A couple of weeks ago I invited my friend Dennis hiking. He replied, “Maybe,” and explained that his weekly bee meeting will be on Sunday morning, and he could only skip it to come hiking if his counterpart would be able to lead the meeting.
Most of us have met each other’s counterparts. Dennis’s counterpart is named Aulelio Kalili, and is one of my favorite Tanzanians I’ve met. He has a big Cheshire cat grin and is always happy to see me. When I first met Kalili, I thought he was insane or that something was just a little off. I soon realized that his big smile simply never leaves his face, even if something is wrong. This is one of his charms.
Knowing that Kalili is completely capable of leading the Sunday bee meeting, I asked Dennis why he had to check in with him. Dennis said that one of Kalili’s wives had to go to the hospital for surgery on her stomach. Before I get to the surgery part of that sentence, I’d like to talk about Kalili’s marriage situation. In Tanzania it is not uncommon for a man to have two wives. There are only two rules to this: both wives have to agree to the second marriage, and the man has to have enough money to provide for both families. In Tanzania you do not have to be Muslim to have more than one wife, in fact many Christians, such as Kalili, practice polygamy as well.
After hearing about Kalili’s wife’s stomach issues, I understood why Dennis was on the fence about hiking, and I asked him to keep me updated about her health.
In the end, Dennis came hiking. On our way back to site, we were walking through our banking town, about to get on our respective buses back to our villages. As we walked down the dusty dirt paths of Makambako under the gray sky, backs sore with the weight of our hiking packs, Dennis exclaimed “That looks like Kalili’s wife!” As we got closer, the woman had stopped walking and was smiling at Dennis.
We greeted her, and she pointed us in the direction of a woman sitting on the ground: Kalili’s younger wife. We all walked over together and greeted each other in the local language, Kibena. Standing next to the younger wife was another woman with a baby wrapped up in a kanga and suspended tightly at her chest. Kalili’s younger wife said to Dennis “We have a guest” and pointed at the infant. Dennis and I looked at the baby, then each other in confusion. Yes, the baby was indeed the younger wife’s newborn. After living in the village almost a year and working closely with Kalili and his family, Dennis had no idea that Kalili’s younger wife was pregnant. The mother explained that the baby did not yet have a name (another Tanzanian custom is to wait a couple of weeks before naming the baby), and that she would wait to talk with the baba (Kalili) to see what the name will be. Dennis and I later discussed what we usually come around to in our conversations: What a strange place we are living in.
Baffled, I was immediately brought back to September when I was working side-by-side with my counterpart, Neema, and she casually told me my close friend Evelina, who I had spent almost every day with for the past 5 months, had just had a baby. I had no idea that Evelina was pregnant, and Neema said she didn’t either. How could I miss it? Evelina had never stopped doing farm work, walking around like normal, doing all of the house chores. She even carried me out of church when I fainted in between the pews. How could that woman have a baby? How could I not notice she was 9 months pregnant?
I recently went to Neema’s house to tell her about Kalili’s wife and ask about pregnancy here in the Wabena tribe. She told me that people do not acknowledge pregnancies. It stays like a secret within the family. Even if others know, they do not say anything. The expectant mothers swaddle themselves in many layers of fabric, or “kitenge” to hide their swelling bellies. Neema said that the elders do not like the look of a pregnant belly, and that people are disturbed by the sight of the baby moving in the womb, so it is best to remain modest and it is crucial for a woman to cover up her body (one of the few things that I can’t come to terms with in this culture). Once the baby is born, they must wait for some time to be named. There is no celebration of pregnancy, no baby showers, no congratulations in order for the expectant parents until after delivery, and especially no photo shoots of mothers with big bellies.
