Male-Female Relations

July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Men here are typically dominant over women. In homes, you’ll often see at dinnertime that the men are served first, then the women, then the children. The women and children will wait to start eating until the man has begun. Men will also typically be seated on couches or chairs, while women and children will sit on the floor if there aren’t enough chairs for everybody.

To me, this benign example illustrates a much deeper, more pervasive attitude here that men are first, women are second and children are sometimes last. It’s flipped from the common attitude in the West where it’s “Women and children first.” You know. You’ve all seen The Titanic.

Women here have different, more restrictive expectations. I rarely see women wearing pants. Most women wear skirts, dresses, or wear pants with a sarong wrapped around over them. Women, even those that aren’t Muslim, are usually covered from neck to mid-calf. I, too, make an effort to be modest – I don’t wear tank tops or anything too tight or low-cut.

Women are also held to more repressive sexual and relationship standards. For example, I saw a man publicly and violently beat a woman in the middle of a crowded bar while nobody moved to stop it or even really reacted. Upon further questioning of my African friends, I’ve learned that that is not entirely uncommon here. Nor, to my chagrin, did some (not all) of them seem particularly offended by the thought of beating a woman. I was given a lot of potential explanations for why he was beating her, but all I heard was, “Here, it’s okay for your man to beat you if he feels you deserve it.”

DV is not really something I’m particularly understanding about and the attempts to explain it in a way that makes it sound not-so-bad just sound meaningless to me. Violence is unacceptable and it’s not something I’m likely to budge on anytime soon, cultural differences or not.

Women here are also expected to guard their sexuality more closely. Casual sex happens here, but it seems women are expected to pretend – ? – to put up a bit of a fight before they consent. Not like physically fight, but more just pretend to need a lot of convincing before they finally allow themselves to be persuaded.

As such, it seems like maybe men here are used to playing a more persistent, aggressive role in their attempts with women. Or maybe the attitude just comes from the arrogance and confidence of living in a society where your dominance is so clearly evident. It’s also completely possible that my experience has been tainted by the stereotype that Western women have in much of the world, and definitely here, that says we are fast, easy and loose and available for sex. I’m not sure I’m entirely offended by that stereotype, since I believe I should be able to do it if I want to do it nor am I ashamed of sex. Still, that doesn’t make women from more sexually permissive cultures available to anyone who asks.

Further confusing this issue for me is the fact that, in Tanzania, physical affection is common, even among platonic relations. It’s normal here for adult men to hold hands as a gesture of friendship. The same is true for women and for male and female friends to some extent. People here are just very physically affectionate. What makes it confusing while learning this new culture is that there seems to be some invisible line between acceptable, platonic, friendship touch and romantic, flirtatious touch. I myself am very physically affectionate and very comfortable and happy in this touchy-feely culture. BUT, it becomes very confusing very quickly when I think someone is being friendship-affectionate and then I realize they are being flirtatious-affectionate.

There’s not much point in really getting mad about any of it. Almost all of it is miscommunication and misunderstandings, with only a small fraction of it being people that are unkind or aggressive. Realistically, I am probably making plenty of cultural missteps, and until I understand the culture enough to intuitively know normal from abnormal, it’s not fair for me to get mad every time I get uncomfortable.

Death Perspective

July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

The twists in the river of life never cease to surprise and delight me. Sometimes I lie in bed at night, curled up under my mosquito net, and marvel at my life, whispering to myself, “I am in Africa. I am in Africa. Wow, I am in Africa.” But then, everywhere I go I feel amazed that I am there. It was the same in Iowa, it was the same in Arizona, it will be the same in France, Ireland, Austria and wherever I go next.

My approach seems to rely primarily on trust. Trust in what, I’m not entirely sure. Not trust in god, since I’m not religious in the way most people seem to be or not be. Not trust in myself, since I worry, fret and doubt like everyone else ever. Not trust in other people managing my life for me, since I’ve been making my life decisions independently for a long time now. Not trust in society or normalcy, since I definitely haven’t taken a linear or sensical path. Not trust that tomorrow will be like today, because, ha, I can’t remember the last time I knew what was going to happen next. But still, whenever I’m trying to decide where life will take me next, I feel trust. Trust and deep faith that wherever I go, it will be wonderful. Maybe part of it is trust in the belief that 90% of people are genuinely good and loving in their hearts.

Honestly, I think I feel relaxed because I trust in one thing more than anything else. I trust that I will die. This experience, my life and my self as I currently understand it, will end. What happens after isn’t as important to me as the certain knowledge that it will, most certainly, end. I will die. You will die. Everyone and everything will eventually pass out of current form.

Death doesn’t feel morbid to me. It gives me peace. For me, embracing the certainty of death is freedom. I can do anything, try anything, look stupid, make mistakes, embarrass myself, mess up, experiment, fail, because, one day, I will die. And when I arrive at the end of my life here, I will have lived as much as I knew how at the time.

