“You are a fat, dying flower” – on being an unmarried foreigner in the Congo, and other musings on gender dynamics while abroad

If you don’t want to be consistently questioned about your marital status, don’t come to Congo.

In my experience, it is a common occurrence as a woman to be asked if you are married in Africa. I’m sure other female travellers would agree. So it didn’t take me by surprise that I started getting these questions, almost as soon as I arrived. While I am used to having to answer these inquiries every once in a while (Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want to get married? Do you want to get married here?), Congo took has taken this to a completely different level. EVERYONE asks me if I am married. The bank teller, the grocer, my favorite server at the expat coffee shop, my colleagues, random people on the street, friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends…when I say everyone, I mean everyone. And of course, everyone looks at you with absolute horror, befuddlement, and confusion when you say no. How can you be 25, completely single, with no kids, and no prospects in the near future of having either a) a marriage or b) kids?! Obviously, that is just insane. And boy, don’t even TRY to mention that you don’t even know if you want to get married, or want to have kids. That is just completely unacceptable.

The real kicker of all of these conversations though, was about two weeks ago. Looking at pictures of my friend’s wedding, two colleagues of mine started discussing my own future wedding, again bringing up the age old question of why I wasn’t married. Looking at one picture, they both started exclaiming how ‘See?! You are fat here. You are much fatter than the bride, so you should be the one getting married.” (To them, being ‘fat’ is a good thing, and is seen as much more attractive than being skinny. I’m going to skip over commenting on the obvious awkwardness of having male colleagues comment on this, even if they meant well…and to point out how, you too would gain weight if your diet only consisted of rice, potatoes, bread, and fries!). My French teacher, also there at the time, chimed in a couple minutes later, trying to teach me the meaning of the word fanée. “You know,” he said quite casually, “it’s like when a woman is not married over 25. She is like a dying flower. It is just all bad from there.”

Yes. That is right. I am supposedly a fat, dying flower, single and alone in Africa with no prospects.

As much as these conversations are incredibly hilarious (you try explaining to Congolese men why being called fat or a dying flower is really not taken well in Canada, when they think they are being incredibly nice to you), they also say a lot about different constructions of femininity. A girl can only be compared to wilting flora so many times before she really starts to think about gender constructions of marriage and relationships, both in relation to my life here and back home. In my Canadian life, being unmarried and travelling around different parts of Africa alone, that signifies independence, strength, and the ability to take care of myself. I’ve never thought of this as something negative, or something that is open fodder for the world to comment on. In Congo, marriage and children are expected as a central role in your life. Being single, alone, unmarried, with no concrete family, is seen as not only bizarre, but incredibly lonely, boring, and not exactly the path to a happy and fulfilling future. And while it may be a foreign concept, it does almost make sense. Think about it for a second. In a place where family is one of the strongest bonds of human connection, I have none, or at least none with me at the moment. When people ask me if I am married, it isn’t so much to be obtrusive (at least I tell myself this), but to figure out my place in the world. If you’re not married, if you don’t have a family net…then what exactly are you? Wife, mother, caregiver – this is such an integral part of what it means to be a woman in Congo, yet these are all of the things that I find myself constantly in a struggle not to be. My strong Canadian, feminist beliefs (yes you are a strong independent women who doesn’t need a man to be happy!) are constantly in bewilderment with the constant barrage of questions about my marital status.

This isn’t to cast judgment on gender constructions, as it is fascinating to examine what it means to be female in a Congolese setting. Women in the Congo are strong, powerful, vibrant human beings, and they form the backbone of this country; in no way do I want to detract from the multiple and important roles they play in everyday life. Yet, they also face some challenging and difficult barriers. Give me any subject, and we can talk about forms of oppression. Employment? For a lot of women, that means having their husband sign an agreement that they can leave the house for formal work. Healthcare? Try delivering a baby, where costs associated with giving birth in a hospital often outweigh the risk to your life, especially if your husband does not think it is worth it. Violence? Try being a victim of GBV, who then gets cast out of her community and her home, because she is now thought of as impure and dishonorable. Women in Congo are incredibly strong, but this is often because they face incredible challenges.

The majority of these problems are completely foreign to me. While Canada has its fair share of gender inequality (and believe me, we definitely do), I am so thankful I am from a country where my body, my right to employment, my right to pursue opportunities outside of strict gender confines are respected and (for the most part) upheld. I love that I make my own decisions, that I am not responsible to anyone else when I want to pack up and move halfway across the world. I am so grateful that I have more freedoms granted to me, because of where I was born, than so many women do in other places around the world. Yet, this also makes me entitled. It is second nature to me to feel entitled to an opinion. It is second nature to me, to feel entitled to speak up in a meeting with Congolese colleagues. It is second nature to feel like I am entitled to do everything that my male friends do, with no questions asked.

Working as a woman in these spaces means I am often the in-between. I am the liminal being, this weird almost-genderless person floating between what it means to be a woman here, and what it means to be a woman in my personal definition. Congolese culture is overly welcoming to guests, and I only have experiences of being treated extremely well as a foreigner. Yet, I am a woman, which puts constraints on the role I can play in this society. This weird juxtaposition between the two – am I foreign guest? Or do I fit into the ‘gender’ box? – means that I get to occupy both spaces, to varying degrees. In my role as outsider/guest, I fit into masculine spaces, go to bars with male colleagues, can bring up discussions that might be taboo if a woman from this culture were to act in the same way. On the other hand, I can also fit into the ‘woman’ role and inhabit spaces that male coworkers may not be able to. Take for example the other day, when I was able to bond with women vendors in Goma’s markets, because they thought I was pregnant (to clarify, I am definitely not…but this is a whole other story). Or village women I met during field visits, who crowd around, laughing at my weird clothes and reaching out to fix my long-very-non-African hair. Throughout all of my travels, there are so many little moments like this that I doubt I would be able to witness if I was male.