As I told Neema about our customs for expectant mothers in America, she could not believe it. She couldn’t believe we would have parties just for expectant mothers where we shower them with gifts. Of course, there are fewer women getting pregnant in America than in my Tanzanian village, where the average family has 4 children and women begin giving birth around 20 years old. It was really fun to compare the two different cultures and how we welcome new life into the world. Each of us finds the others’ custom equally as strange and fascinating. But at least now I know, this isn’t a real-life Tanzanian episode of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”
Last Sunday I had the treat of being able to talk on the phone with my mom, my two cousins, and my aunt. As I settled into the one corner of my house that gets enough service to call America, my younger cousin Shayelagh answered the phone with a bright, “Tell us about your life!” My response was “I wake up and poop in a hole, boil my drinking water, sweep my concrete floors…” It’s hard for me to know what to say when I have my eyes closed, imagining myself in their cozy living room in front of a wood stove, laying on the comfortable couch, surrounded by the love of my family. In those moments when I’m on the phone with home, I struggle to remain positive because I miss the comforts of America so much.
I write all of this not to dwell on what I’m missing, but because today I’ve had a great day. Not that everyday isn’t great- I am thoroughly enjoying my Peace Corps experience, and after a year in country have figured out how to be happy with my new pace of life and content in my village. I am grateful for my situation. But today was a really great day, and so I would like to use it as an example of what my Peace Corps life is actually like.
7:00 AM- I wake up naturally to the sound of rain sprinkling on the tin roof. Through the crack in my curtain I can see it’s foggy and drizzling outside, so I decide to pull the blankets up over my shoulders and let myself sleep until 8.
7:30 AM- I can’t fall back asleep, so I get out of bed (carefully so as not to disturb the princess I sleep with every night…AKA my cat), walk into the main room of my house, grab my broom and give each of the 3 rooms a quick sweep. I then fill up my water bottle with some water that has been filtering overnight, and put on a pot of new water to boil for today’s supply of drinking water. I need to do laundry, but it doesn’t look like the sun is going to come out, so I won’t be able to. I check the tubs I’ve laid out to see how much water I have collected from the rain during the night, as my spigot is broken and the collected water will be all I have for the day. I see I have 3 full buckets, enough to wash dishes, boil drinking water, mop my floor (with my hands of course), and even take a bath later!
8 AM: Morning workout
9 AM: I boil water for tea and make some oats. I turn on my computer and sit down with the itemized budget my Village Executive Officer (similar to a mayor or town clerk) has written out for the grant I am writing to build girls’ bathrooms at the school. I fill out the excel sheets and organize the paper work.
11 AM: I wash dishes, sweep and mop my house, reorganize my bedroom, fold laundry, etc.
12 PM: I scrub some potatoes, cut them, and begin boiling them. Unfortunately you can’t buy a small amount of potatoes in my banking town, you have to buy them by huge bucketfuls. Consequently, I have been eating mashed potatoes for the past week at least two times per day. Today might have been the last day for a while.
12:45 PM: I lay down for a nap. It’s a rough life, I know.
1:30 PM: I wake up and get ready for my meeting with my counterpart, Neema, and the Village Executive Officer. As previously mentioned, I am writing a grant to build bathrooms for the girls at the primary school. Many girls are currently missing 4 days- 1 week of school because they have started their periods and the bathrooms have no doors, are next to the boys’ bathrooms, do not have water inside, and are unsanitary (literally a hole in the middle of a dirt floor). The girls skip school because they do not have privacy to keep themselves clean when menstruating, and are falling behind in their studies. Part of Peace Corps’ grant policy is that the village has to contribute at least 25% of the project cost, this way it makes them responsible for the project as well as shows that Peace Corps’ development approach isn’t to just hand over money; we work together to create change. So, today’s meeting is about what the village will be contributing in the construction of these bathrooms.
The walk to the village office takes me about 20 minutes. I walk on tiny dirt paths through cornfields, past mud and brick homes, I share the path with many children who are excited to talk with me, and I pass pigs and goats grazing on the sides of the path. When I arrive at the office, I am 10 minutes late (early by Tanzanian standards) but my counterpart had feared I wasn’t coming because “Americans are always on time.”
3 PM: I return back to my house. I eat some almonds and read a few pages of a book.
4 PM: I leave my house and meet my 2 counterparts at the primary school to begin “Maua Mazuri” class. We are currently working with 6th grade girls, aged 12 & 13, to teach them life skills through the use of art. Today we are focusing on dealing with emotions by practicing dance. The girls have never been exposed to dance forms aside from the line-type dance moves Tanzanians do at church. These dance moves are hilarious and don’t have too much variation, but Tanzanians do them well. If you ever want to experience second-hand awkwardness, you should watch a Tanzanian gospel music video.