So what if I’m a spastic dancer or an off-key singer? Dancing and singing feel good. So what if it took me a little longer to finish college or my life isn’t tidy on paper? I’ve been busy learning about the world and savoring it in ways that are much harder to document. So what if my body isn’t perfect? It’s healthy and strong and it’s mine. It carries me through this world safely and allows me to reach out and join in.

Here’s what I want out of life: I want to feel love. I want deep friendships, fast romances, true love, a big, boisterous family that anybody can join, babies, mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, friends.

I want to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

I want to try to touch god, or my soul, or whatever that mysterious power is many of us sense at the edges of our beings. So I will go to mosques, churches, temples, forests, oceans and mountain peaks.

I want to use my body in every way it will let me. I want it to dance to drum beats in the firelight, taste briny saltwater in the ocean, strain and sweat with the exertion of reaching new heights, relax and melt, grow life, save life, protect life and enjoy life.

I want to grow my hair long, because long hair is fun. I want to cut it all off, because short hair is fun too.

I want to make other people feel good, as often as possible, because that feels better than anything.

I want my heart to race, my breath to quicken, my toes to wiggle in the mud and my fingers to dance across canvas. I want to learn, from experiences, books and people.

I want to appreciate this world, this heaven, I have been given as a home and all the wonders is contains.

Because one day, any day, I will move on. And what I don’t want is to waste a golden opportunity like this.

NGOs and Learning Opportunities

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week I was in Karatu, a small town in northern Tanzania, located in between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti/Ngorongoro Crater area. A very inspirational and brilliant Tanzanian business woman offered me a trade – I stay for free at her flagship resort in exchange for doing some work for an organization they are trying to start. The organization is called the Maasai Women’s Project/Make a Change.

Society in Tanzania is still very sexist and very male dominated. But even to Tanzanians, the Maasai culture can be very oppressive towards women. Women are often sold into marriage here for a price between 5-50 cows. Female genital mutilation is still practiced. Women are often not allowed to receive an education. They are expected to stay at home, care for the cattle, cook, raise the children, make beadwork and manage the home. It ends up being quite a lot of work. Women are still largely prevented from receiving anything beyond a primary school education, and they’re lucky if they get even that.

This organization is in the process of opening a school to provide vocational training for Maasai women and supports them in selling products unique to them. Currently, the resort has a stand set up where Maasai women can sell their work directly to hotel guests, making 100% profit.

The goal is to build a formal school within the Ngorongoro Crater to train women how to make various crafts to sell and teach them other business skills. The purpose being to provide them with economic empowerment, educations, skills and training as a way to equip them with more independence, autonomy and bargaining power with them men.

It’s a fantastic concept that would address an area of extreme need. Beyond the bead stand at the hotel, the project is still in the planning and strategy phase. That’s what I was there to help with. My job was to look at everything they’d done so far, organize it and break it down into step-by-step achievable goals in a five year plan.

It was exciting to dig into this project because the relationship between the tourism company and the nonprofit provides a lot of interesting sustainable income stream opportunities. Besides beadwork, we made a business plan for ideas they already had like a dress line using traditional African fabrics that are quite beautiful, a line of spa products to sell in the hotels using ingredients from their 28-acre eco farm, voluntourism projects, a bicycle marathon through the Serengeti and a few other ideas. I also added a few of my own and within a week we were able to develop a very clear, specific and exciting set of goals that I fully believe are achievable.

It was a good exercise for me in that it gave me a chance to really flex and grasp the skill set I’ve developed over the last ten years. I found myself pulling knowledge from my activism experiences, my marketing skills, my coursework for my degree, my nonprofit jobs,  and my time coordinating volunteers and mobilizing communities. It was a pleasant surprise to realize how much I’ve learned and how capable I am. It made me realize that I might actually be able to start a project of my own successfully. The only thing I really felt clueless on was accounting and how to keep clear financial paperwork. That seems like something I can pay someone to do or at least learn rather quickly.

One of my main goals while I’ve been in Tanzania has been to learn about how other NGOs do things. How different communities and societies address their issues and achieve their goals. Spending time in Eastern Africa has been amazing for that. American nonprofits could learn a lot from Tanzanians and vice versa.

For example, I think that American nonprofits excel at organization, clear structure, goals and expectations. This seems to make it much easier to achieve goals. We take the time to really plan what our goals are and identify the clearest path to reach them. We pause to learn, educate ourselves and gather the facts. We prize efficiency and try to run our organizations like a business, in the sense that we strategize and have targets in a way that is mildly detached from the work, even if we our hearts burn passionately for the cause. I view these things as strengths that allow us to make the most of every dollar we raise and to really move towards our goals and constantly grow and expand. We set our sights on a goal on the horizon, focus on it and move methodically towards it, avoiding distractions or pit stops as best we can.