While I wouldn’t trade the freedom and independence I have for anything, or my ability to transcend multiple settings and roles through this weird ‘foreigner but woman’ syndrome, it does make me wonder about some of trade-offs of all of this independence and freedom. I’ve written on this before, last year in Tanzania, while surrounded by smart, intelligent, career-driven women, who had exciting lives but often at the expense of personal relationships. It seems a bit clichéd to keep revisiting this same topic (Can women really have it all? How do you balance an international career with a personal life?) yet it is a subject that continues to fascinate me. The single, young, career driven woman, who leaves her family, friendships, and anything familiar to go live and work in a completely different setting, investing more in her passport than her relationship prospects, may feel normal to me, but is so foreign in many places in this world. When the normative conception of building relationships involves staying still, building up a community and family in one place, how do you figure out how to do that when you are constantly somewhere new?

As usual, I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, and this may just be my malaria-hallucinating brain delving in a little too deep into a topic that will only show answers in time. For now, I am content to be where I am. At the end of the day, I’d take being a fat, dying flower in the Congo, constantly getting questioned about her marital status, then be working or living anywhere else in the world.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Congo – Beyond Conflict Stories

Picture you are standing on a road. It is a regular road, maybe going down to the lake, where you can look out over the mountains. It is hard to walk, because the road you are standing on is covered in lava, from the volcano that exploded years before. There is a Chinese construction crew beside you, local workers drilling through piles of rock and crusted cement. People are everywhere, cars are everywhere, and there are a surprising amount of men in suits. The guy beside you is alternating between yelling into an iPhone 6 and a cheap Nokia flip-phone. Somewhere nearby, a loudspeaker is blasting a mix of rumba, P-Squared, and old Mariah Carey. UN trucks rush by, soldiers in blue helmets poised with their rifles outwards. You can see a group of police officers at the end of one road, leaning on their guns, and you’d rather not head down that way again, since you had to pay a ‘facilitation fee’ just yesterday. Young men on moto’s yell out if you want a ride, shopkeepers yell out if you want to buy any combination of phones/eggs/Nike-runners/roadside-strawberries, and children yell out either MONEY or WHITE PERSON. Everything is loud, vibrant, bright, noisy and alive.

Welcome to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The act of starting to write again is both a personal and public one. I’ve been going back and forth about whether I should be continuing to blog while I travel or not, as it is very hard for foreigners to get this place right, and very easy to portray Congo wrong. On a personal level, writing helps to make sense of the craziness of everyday life here, even through my narrow viewpoint. So, even if it is just one person reading this – hey Mom! – that is fine with me. On the other hand, many of you have expressed questions about what the DRC is really like. This isn’t a place that the average person usually experiences for themselves, and there are many stories here that I think some of you may find fascinating. While there are others who can provide a much better explanation of the history, details of the conflict, current news etc*, what I can provide is an average take on what life is like in an area of the world that is simultaneously overlooked and aggrandized, shoved into narrative boxes that the rest of the world designs.

To briefly recap for those that don’t know, I’m based in the DRC working on a research project examining state-building, taxation and development in conflict affected areas. I was previously based in Kinshasa (the vibrant capital city with amazing nightlife, and the best chicken I have ever eaten), and am currently in Goma, Eastern DRC. I am working with a local Congolese organization, the Marakuja Kivu Research Group, who specializes in research and data collection in North and South Kivu.

Now, the first words out of most peoples mouths when you tell them you are in the DRC, especially Eastern DRC, are either ‘where is that again?’ or ‘you know you are in a warzone, right?’ Bypassing those that can’t place Congo on a map, let alone Goma, I understand why the general impression of East DRC is negative. Most reports from abroad are of militias, rapes, or the ongoing conflict of different armed groups across the Kivus. Even my extremely educated, well-travelled friends have expressed their doubts, kindly telling me they’d prefer to visit Rwanda, Congo’s stable neighbour, rather than come to where I am. One reason I wanted to start this again is to provide an alternative picture. Conflict and trauma are definitely part of Congo’s narrative. I don’t want to trivialize the situation or give the impression that there are not some serious problems. Gender-based violence, human rights abuses, poverty, violence, land conflict, ongoing massacres in the East, corruption…the list goes on. The important thing to remember though is that this is only one part of the narrative. There are many others that revolve around music, dance, art, entrepreneurship, family, friends, those who passionately advocate for hope and prosperity, and those who just go about living their regular, everyday lives in the midst of it all. Take for example my time here so far. Eating at roadside bars with Congolese colleagues, dancing in hidden, smoky nightclubs, exploring pop-up markets, working with some of the most hardworking men that I have ever encountered, who are more dedicated to their research than most of the people that I have encountered back home. This has been normal life. In reality, I’d be way more worried that I will go insane if I hear one more Celion Dion song, rather than any other problems that might occur.

As the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her now famous TED Talk, there is a danger to a single story. Stories are powerful mediums to make sense of our world, but when you only hear one, over and over again, we fall into the trap of thinking that is the only truth there is. When you only read about violence, massacres, conflict minerals, or sexual violence, why would you believe that those may not be the norm? We paint Congo with the same brush, failing to realize how broadly we are generalizing (Congo is roughly the size of Western Europe. Does it really make sense to talk about Poland the same way we discuss Britain? Or France how we talk about Norway?). Yes the conflict minerals you keep hearing about are an important issue. Just as important however is the backlash faced by mining communities when Western-based companies leave due to increased regulations, leaving many with even less economic opportunities than before. Yes, the rate of sexual violence is an extremely dire situation for the women in the DRC, but focusing only on rape in war hides the larger structural problems, of social or economic inequality, that are also just as important to tackle.  There is not just two sides to the story here; there are hundreds.