We begin the class by doing a dance warm-up to a Beyonce song. Within seconds the girls are in giggles, all smiles as we dance together. This is the first time in class they are really coming out of their shells. We then gather around to watch videos of various dance forms around the world: ballet, latin, cheer, tap, East African, and even musical theater. The girls are wide-eyed. They cannot believe what they are seeing. They especially loved the tap dancing because it made them laugh, and they liked the ballet and cheer as well. They told me they had never seen dance like that before, and asked if I could get more dance videos.
They then were instructed to choreograph their own dances based on an emotion they were given. The four emotions were happiness, anger, love, and sadness. They all did the same step dances you might see in church, but they changed their faces based on the emotions they were given, which I found incredibly hilarious and cute. Critical thinking and creativity are skills we are raised with in the United States. We are taught to be unique and creative as early as Pre-School, and even our toys (think: Linkin Logs, Legos, Puzzles, etc.) teach us how to construct, build, and think critically about things. These skills do not exist here. So Tanzanians are taught in school to copy what the teacher does, to memorize answers for a test, and to not necessarily ask why something is the way it is. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and has been frustrating to me. However, I am so happy to be doing a project utilizing the arts and teaching creativity, even if it is sometimes a painful process. I couldn’t be frustrated watching these dances, though, even though they were not creative to this culture, because the girls were just too cute. And they really did put all of their effort into turning the few dance moves they knew into dance moves showcasing their given emotion.
We had a dance circle to end class. As you might expect, the girls did whatever dance move I did. But, we had a lot of fun, and it means a lot to be silly with girls who rarely get to see adult teachers acting funny with them. I was so happy that they finally let loose. I foresee more fun and valuable moments in our class together.
6 PM: I return home, make dinner, heat some water for a bucket bath, and call some friends from home.
9 PM: I draw and write on some flip charts in preparation for Sunday’s Grassroot Soccer class. On Sunday we will be utilizing soccer to talk about the differences in sex and gender with grade 7 girls.
10 PM: I am finishing this blog post, and think I’m going to get into bed. Tomorrow I’ll travel to town where I can get internet and upload this blog. The bus comes at 6:30 AM, so I will have to be up a little earlier than normal. I’m so excited to be able to eat meat and yogurt, which I can’t get in my village, and replenish my diet for the next week or two.
This is one of my better days in Mambegu, a day in my Peace Corps life
When I first learned about rain dances I was just a young girl, but I remember marveling at how people could possibly think that dancing would make the rain come. I imagined many Africans in loin cloths dancing in a circle and chanting up towards the sky. I haven’t seen anyone in my village do any rain dances (nor have I seen anyone in a loin cloth) but this year, as we waited for the rains to come in the Southern Highlands, I was so desperate for rain I was ready to teach the villagers about rain dances.
I’ll never forget the first day the rains poured down over Mambegu in December. Our village had not seen any rain since I moved there in April, and things were bone dry. Usually the rain begins in November, and people can begin planting their crops in December. This year Mambegu saw only 2 days of heavy rain in December, and villagers were beginning to get worried. The soil was too hard and dry to work, but the villagers depend on their corn supply for both food (ugali is a Tanzanian staple at almost every meal, and made with corn flour) and to sell to the government for money in September. Everyone’s livelihoods are dependent on the rain.
With the onset of rain, the village awoke as if from a long hibernation. It approached the village slowly. Dark, ominous storm clouds gathered over the vast farm land between our village and the neighboring villages Korintho and Durham. Although taking their time, the clouds were surely headed in our direction. The sun faded away in the haze, and sheets of slate grey rain were moving visibly over the mountains. I heard the sprinkle on my tin roof for only minutes before the sky opened and a downpour let loose. I couldn’t hear anything above the deafening roar. Standing in my doorway, enjoying the fresh breeze of the storm, I watched as the rain pelted down and filled within only minutes huge tubs and buckets that I had laid out. I was so grateful for the water, as my spigot had run dry in the rain’s absence.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I realized it had been a week since my hair had been washed. I grabbed my shampoo and conditioner, stripped down, and stepped out under the roof gutter, where the rain was angrily spilling down into the dirt below my feet. I showered in the frigid water, teeth chattering, moving as quickly as possible, before feeling cleaner than I had in months and running back into the safety of my house for my towel and warm clothes. I was giddy. Everything felt different once the rain came, and that change was evident throughout the village in the following week.
