les bouénis grève marché


Bouéni means "madam" in Shimaoré. It's the name given to all married women, or those who look old enough to be married. It's more than a name, though, it's a way of life.


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Bouénis are the ones who have all the power in Mahorese societies. They're the ones who own the houses, do the shopping, look after the children, work at the markets, they're the ones you see most of, with their brightly-coloured salouvas and sparkly tops. Whenever they need to go out, they always need to look their best, preferably better than the bouéni next door. They wear lots of sequins and lots of make-up, and they apply their beauty masks on their faces. They're usually fairly... how can I put this... comfortable, and that's where the salouva comes in, because it glides over the various curves and bumps.


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One of my adult pupils told me that they are comfortable because they eat a lot of fried food, especially chicken wings, breadfruit, bananas and cassava root. That's not the only explanation, though. In Mahorese society, women are expected to have children, and lots of them. Many girls have their first child as a teenager, often aged no more than fifteen or sixteen. And after each birth, the mother stays inside for a month and eats lots of sweet things in order to fill the "hole" left by the child she is no longer carrying. Multiply that by five to fifteen children, and there you have a 160-kilo bouéni.


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Their main job seems to be selling fruit and vegetables by the side of the road or at the market in Mamoudzou. This is definitely a women's job, by Mahorese standards. Women are expected to do a lot of things here. They bring home a little money, they do the cooking, they look after the children, but they're also expected to help in the fields to bring in coconuts, bananas, mountain rice or whatever is growing there. They're often poor, but they want to look their best at all times to hide their poverty. 


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The women's dance is m'biwi, where they tap two pieces of wood together, stand up, dance and sing. They do this mainly at weddings, but also some big ceremonies.


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Most of the younger women aren't that bothered about the time-old traditions any more, so many don't wear a beauty mask for example. Lots of them wear jeans and t-shirts with a salouva thrown over the top, and they often play about with their hair instead of wearing a shawl over their heads all the time. And sometimes, this can lead to interesting combinations.




Then again, some don't. And that's part of the charm of Mayotte.