My point more broadly, is that Congo is dynamic, vibrant, and a very complicated country – one that I certainly can’t claim to know in any detail after only several months. The stories here are breathtaking, and go far below the surface that international media usually represents. Congo is so much more than rape and war; and if I can bring just a small sense of that to you, random reader out there, then sitting here without electricity and swatting away mosquitos while I try to finish this post has been absolutely worth it.

And if anyone wants to visit and see for yourself, karibu – you now know where I am.

*If you’re interested in learning more about Congo in general, Christoph Vogel, Jason Stearns, and Timo Mueller run great blogs. A relatively extensive reading list can be found here. And finally, Radio Okapi is my go to for local news. 

Posted in Congo | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Return

It’s officially been a month since I left Tanzania.

I remember that first moment of arriving home, stepping off of the plane and trying to find my family in the crowd. The car ride back was a strange mix of small talk and jetlagged delirium, as I stared out the window trying to find points of reference in a completely unfamiliar landscape. When we got to the house, I just sat there, not understanding how a mere 24 hours earlier I had been on the opposite side of the world, in a completely different life. ‘Okay,’ I remember thinking, looking around my childhood bedroom, ‘now what?’

I wanted to write this post because I’m currently surrounded by so many people who have recently come home from adventures abroad. Working for the UN in Geneva, spearheading health projects in the Galapagos, travelling around South-East Asia – it’s inspiring to be friends with so many well-travelled individuals. Hearing their stories while we all try to get back into the swing of grad school has been a motivating start to our second year. Yet this mix of stories has really left me wondering about the act of returning. How do you process the intensity of a travel experience, while simultaneously trying to settle in to everyday, ordinary life?

Returning back to the familiarity of my normal routine is both comforting and completely disorienting. Unpacking my bags after months away, curling up on my couch with tea and readings, finally getting to cuddle with my dog – these are all some of the most comforting feelings in the world (and don’t even get me started on the return of bagels). But juxtaposed to all of that is the horrible, heart squeezing ache of despair I feel whenever I think of the places, and people, and experiences that I had to leave behind. The excitement over coming home and seeing loved ones only lasts for a finite amount of time – there’s an expiration date on how often you get to consistently mention your adventures. You’ve told your stories, had the excited reunions, and gone through every photo on your camera. Once that initial “back from a trip” enthusiasm starts to fade, it all just kind of goes back to the way it was before you left.

The struggle to keep your experiences close to your heart, and have them continue to add meaning to your life, is something I’m in a constant wrestling match with myself over. I’ve hung up all my decorations, draped African fabric down my walls, and finally folded away all the grungy T-shirts I’ve been wearing non-stop for the last four months. Yet, the act of jumping back into this Toronto lifestyle is unnerving, and leaves me not knowing exactly where I stand. Trading flip flops for flats may mean that the seriously lodged-on-my-feet-travel-dirt will slowly start to fade away, but it also means that experiences get further away too. What felt piercing and real three weeks ago starts to get fuzzy around the edges, and I can feel myself trying to hold on tighter to what I know will inevitably fade into the post-travel memory bank. I don’t want to be the person who gets stuck in a cycle of idealizing their travel moments (or the person who is constantly talking about it), but I also don’t want to be the person who loses sight of all the amazing things the last four months taught her about herself.

I get that this post may kind of just feel like I’m whining over nothing (and let’s be real, you’re probably all a little sick of me constantly talking about Africa anyways). But when you fall in love with a place, and a feeling, and an experience, it leaves a hole in your heart that is not very easy to fill. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I’m having a little bit of trouble stepping back into where life left off four months ago. And that has to be okay (or at least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself). You can never leave a place the same as when you got there, and I would rather have to deal with the post-trip blues than never have experienced those moments that made me feel so alive in the first place. When you’re as lucky as we are to get to travel this much, well then I guess return-home weirdness is just a part of the job, right?

….and if all of those justifications still just aren’t cutting it, well, there’s only a nine month count-down until we can all start travelling again folks.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Moments.

I’ve been thinking about moments of peace and moments of violence a lot recently.

Okay, let me back up. First, I have to apologize. It’s been about forever since I last updated you all. I swear, I sat down last week and tried to write – but I had no words. These last couple of weeks has been some of the most peaceful and the most emotionally intense moments I’ve had this trip – so I’ve either had nothing to write about, or I’ve lacked the ability to describe what I was feeling. I’m going to make an attempt now but forgive me if I can’t express any of my experiences adequately. Sometimes travel moments are only meant to be that – flashes in time, un-captured by words.

But lets give it a shot anyways.

I originally started writing last week about moments of peace. I had been going back and forth for a while, trying to figure out what I wanted to say, and it completely took me by surprise that I couldn’t find something I wanted to talk about (I mean, come on guys, we all know I can talk about anything). No rants I felt I needed to give, no development topic I wanted to analyze, no big dengue/malaria/African immigration stories to give you a play by play on. And eventually, it kind of hit me – for the first time in a long time, I’m just happy. And content. Not shout from the walls excited kind of happy, just quietly enjoying life kind of happy. I tried to rack my brain for some sort of interesting story to tell, yet, all I found myself wanting to talk to you about was this lazy Saturday. I know, right….here I am halfway around the world, working for the UN and I want to give you an update about a lazy Saturday? Seriously, Kailee?!