Immediately following the rains, the soils were finally workable. As I walked through the village, I saw every field filled with teams of oxen trailed by plows and male teamsters. It was so quaint: mud brick homes with thatched roofs, oxen working the fields, and women following, pressing corn seeds into the soil with their bare feet, skirts and kitenge billowing in the wind, all in front of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. Everything in the village had come to a grinding halt, yet everything had come alive at the same time. All of the little “dukas” or stores were closed during the day, as every villager helped with the tilling and planting of corn and beans. It was impossible to not feel the energy the rain had brought on. Everywhere in the village, chatter and laughing echoed. People were uplifted. After spending so much time wondering when the rains would come, there was finally promise of another year of food.
For the first time in my life, I not only knew that water is life, but fully understood the extent of that statement. And rain is something to dance for.
In July of this year, I sat on my friend Jehnet’s couch and waited as she began pulling papers out of a binder. As she handed over a paper containing the names of 16 people in my village who had tested positive for HIV this year alone, my heart sank. That was in July. I know more names have been added to that list.
16 may not seem like such a huge number, especially out of a village of 1800 people. But I know that this was 16 people out of the small number who actually go to the hospital for testing; the majority of people will not get tested. There are many reasons for this, but the most common is fear of stigma. As Westerners, I think we too often think of Africa as this one entity full of war and famine and disease, and we don’t even know where to begin to help so we skim over the entire continent. It can seem like a lost cause. Where do you even begin when it comes to HIV in Africa?
I’ve been living in my village for almost eight months now and I have become a part of this incredibly loving community. They have fed me, comforted me, and been my friends when I’ve felt lonely and homesick. They are people, just like those in the Western world are people, and I can assure you that testing positive for HIV is just as devastating whether you’re from the U.S., Tanzania, or the effin’ North Pole. IT IS DEVASTATING. It affects your future, your family, your ability to work, how people view you, and every aspect of your life.
I live close to my primary school, where there are about 70 orphaned children. They sleep in dormitories and eat meals at the school. I asked the doctor in the neighboring village why there were so many orphans. He explained that the majority of them were orphaned because of HIV. As they grow up, they have few resources, so many girls will sleep with truck drivers who stay overnight to export our village’s crops to larger cities, and the cycle of HIV starts all over again. Maybe this seems like just another “African story,” but these are my community members. These are the kids I post pictures of. These are the young women who come over to my house when their babies are napping to learn to paint because they’ve never put a paintbrush to paper before. These are the people who are teaching me how to live in this completely foreign place. These are my friends.
Every month I go to the “People living with HIV group” meetings where I do sessions on improving nutrition and explanations of how HIV affects the immune system. I also just like hanging out with them. They’re mostly older mamas and babas, and they always smile so brightly when they see me. These are my friends in the village. They haven’t let HIV slow them down, but it has affected their life. I hope that in five or ten years my village won’t even have an HIV group because there won’t be enough people with HIV to form a group.
On World AIDS Day, please take a moment to think about all of those worldwide who are affected with this disease. Teach young adults how to properly put on a condom. Stress the importance of safe sex. Educate yourself about the modes of transmission. Know your local testing centers, get tested yourself. This is not a virus that afflicts only certain people. This is a worldwide epidemic. Let’s work to end AIDS.
Statistics from UNAIDS:
Tanzania prevalence of HIV (15-49 year olds): 4.7%
Number of Tanzanians living with HIV: 1,400,000
Tanzanian children aged 1-14 living with HIV: 91,000
Orphans due to AIDS aged 0-17: 790,000
Njombe (my region) prevalence rate: 14.8%- The highest prevalence in TZ!
