. Yes, they have been labelled as primitive practices, but that doesn’t change their ingenuity and usefulness.

The Oxford dictionary defines science as: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

I see these practices as practical activities that require a systematic understanding of the physical and natural world. I mean, making cassareep is literally making something edible from a poisonous substance.

Making cassareep is just one example of Indigenous women in science. A BBC article written in 2017, “100 Women: The scientists championing their Indigenous ancestors’ discoveries,” only affirms my contention of the underappreciated and overlooked role of Indigenous people.

Personally, I believe the science behind the creations of Indigenous women has been wildly underappreciated.

It’s not International Women’s Day but here’s to women everywhere- recognised and unrecognised. Keep shining!

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