I know it sounds crazy, and it sounds so ordinary, but this one lazy Saturday captures some of the most calming moments I’ve had in Tanzania so far. We had all gone out the night before, and were exhausted from dancing to our favourite African-pop songs until the early morning, that we decided to have late brunch at this little café. Lounging around on couches, drinking coffee and eating eggs bene felt a bit surreal (who knew brunch was just as good, if not better, in Africa rather than at home?!) It was one of those perfect mornings, where no one had to be anywhere, and all you had to look forward to was lying around with friends, talking and laughing.

The rest of the day proceeded as uneventful as the rest had been. We went to the beach. Swam in the ocean. Napped in the sand with warm beer and warmer chocolate. Explored hidden outposts looking out over crystal blue water. Played a horrible game of ping-pong and sang way too loudly to cheesy girl bands as we drove back to a friend’s house. And then we ended the night sitting on a balcony, drinking tea and honey, wrapped in blankets, overlooking the ocean and just talking. The day wasn’t high energy, it wasn’t particularly special, and it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary… except for the fact that I felt so genuinely content and so genuinely peaceful, that it shocked me how a person could ever really be this happy.

When you’re travelling, people always ask you about the big moments. They want to know about chimp trekking, about what working for the UN is like, about how I almost had to fly to Kenya last minute because of an immigration scandal. I’ve written about this previously, but for me, that’s never how I remember my trips. When I think back to the places I’ve been, it’s not the excursions or the adrenaline pumping adventures that mean the most. Instead, it’s those slow, lazy moments where life seems to fall into place. That’s originally why I wrote this piece; it’s so rare to ever feel truly peaceful, to feel so present in a moment, that it was actually quite unnerving. How many times do I stop to acknowledge how perfect a moment is, without running through to-do lists in my mind, or checking an email that must be soooo important. I needed to acknowledge that sometimes life seems to just fall into place, that travel can inspire those quiet moments of introspectiveness that are so beautiful and so fleeting, that fill you with so much more raw emotion than any of those big travel adventures ever will. When your heart is filled with love and all you can think about is how lucky you are to live in moments like this, it makes you think that you are exactly where you’re meant to be.

So here I am, with this blog piece crafted about how peaceful and content life in Dar feels. About how I wake up in the morning smiling, and end the nights drinking tea and talking with friends. About those quiet moments of being content really meaning so much at this point in my life, and all of that. I’m all ready for you all to roll your eyes, but also to enjoy the fact that I’m genuinely enjoying life this summer. And then we all go to Zanzibar. Well, more importantly we all come back from Zanzibar. There’s the blog post, my musings on peacefulness waiting on my computer, waiting for me to press publish…and then we get robbed.

Dar has a very, very high crime rate. We’ve been told a million and fifty times to watch out around where we live, because there are so many bag snatchings on a weekly basis. Since the beginning of the trip, we would walk with our belongings concealed in grocery bags, or money stuffed down our bra, the usual tips to keep our possessions safe. Even still, robbery never really seemed like a big concern. So what, if my bad got snatched? I never really had anything in there anyways. Who cares if a friend’s stuff got taken, things are replaceable. My thinking was that if the worse that was going to happen to me here were that my things could get stolen, then I really didn’t have to worry much. You know, in comparison to places where actual violent crime happens. The thing is though, that you can’t define violence. “Oh, our friend got his things stolen,” may not sound like that big of a deal. When you’re the one on the receiving end though, it is. It so severely, forcefully is.

A group of friends and I had gone to Zanzibar for the weekend. The entire trip had been a beautiful mix of sun, good food, better conversation and amazing people. Riding the high of our excursion, we were all walking downtown, on our way from the ferry to where we had parked the car the morning before. We were almost a block away from where we were going, when this black car pulled up behind us, seeming to want to drive past. Its always so sketchy when black cars have tinted windows, I remember thinking, trying to peer into the driver’s side as I crossed over to get out of its way. It slowly snaked its way beside our group, and then almost in slow motion, a man reached out of the car and grabbed the guy standing right in front of me.

The thing I can remember the most from that moment is the hair of the guy in the car. He had jet-black, short dreadlocks, sticking out every which way. Those little spirals of hair reached out, two massive hands under a black T-shirt, and grabbed our friend’s backpack off of his back. Except, his arm was in it, and he didn’t let go. So those jet-black spirals of hair continued to hold on, yelling to the driver to go faster. At first, our friend was running, holding onto the bag as they drove away. Then he was sliding, balancing on the side of the passenger door. And then he was being dragged, his arms still hanging on to the strap as it was being pulled deeper into the recesses of that black car, his body dangling off of the side as they sped down the road. And then he was lying in the middle of a busy road, almost sliding into oncoming traffic, thrown to a stop as they sped away.

While it was happening, it was almost if my brain broke everything down into tiny movie-like flashes, not being able to comprehend what was going on until it was over. Oh, there is a guy leaning out of that black car. Oh, the guy is grabbing the backpack. Oh, this must be a robbery. Oh, he’s being dragged down the street. Oh, the car is still speeding. Oh, he is lying on the ground, they must have gotten away. Oh…..there is something really serious going on right now Kailee. You better start reacting. It’s so funny how your body responds to moments like these, isn’t it? My mind wouldn’t let me comprehend anything until it was over, where our other friends reacted in completely different ways. One ran after the car, convinced he could get the bag back, disregarding the fact that they very easily could have had a weapon or ran him over. One got angry, yelling that he should have let go of the bag sooner to stop himself from being hurt, lectures masking her own form of fear and shock. We all drove to the hospital, sitting in silence as the doctors cleaned up the missing chunks of flesh from where he had taken the brunt of the fall, not knowing how to process what we had all just witnessed.