I have a hazy memory from my childhood of sitting with my family in the living room of our old farmhouse watching TV. Nestled under my dad’s arm in my “spot” on the couch, we watched a PBS episode on the Masai culture. I don’t remember anything from this show except learning that the Masai would gauge their ears until the holes were big enough to put disks in and that they used rings to stretch their necks because they thought long necks were beautiful. I also thought all Africans did this. I was totally disturbed by the images I saw on the screen. I thought it was so weird to do that to your body, so bad, so different from anything I knew.
Fast forward almost twenty years and here I am calling Tanzania home. When I pass Masai people walking down the street or see them herding their cattle through the fields, I think nothing of it. I greet them the same as I do any person in Tanzania. It is normal now. It’s just life, and they’re just people. Their customs and adornment were never bad. I just had to learn it was different, accept that difference, and then fully appreciate it.
Today my counterpart came to my house. After months of her asking me to cook her “chakula cha Marekani” or American food, I invited her over and prepared to make banana and peanut butter stuffed French toast. What is American food anyways? I prepared all morning, walking around town to get all the necessary ingredients, lighting up my charcoal stove, and preparing some French press coffee. You can imagine her shock when I began mixing sugar, eggs, and milk together. When I dipped the bread in the mixture, her eyebrows shot up. “It’s not bad,” I said, and she had no fear that it would be. She was so excited, and had solid faith in my cooking abilities.
We chatted over the hot stove and she took extremely detailed notes on how to prepare this food that she was just learning to pronounce. Once finished, we said grace, poured a couple of cups of coffee, and I turned on the movie “Baraka.”
I chose Baraka for a reason, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to go out and find it. The movie covers many countries from all over the world and shows people in all walks of life. The best part about it is that there are no words, so no matter what language you speak you can enjoy all of the beauty and chaos that makes up our incredibly large world. This was why it was perfect for Neema and I. Most people in my village have never had the chance to leave the surrounding villages, and this is the only life they know. A lot of people think I can drive to America and aren’t sure what makes me different from someone from China. This is why it’s so special to me when I get to share scenes from all over the world.
As the images on the screen unfolded, Neema kept widened eyes as she asked questions and guffawed in disbelief. We saw many different religions, ways to pray, landscapes, and rituals. There were many scenes where she would turn and say “this is bad.” “No.”I said. “It’s not bad, it’s different.” I shared my story about seeing the Masai as a young girl and thinking it was bad, yet the Masai culture is beautiful. She understood, and watched the rest of the movie with wonder. We learned about the Holocaust, about cremation, and about homeless people. She couldn’t believe how many cars are in New York, and she really couldn’t believe that people live “stacked” on top of each other in apartment buildings. “Where are their farms?” She asked. So then we learned about urban gardening.
We’re living in a time when there is so much hate. A lot of this hate is politically driven, or maybe the hate is driving the politics. I have come to see that we usually hate or think things are bad when we don’t understand them. I’ve had so many ignorant and rude comments made to me as I’ve travelled over the years by friends and family at home. These comments usually involve hatred towards Muslims, immigrants, and the “poor” people in Africa. I want to urge everyone to challenge this ignorance and see different cultures and customs for what they are: beauty. Without this diversity, the world would not be so complex and beautiful. Open your minds and hearts. We have so much we can learn from each other. It’s not bad, it’s just different.
Last week rapist Brock Turner was released from jail for good behavior. A man who raped an unconscious 23 year old woman, and then shamed her for over a year in a legal battle, causing her entire personal life to be investigated, and ruined her life forever, was released on account of good behavior. A man who decided to put himself where he never had permission to go, inside of a woman who did not know him, while she was unconscious, was released from jail for good behavior.
As I sat in Mbeya, Tanzania and read the news, I felt my chest tighten. I do not know this woman, I am not even in America, yet I felt physically ill. I felt so outraged I was scared if I talked about it to my friends I might have a screaming outburst.
As a woman, my mind has always been focused on gender. I have worked extensively in the field of women’s and girls’ empowerment, and I know I will for the rest of my life. I have always been hyper-aware of the fact that I am a woman because I have needed to be. Because that is a loaded statement.