Tanzanians are much more flexible in the way they run things. They often seem to start without too much of a plan and then respond to problems as best they can as they arise. Their organizations seem to be run with more of a family structure than a business structure. They are also more focused on the humanity of the organization and their relationships with people and the community than they are on efficiency or goals. This means a lot of stopping and starting and dodging off the path real quick to do this other, small thing they see that needs addressing. There is less of an emphasis on efficiency and structure, so resources and money sometimes doesn’t go as far as they might have with some planning. Sometimes what they do doesn’t make sense to me at all. Other times I admire the way there’s always room to help one more person, even if it’s off-topic.

There’s a lot more that I’ve learned and am learning, but those thoughts aren’t fully formed yet. My hope is that I’ll be able to take the experiences and knowledge I’ve gained from studying Tanzanian NGOs and bring it home to augment whatever organization I join or start.

Golden Threads

July 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

Even on the worst days, when I have fleas or disappointments or struggles, I am so profoundly grateful to be alive in this wondrous world. Most days the joy I feel inside is so abundant I wonder if my spirit is going to burst from it and shatter in a million glittering pieces like so much fairy dust.

I’ve been a lot of places and met a lot of people. Not as much or many as some, but enough. Enough to know that people, people everywhere, are good.

There is so much love, kindness and generosity in the world, from the young grandmother that works the locker counter in the Montreal airport to the Tanzanian man that lives on a dollar a day in order to tirelessly devote everything he has and is to improving the futures of his sisters and brothers.

I’ve had a fellow volunteer make me a flower out of a paper napkin just to see me smile because he loves to see everybody smile, a young boy pull me out of the way of traffic, an old man kiss me on the cheek and call me granddaughter. I’ve had a woman who I only met for night send me encouraging emails filled with love and friendship almost daily, old friends go out of their way to make me feel loved, remembered and included from across the world, and a baby girl kiss my cheeks and tell me she loves me.

I’ve seen a man sell his home, quit his job and move to a developing country to dedicate his life to healing children. I’ve seen this more than once. I’ve seen tourists pay to drag giant bags full of new clothes and shoes all the way here without having any idea of who they’re going to give it to, the knowledge that someone needs it being enough to justify the expense.

I’ve met a financially struggling old man who donates over a thousand dollars a year of his meager retirement to children he’s never met but whose pictures he lovingly keeps in his wallet. And when he speaks of the futures he hopes his sponsee children will have, his eyes shine with tears of joy, hope and promise.

I have met so many people from so many places. The love we, as humans, freely give to one another is astonishing in its magnitude and variety of forms. When you look for the love, you will find it in every nook and corner of your life and the life of every person you see. The golden threads that weave us together in love and community are subtle, but strong. Once you start seeing them, it’s impossible to ever see anything else.

Burqas, Roller Coasters and Advertising: Welcome to Tanzania

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the first things I saw after I got off the plane in Dar es Salaam was a TV commercial playing for FunCity, a local amusement park. The commercial featured women in abayas and niqabs (all black outfit with black facial veil – easily confused with burqas, which cover the same amount just with a screen over the eyes) riding roller coasters and the freefall one that takes you way up high and drops you.

Of course it makes sense that veiled women like roller coasters just as much as anybody not wearing a niqab, they are still women under there after all, and to assume otherwise or forget is to dehumanize them. While watching this commercial, I was acutely aware of how accustomed I’ve become to being in such a completely white-washed and Islamophobic environment.

She looks like she’s having fun. The veil she’s wearing is called a niqab.

African women in something that looks like a burqa?! On ROLLER COASTERS?! On TELEVISION?! It sounded like a provocative performance art piece.* I can imagine how that commercial would go over in the US. It would be all anybody would talk about for months. Happy, normal women enjoying their day at the amusement park with their kids, and, oh yeah, they’re black AND Muslim.

We’re led to believe that because a woman is fully covered and her features obscured, she must be so miserable, so oppressed, every single day of her life, that she is incapable of feeling happy enough to enjoy anything, much less a roller coaster. We in the west too often look at veiled or covered women as helpless, voiceless victims. With that in mind, the image of a niqab-clad lady riding the Free Fall is a bit of a shock to the paradigm. While it’s true that some women wearing niqabs, abayas or burqas are forced into it as part of a broader, brutal oppression, not all of them are. Some of them are busy riding roller coasters.

*Seriously, wouldn’t an exhibit mixing real advertisements from around the world be interesting? Do we already have that? For as controversial as veiled women on rollercoasters would be in Mississippi, an American sexy lady commercial for Skyy vodka would be just as controversial elsewhere.

For those of you who’d like to know more about the various types of common Muslim dress, here’s a glossary of Islamic clothing.

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