I’m really struggling to find the words to explain the feelings of fear, terror, and shock that accompany an experience like that. I want to explain to you the overwhelming waves panic, of going into survival, ‘lets get everyone to the hospital and make sure things are okay’ mode. I want to explain to you the piercing anger that I felt seeing my friends so visibly shaken, so upset, so hurt that all I wanted to do was make it better…and had no idea how. I want to explain how even such a routine thing, robbery in a big city, makes you skittish and nervous. How walking down the street makes me do double takes, or how the night after it happened, we all just sat there, not really knowing what to say to make any of us less shaken or unnerved. Afterwards, all of these stories started coming out about others having similar experiences. About a woman killed after being dragged under a car, about someone smashing their shoulder in two from the force of a bag snatching, of a man dying after being dragged along on his bike. Violence of any kind makes you lose faith in the place you had just started to love, just started to feel comfortable in. That feeling, of feeling unsafe in a place you call home, is one of the worst I’ve ever experienced.

I know it sounds a bit mundane. Okay, okay, your friend got his stuff stolen. There are people around the world in the middle of war, dying from hunger/poverty/disasters/conflict. Believe me, you don’t have to tell me that on the scale of world-wide violence, this doesn’t even come close to making it on the list. I’m not trying to say that this was a particularly horrible experience in the grand scheme of things, but those feelings of panic and terror that accompany human suffering? Those matter. Have you ever come that face-to-face with another human who cares so little about someone else’s life, that they are willing to sacrifice it, seriously hurt another person, and don’t even give it a second thought? They would have, and could have, killed him in an effort to inadvertently grab his bag, but that fact was meaningless. That realization that there are people devoid of empathy, devoid of kindness, who think nothing of hurting another human being, that’s what’s terrifying. And that vision, the one of dark hair and a dark shirt reaching out of a car, right beside me, so close that I could touch him, grabbing another person and dragging him down the road as the car starts speeding faster…that will forever be branded on my memory.

I would love to end this story with a nicely packaged paragraph on what I’ve learned from this experience, but I’m not sure I have a strong conclusion on this one. I have no life lesson to draw, no inspired Kailee-wisdom to really share from this. Again, I’ve been going back and forth all week, trying to find the words to describe how to make sense of all of this. The juxtaposition of these events is just so strange. How do you come to terms with the fact that a place like this can hold such happiness, and then fill you with such fear? On one hand, I’ve had some of my most cherished moments living here, and on the other, I’ve had some of my lowest. How do you make sense of your time spent in a place, when it’s filled with such polar opposites? Processing regular travel moments is already emotionally intense for me – what do you do when what you thought you were feeling one day is so drastically different from the next?

Maybe that’s the point though, isn’t it? One day, life feels amazing. The next day, you’re given different cards. Maybe the point of this trip wasn’t to be completely peaceful, or incredibly shaken up, but to acknowledge that life is filled with full moments. Full of happiness, or full of fear. Full of feeling content, and then full of feeling shock and uncertainty. A lazy Saturday with friends or a Sunday night spent in the hospital. Feeling beyond alive because of joy and friendship, or feeling beyond alive because of anxiety and panic. There is an intensity of raw emotion that fills the experience of both happiness and of hate that has been present through all of this. All of these experiences are overwhelming, and add to the slow collection of stories accumulated as part of travel. You experience, you process, and then you move on to your next travel moment…whatever that may be.

As I write to you, I’m sitting on our (new) balcony, drinking tea, and overlooking all of the twinkling lights off of Dar’s coastline. It’s beautiful, and calm, and when I look back at this trip, I’ll remember it as a one of those perfectly peaceful nights. But those vivid experiences of fear and alarm are just as important too. Both my moments of peace and my moments of violence culminate together into one long, messy string of travel memories. For better or for worse, they fill in the pages of my time in Tanzania. And maybe, that’s all a girl can really ask for.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

Interwoven Violence: “Girls, They are Nothing.”

Two weeks ago, the UK held the largest ever conference on sexual violence. Hosted by William Hague and Angelina Jolie, the summit brought together world leaders, civil society, activists, and survivors for the first ever high-level event to be held on ending sexual violence in war. Although I wasn’t in London (believe me I wanted to be), I was constantly scouring the news, checking twitter, and harassing colleagues in the UK for updates. As someone who is extremely passionate about ending sexual violence, it was inspiring to see the world’s attention turned toward this issue, even if just for a short while.

There’s been quite a lot written since the summit ended on whether it accomplished what it set out to do, or if it really accomplished anything at all. Many critiques have been from survivors, academics, and NGOs, on the simplistic narrative of “rape as a weapon of war,” on the sidelining of grassroots activists, and on the fake spotlight of celebrity activism. Originally, I was going to write a piece about my own opinions on these different problematic issues, and how I felt after the summit. But really, I can sum all of that up quite quickly: yes, the summit had flaws, but it was the largest global event to bring together that many world leaders, activists, and citizens on the topic of sexual violence. I truly believe that was a critical first step, and that the momentum can be continued. Instead of the summit, what I really want to talk about today is something that’s been hitting a bit closer to home recently…and that’s violence against women in Tanzania.