I am woman.
Do you know what that means? It means everything and it means nothing.
It means that at 5 years old, my father sat me on the couch and taught me that if a man ever puts his hand on my knee, or anywhere farther up, and I don’t want him to, I am supposed to hit his hand away as hard as I can and say “no.” It means that as a young man with a daughter, my father already knew I would need some sort of protection out in the world, for the rest of my life. And I’m sure he knew that sometimes saying “no” isn’t enough to stop a man from doing whatever he wants with me. But as a father, that was his best chance at protecting me, because I am woman.
It means that at 12 years old in middle school, the boys made fun of me for dressing so conservatively, for liking my horses more than I liked them, and for praying to a God I believed so deeply in. They made me feel worthless because at 12, I wasn’t sexy enough, I wasn’t appealing enough, and holy shit wasn’t it so hilarious that I had never kissed a boy and didn’t even want to? What kind of 12 year old girl doesn’t know what masturbation is? What kind of 12 year old girl doesn’t wear mascara? Are you even a woman? And when I started wearing more revealing clothes, when I started caring about makeup, when I started caring a little more about boys because I was sick of the other girls having something to talk about and I was always left out of the conversation, I was shamed because now I was a slut. Now I was too revealing. Now I was easy. I WAS 12 YEARS OLD. I was woman.
It means that at 17 years old I am headed to my high school’s Halloween party. I bought a last minute costume at Target and the only one I could find in the junior’s section was some sort of gothic fairy dress with wings. I got dressed up with my boyfriend of four years and was so excited for the night. As I stepped into my heels, and was about to leave his house, his grandmother comes into the living room, sees me, and says “What are you dressed as? A slut?” Even though my boyfriend, in his “humorous” costume, was actually showing more skin than me. But I am woman.
It means that at 21 years old, I am traveling alone from Burundi to Johannesburg, South Africa. My friends are supposed to pick me up at the airport, but after 6 hours of waiting, I pick up my phone that has 2% battery to find out that they are at a rugby game and cannot come to get me. I need to take a taxi in Johannesburg and it is almost dark. An incessant taxi driver gives me a good price and even lets me use his phone to call my other friend whose house I will go to that night. As I get in the car, it becomes apparent that he does not know where he’s going and I become concerned. I am tired after almost 12 hours of travel, and as he locks the car doors, I realize I’ve made a mistake. As he drives, he begins rubbing my thighs and telling me he’s been praying to God for an American wife. The more I move his hand and say “No,” as my amazing father taught me almost 20 years before, the angrier he gets and the more I begin fearing for my life. As we go 70 miles per hour down the freeway, I begin to wonder if I would die if I jumped out of the car. He is still rubbing me. I look at my phone beeping and saying 1%. I wonder if I should call my friend who is waiting for me, or call my mom and brother to say goodbye. I call my friend, and keep her on the line as long as possible so that he knows someone is waiting for me. As we near her street, he takes a turn down a dark alley. I see a woman coming towards the taxi and claim it’s my friend. As I shove money at him and go to walk away, he pushes me up against the car and forces his lips against mine, hand tight against the back of my head. Instinctively, my hand punches him in the throat and I walk towards the woman as I hear him gasp behind me. He circles us in his car four times before finally leaving, like a predator who can’t let his prey escape. I was lucky to make it out of that situation. I was lucky because I am woman.
It means that at 22 in the Dominican Republic, I go out dancing with my two friends on the beach just a few minutes away from my apartment. As I dance around laughing and having an amazing night, a man from Las Vegas introduces himself to me. Excited to meet someone who speaks English, I chat with him. He offers to buy me a drink so I accept. After a bit of time, he continually tries to steer me away from my friends, and I continually refuse. I feel guilty that he bought me a drink yet I won’t dance with him, because I am woman, so I try to give the drink back to him, yet he refuses. I explain I have a boyfriend, and he forcefully asks if my male friend is my boyfriend, to which I say “no.” I explain I just don’t want to dance with him. This answer clearly won’t suffice because I am woman. He grabs my shoulders, looks me in the eyes, and says “I will pay you $8,000 to come home with me tonight.” After my drink goes in his face and I am screaming in a fit of hysterics, he raises his hand at me and screams in my ear “CUNT!” I begin crying, because I am woman. I am hurt, because I am woman. I feel guilty, because I am woman. And my friend tells me I should be flattered because he thought I was worth so much. When I tell my boyfriend at the time, in tears, unable to process what had happened, he says “Well what did you expect dancing at 2 AM in that little dress?” I don’t know what I expected, because I am woman.
It means that I am 24. I am at a training for animal husbandry in Tanzania. I am here for professional development. I am here to better my service to the Tanzanian people. At an afternoon snack break, a fellow volunteer’s counterpart says to me “ladies first.” “Thank you!” I say, and move in line ahead of him. I feel him press himself in back of me. I inch forward towards my best friend who is in front of me. Again, he steps forward and presses the entirety of his body ahead of me. I shuffle forward. Again, he presses himself into me. I can feel all of him. I cringe. I feel disgusting. I’m not hungry anymore. I move out of line, and all I can do is tell my friend about how skeezy that old man was. That’s all I can do. Because I am woman.
It means that my male friends often get to speak up for me. It means that I have to just ignore the cat calls on the street, no matter what continent I’m on. It means that I have to run with only one ear bud in, because I need to be able to hear if a man approaches me from behind. It means I don’t go anywhere by myself after dark. It means that I need to wear clothes that accentuate my features, but are not too scandalous. It means that I have to take up less space than the man beside me on the bus. It means that I need to have a good reason for not giving a man my phone number because “I don’t want you to contact me” isn’t good enough. It means that when I’m out at the club dancing, I can expect that a man will come up behind me and begin grinding with me before I’ve seen his face or know his name, when all I want to do is dance on my own. It means that if a man hits on me, and it makes me feel disgusted and small, I still feel guilty because I know it would upset my boyfriend, even though I played no part in it. It means that liking craft beer and whiskey can tell a man all he needs to know about me, based on his own opinions. It means that I sleep with a machete under my bed just in case. It means that while working on a farm, a male coworker tells me it’s better when I wear a hat because I look more modest, my blonde hair is just too flashy for a farm. It means that it’s impressive that I can talk about politics, but I can’t know too much or else it might intimidate the male I’m speaking to. It means that when I speak up about social justice issues I am ranting, but a male doing the same is advocating. It means I am woman.
In a recent conversation with my dad, he told me not to become a man hater. I am not, nor do I plan on ever becoming one. There are so many incredible men in my life, such as my brother, who is one of the best people I’ve ever met on this earth, my boyfriend, all of my amazing male friends, both home, abroad, and in Tanzania, my countless male role-models and teachers, and of course my dad. I could never be a man hater because we need men. We need good men to be able to look at women and say “I will never understand what you go through on a daily basis, but I am your ally. How can I support you in ending (white heterosexual) male privilege and empowering all women?” We need men to help us raise sons who will never lay a hand on a woman without her consent, who will never disrespect women because of their gender, and who will be future allies on the road to empowerment. We need men to look at their friends and say “I noticed that how you just treated that woman is not ok. I cannot support your actions.” We need men who are good hearted, open minded, and supportive. Those men exist. We all know them. But we need them to really understand why it is so easy to be upset about gender inequality. I am not a man hater. I would never tell a female friend to be a man hater. But if she said to me, “I hate men” I could not blame her either.
As I read the news about rapist Brock Turner, and my chest tightened, I wondered “Why? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why do I want to scream right now?” I know it’s because I could’ve been the woman he raped. And I know it’s because if I ever were raped, the first question I would be asked is “What were you wearing?” I know that, because I am woman.
“Twende shambani.” Neema said to me with a hopeful expression.
I had been sitting in my counterparts’ house for a couple of hours. I was ready to go home and take a nap, letting the bright African sun dim a bit before going about my day. But I knew better. I love invitations to her farm. It is about a 30 minute walk downhill towards the river. There, she grows huge fields of sugarcane, greens, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. We began the walk down, chatting away in Swahili. On the way, we stopped at a neighbors’ house. The girl there was about my age. “Do you have any vegetables?” Neema asked. The girl replied “No.” Neema invited her to come harvest greens with us so that she could eat well that night.