During the same week the summit was happening in London, the UK High Commission held its own Tanzanian version of the event. My boss, the UN Women Country Representative, knows how passionate I am about this issue, and invited me along to sit in on the panel and discussions. Technically, the evening was supposed to center on ending sexual violence in conflict. However, as a country that is extremely peaceful (as every Tanzanian likes to remind you, “we aren’t like those Kenyans”), the conversation turned to a similar issue with the same sorts of consequences – physical and sexual violence against women (VAW) more generally. Although the event featured high level UN representatives and different ambassadors, the highlight of the night really was the testimonies from different NGOs, activists, and survivors on the situation of gender based violence (GBV) in Tanzania.

“He owed her brother money, so he chopped off her arm.”

“Her aunt locked her in a room to be raped, she was only 13.”

“Her parents had no money, so they married her off at twelve to get some cows.”

“The police don’t see sex workers as human; they rape me every week. They rape us all whenever we complain.”

“I was raped by my uncle when I was thirteen. He paid my parents, so they dropped the charges.”

“If I asked where he had been, he would beat me and then lock me in the house.”

“Girls, they are nothing. That is the perception here.”

Tanzania isn’t in conflict, yet, women and girls around the country are routinely beaten, raped, and killed for the sole fact that they are women. They are seen as less powerful, not as important, and extremely disposable. While global attention may have been on the summit in London, Tanzania was able to have a different, but just as relevant conversation. Here, interweaving webs of violence affect women not just in conflict, but in their everyday and ordinary lives.

Working on these issues on the ground, it’s so easy to see how gender equality, poverty, and development are all interconnected. Girls are not valued as highly as boys, so they usually drop out of school earlier and receive less education. This usually leads to early marriage, and because of the lack of sexual health rights, early pregnancy. Marriage, pregnancy, and insufficient education usually decreases a woman’s economic opportunities, with her lack of financial resources continuing the cycle of poverty. Add to this almost non-existent inheritance laws and land rights, you can see how women are in extremely weak positions in society. All of these factors feed into women and girl’s vulnerability, increasing their risk of physical and sexual violence.

As I’m writing this too you, I’m sitting in a little town in central Tanzania, here with UN Women to open a new gender and children’s desk at the local police station. Today there was a huge launch of the desk, with the police and the community celebrating the opening of a new space where women and children can go and report on VAW cases. Even though its several weeks later, and in a completely different geographic and cultural region in Tanzania, the issues and stories I heard today are the same. Girls raped, children abused, women having to just learn to live with their husbands beatings. What made it worse today though, was that for the first time, I really felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation, almost with a sense of hopelessness. Sitting in a desk in Dar es Salaam, you work on different policy issues, and try to convince yourself this will eventually lead to small, incremental changes in the lives of women. Here though, it feels like an insurmountable challenge to be able to create any kind of lasting or sustainable change. The gender desk is launched, but women don’t have a safe house to stay in after they are abused. Even if they do report on domestic violence, they just have to go back to their husbands after they leave the police. A rape conviction cannot be sentenced unless you can prove the man penetrated the women, and that she specifically did not give consent. Police officers lack training to gather the evidence needed to support these two criteria (and even if they, did they don’t have proper storage facilities), so hardly any rape cases make it to court. Domestic violence is seen as a family matter, with most survivors dropping their cases after the accused financially compensates them, or they are convinced to just take the problem to traditional leaders. Even if someone does go through all of the hurdles of reporting and trying to prosecute, it often doesn’t matter, since many perpetrators bribe their way out of punishment anyways. One of the men we interviewed today, when asked about cases of sexual violence in the town, said “well, sometimes wives just don’t perform their wifely duties, and don’t want to have sex – so then there is violence.” And that’s it. Sometimes women just don’t do what they’re supposed to, and that means they deserve to be harmed.

I guess this is why it pisses me off when people sideline GBV as a “woman’s issue.” The average economy loses the equivalent of to 1 – 2% of its GDP per year due to economic losses associated with VAW, but it only affects women? Since women account for 70% of African agriculture, decreases in labour productivity have severe consequences for local food sustainability, yet it only gets discussed through a gender lens? I can’t count how many stories I’ve heard of mothers, widows, daughters, or sisters being beaten, disfigured or killed, yet even when half of the population is being discriminated against, its only an issue for women’s rights activists to tackle? 47% of Tanzanian women experience GBV (which is most likely a sorely underreported figure), but it is still such taboo issue, something to speak of in shame rather than address head on. And this isn’t just an African or Tanzanian problem – North America has insanely high gender based violence figures as well. These problems are rooted in the systematic discrimination against women that still persists all over the world. To sideline this as only a gender issue ignores the wider repercussions VAW has for our entire society.

I’ve tried to paint a horrible picture, because the situation is horrible. It is just as important to note, though, that there are many amazing Tanzanians working together to try and end GBV. For example, at the High Commission event, the room was filled with inspiring activists who had dedicated their lives to fighting discrimination in their communities. As many women said that night, even breaking the silence on VAW and GBV is a much-needed first step, the room humming with their positive energy as everyone discussed what needed to be done to end sexual violence in Tanzania. Or take today, where I marched with hundreds of people through the streets of a little Tanzanian town, to raise awareness on GBV and the new police desk for VAW cases. The entire community came out to the launch, listening to discussions, plays, songs and speeches on the importance of working together to end violence. The police were just so happy and hopeful, dancing and singing into the night to celebrate something as simple as a gender desk opening in their community. The entire time we were there, officers continually came up to us to tell us how grateful they were to have new skills and resources to deal with GBV. One police desk is a small drop in a huge ocean of challenges – but seeing men, women, boys, girls, police, judges, and everyone else in the community mobilize themselves on ending violence…well it at least provides a glimmer of hope.