As we approached the many plots of full and lush greens, we all bent over and began harvesting. Neema told me to pick more, pick more. She could not possibly know how appreciative I was. I have been running every morning, and I know my iron is low, especially since I do not have access to meat in my village. This would be a great source of iron for me for the next few days, and it was free.
As the three of us started back up the hill to the village, I thought about how generous my village is with food. If you have food that you know you will not eat, you give it away as a gift to someone. If you grow food and you have some to spare, you give it away. If you think a friend is in need, you feed them. If someone comes to your house, you feed them, even if you only have one andaazi left and a bit of chai, it is theirs. Most of the food I eat at site has been gifted to me. I receive bags of rice, sweet potatoes, beans, onions, garlic, greens, tomatoes, and if I’m really lucky, eggs.
As Neema and I walked back, she began asking me what I will do once I return to America. I decided to take a shot at explaining my passion: food security.
In the US we have people who are hungry. We have people who are diabetic. We have people who are overweight. We have people who are underweight. We have people with body image issues. We have people who do not know where eggs come from. We have people who don’t know how to grow a carrot. And I feel sad knowing that if the apocalypse were to come today, most Americans would die. If all of the grocery stores crumbled, most Americans would not know where to turn for food.
How would you process your chicken? How would you cut your beef? How would you grow your veggies? Where would you plant fruit trees? How do you harvest honey? How would you make cheese? How would you sprout and grind wheat for bread? How would you cast a fishing line? How would you milk a cow?
The sad truth of our culture is that most of us do not know. And the part that really, really fires me up, is those who know do not teach others, and sell their produce at prices that the vast majority of Americans cannot afford. Why is good, organic produce, free of harmful pesticides, chemicals, and additives, accessible only to our elite? Why is it so cheap to eat a packet of pasta sides but a bunch of Organic kale is upwards of $5, more if you’re living around a city? Why do those of us who grow food rarely share it with our neighbors? How can those of us with money walk past a homeless man on the street and not even give him an apple, but we can spend $5 on an organic dark chocolate bar, because we think we need the antioxidants to lift our mood? When did our culture become so individualistic that we cannot share, provide for our neighbors, look out for those we call friends?
I explained this to Neema, and the more I talked, the more sure my Swahili became and the larger her eyes became. People don’t know how to milk a cow? They can’t plant a tomato? Not everyone grows food? But where do they get their food…?
That’s when we determined, maybe Peace Corps should also start a program where volunteers from other countries come to teach Americans. Because in the realm of food security, America needs help. We are currently importing chicken breast from China. It is loaded with a saline solution to keep it somewhat fresh. We don’t know how long this chicken has been dead. We don’t know how it was killed. We don’t know how it was raised, what it ate, if it was infused with hormones. We don’t know. We are removed.
What’s even scarier is that those who have organic chicken breast, at $15/pound, can’t give some to their neighbors who can only afford a 5 piece nugget from Wendy’s for their children.
So I ask this of those reading: Think about sharing. We learned about it in kindergarten. But somewhere along the way we became too focused on money, profit, consumerism, making something of ourselves, that we left our neighbors and community behind to do so. If you are a food producer, even if you have a small garden, share. Share some extra produce. Cook a harvest dinner for someone who you think maybe has never had food that fresh. Show a child the difference in the taste of a cherry tomato fresh off the vine from one in a store. Teach them to put their hands in the soil, to love life, to appreciate growth, to feel gratitude for all that grows and nourishes us. Better yet, teach a neighbor a skill. If you have a cow, show someone how to milk it. Buy someone a book about cheese making. Share some basil seeds. Spread the knowledge. Share some food. Be a part of a larger community.
As soon as we begin to share like the amazing, giving, wonderful Tanzanians I work with on a daily basis, the sooner our food security issues will diminish, and all the problems in health that are caused by these issues.
The irony is that I’m here to teach about food security. But all I’ve done is learn.
Maybe we all have something to learn from Tanzanians.