Although I would have loved to be in the UK listening to summit discussions on how to end sexual violence in war, it doesn’t really matter where I am, the problems are the same. These patterns of violence, rooted in gender inequality and discrimination, are the same. Whether it is sexual violence in war, or a husband forcing his wife to have sex with him, or thirteen-year-old girls being married off due to poverty, violence against women occurs all around the world. “Girls, they are nothing,” I was told today. That statement has never felt more real.

Posted in Gender | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Art of Balancing: A Single Girls Musing on an International Life

Random travellers that you meet in Africa always have the most interesting stories.

My first weekend in Dar, I was at a rooftop party overlooking the ocean. There was a huge full moon, thousands of stars, and just the right amount of alcohol to make people in a bit of a mood to impress. Take for example the woman from the State Department, who was living in Tanzania to collect HIV data for a new USAID program. Or the man working as an elections specialist, who had just finished several postings in post-conflict countries. Or the colleague who had worked as a journalist following international sporting events, who had just switched over to covering women’s rights issues. Their conversations were filled with interesting stories, telling me about all of the crazy adventures they had had, the prestigious organizations they had worked for, and all of the destinations they had worked in. Beijing, Kenya, Lebanon, Rome, Germany, Sierra Leone, Argentina, Mozambique…they had literally worked all over the world.

Out of these conversations though, one thing stood out to me. Within all of the women that I was talking too, most of them were alone. Sure, they were all there with their friends, dancing and having a fun night out with the expat community. Most of the women were in their thirties, they had some of the most interesting career paths, were extremely vibrant individuals…and they were completely alone.

When I went home that night (weaving around potholes with my probably half asleep tuk-tuk driver), I couldn’t help but wonder, is this what is in store if I choose the international development worker life? All of these women had interesting careers and beautiful travel moments, and I was envious of their high positions in great organizations. Yet, where were the stories about family, relationships, kids or a home? If this is the life I wanted, was that going to be me?

Every-time I go to Africa, friends always make up these grand, romantic stories for me and my dating life. Either I’m the main character in a daring, safari back-dropped love story with some sexy expat doing humanitarian work, or I fall in love with a local, whom I then proceed to marry and have cute halfer-children with. There’s always this romantic ideal attributed to all of my trips. “Well obviously, you like to travel, so of course you will meet someone abroad,” they say, as a justification of why I can never seem to really figure it out when in comes to the North American dating scene, “It’ll be so much better when you meet someone who is into the same issues as you.” Sure this sounds all well and good, but let me tell you this folks – while those stories might be nice, the range of people I most often meet when abroad falls somewhere along the spectrum of crazy, religious missionaries on a colonizing journey, to the cynical development worker who thinks Africa is a sh*t-hole and can’t wait to get his next posting. African savannah love stories might be the dream, but in reality, its ordinary people, with the same sorts of problems you would find back home. The idea of, ‘you’re into international issues, and travelling, so when you go abroad you’ll obviously meet people exactly like you’…sadly, doesn’t actually work in practice.

So where am I going with this? I can hear you saying, Kailee are you really in Tanzania right now, worrying about not finding someone to date?! Or you’re going, seriously, you’re 24 why do you need to worry about this anyways? You’ve got years to go. I’ve got to admit – this is a vulnerable topic. If I was discussing this with you at home, you’d probably be telling me its okay, and I’d be awkwardly laughing and trying to change the subject to get away from your sympathy pat, because no one wants to be the single girl talking about relationships, right? But it’s not about this trip, or where I am at this point in my life (lets face it, as a 24 year old grad student working for the UN, I have it relatively good). As a woman who wants an international career, but who also wants to have a fulfilling personal life, I think this is something that really does need to be discussed.

The debate on can women have it all, has been going on for a significant amount of time. Regardless of where they are placed in the world, women face specific challenges in balancing the work/family divide. For me, and for many of my fellow colleagues and friends, it’s not just about the work/family balance, but the work/family/where-the-hec-in-the-world-are-you balance. How do you create relationships, let alone sustain a lasting one, when you are constantly travelling, moving, and don’t have a stable home?

Over the past year, this has been a theme that’s repeatedly come up, in discussions with colleagues, friends, and in interactions with those who work in international careers. What about kids, have you thought about if you would relocate your family, what will you do if you and your significant other don’t get jobs in the same place? Women would warn that it was extremely difficult to raise children in foreign environments, and that travelling could put a lot of strain on a relationship. Stories were told about the perils of taking maternity leave if you had secured a much coveted international gig, or about how hard it was for spouses to sustain an international posting for a significant portion of time. Usually I would just brush those discussions off, as something I could worry about when I actually was confronted with the issues. Now that I’m actually working in a country posting though, it’s hard to escape that this life comes with certain challenges. Take for example the coworker who has a new baby son, but gets to the office at 7am and leaves at 8pm. Or the lady I met who has left her 5 year old daughter back home in Europe for two years, so she could take a higher job position and move up the office ladder. Or the tons of vibrant, thirty something year old women who have lived in Tanzania, Lebanon, Italy, or Kenya – but who don’t seem to have any sort of permanent home. For many of these women, this sort of life works perfectly. They seem perfectly fine with the fact that they get to jump from place to place, picking up and starting over, every several years. But if I’m about to really start pursuing a career working in any sort of international sector, don’t I owe it to myself to ask, am I okay with that kind of life?

Sustaining a relationship, of whatever kind, is really hard. It’s been really difficult the past year – going from Uganda, to Vancouver, to Toronto, to Tanzania – to see my family and friend’s lives progress when I can’t be there with them in person. It’s hard see a friend plan a wedding, and not get to be there for the little moments along the way. It’s hard to constantly worry that you’ll drift apart from those that you care about, because you don’t get that everyday interaction. Its hard to realize that if I ever was to move to Africa, because of her illness, my mom would never be able to come visit me. Skype, Facebook updates, or emails are great to stay in touch, but it also means you get to be a part of everyone’s lives an arms reach away. I’m so happy to have this opportunity (Working on gender issues in Tanzania? That’s the dream!), but it’s also a trade off. I get bumpy bus rides through random African towns; my friends get to plant ties and build communities around themselves at home. I get to experience different cultures halfway across the world; others get to wake up every day next to the person that they love, creating a life together.

At the end of the party, the only two people that really stood out to me were this older, middle-aged couple. They were in their fifties, but they had decided to move themselves and their teenage daughters to Tanzania, because ‘life’s adventures were better when you lived them together.’  Out of everyone that I met that night, they were the ones that I thought had the most beautiful story. I know there’s nothing to do but wait – who knows if I’ll be the thirty year old career women jet-setting all over the world, or the fifty year old couple who starts travelling together later in life, or maybe my mothers nightmares will come true, and I’ll decide to settle down here and stay for the indefinite future. But I do know one thing. As much as I want to be a woman who gets to pursue her passions and career goals, I also want to be a woman who is able to build relationships, a life, and a home. So I guess the question that I’m asking you is…how do you do both?

 

 

 

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Stories of a Heartbeat

For those of you who haven’t caught on yet, I’m working at UN Women this summer, interning specifically under the violence against women programme officer. I’ll speak more about my UN experience at a later date, but as a quick overview, there have been a lot of meetings, a lot of reports, and a lot of office based policy research. At first, I was really worried that I wouldn’t get a tangible experience with the people I care about the most – the women in Tanzania that UN Women is supposed to be working for. Sitting in an office isn’t very conducive to getting at the heart of their stories. But slowly, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with more and more women, and have gotten to see the amazing things that they are working towards to create change. These are their stories.

For example, there have been stories from the Tanzanian women’s network that met last Monday, to start a coalition on sextortion (or the form of corruption carried out through sexual abuse). Women from a wide range of NGOs got up to talk about their experiences – from having to trade sex for education, to having the police demand sexual favours for women to be released from jail, to having women actually be happy about having to trade sex for health services because that meant they would get access to a doctor. But their stories also centred on their collective empowerment against this, and their ability to build an advocacy campaign together to break the silence on sexual abuse in their communities.

Or there have been stories of women in a gender based violence organizations, where the founder had been previously raped, trafficked, and engaged in survival sex work. She then had gone on to found a youth theatre group that puts on plays about gender based violence, in order to combat the stigma that is still so prevalent here surrounding rape. Their story now involves hundreds of community members coming to watch their plays, with women and men coming up to them afterwards to discuss how they too have been victims of abuse.

There have been stories of businesswomen coming together to discuss how to bring more entrepreneurship opportunities to women. These women advocate for cross-border trade policy, and start women’s cooperatives to help increase the number of women who can engage in trade. They argue for land rights, and for the increase of access to financial credit to women, so they can have the same opportunities that their male counterparts do. Their collective voices on women in business is shaping the way that both the UN and the government engages with women’s economic empowerment.

All of these women weave a picture of Tanzania, demonstrating the wide variety of stories that exist when you start to scratch the surface. They all have powerful voices, and are all using these voices to try and create change. It was last night though, that really made me realize how lucky I am to be surrounded by so many amazing individuals, and to be able to witness, listen and absorb their wide variety of experiences.

My roommates and I were invited out to dinner by our downstairs neighbour, who wanted to take us to a local Tanzanian eatery, and then out dancing. She invited along one of her friends, who she told us was a pretty reputable sculptor, named Big Mama. With a name like that, you can see my confusion when into the car jumped the tiniest woman I have met to date. Traditional fabric cut into a miniskirt, with bangles and bracelets jingling as we drove through Dar’s crater like streets, this vibrant woman began to tell us the story of her life.

This woman may have been one of the most inspiring people I have ever met in Tanzania. Beginning sculpting when she was four years old, Big Mama had turned into a world-class artist, sculpting huge pieces for embassies, organizations, and art galleries all over the world. She has represented Tanzania in worldwide art forums, giving speeches at the World Bank and other venues on her story of being an African woman sculptor in a male dominated industry. Not only was she a sculptor, she also regularly toured Africa to market her work, telling us about the wide variety of artists she knew from Congo, to Gabon, to Morocco. Her most current venture was establishing an organization to cultivate the arts in young women in Tanzania, to help empower and inspire them to pursue creative endeavours. In so many mainstream stories on Africa, women are talked about as victims, or as negative statistics. Even in stories centred on agency, rarely are women discussed as entrepreneurs, especially as world-class artistic entrepreneurs. Her story had me awestruck.

The restaurant we were at had no power for the night, so we sat in candlelight, discussing her career and her life over beef skewers and spicy tomato sauce. But, it wasn’t just her inspiring career path that captured my attention. She was just that type of person, so full of life and positivity, with a strong belief in the power of what she was capable of. Most of all, it was her passion that really stood out. She didn’t talk about sculpting as something she did, she talked about it as if it was the most intimate part of her, the only intimate part of her.

“Sculpting… it is just a part of my soul. You know what I mean? It is just my heartbeat.”

I was so captivated by that line. “It is just my heartbeat.” The raw passion in her statement was incredibly moving. Isn’t that what we go through our lives searching for? Something greater than ourselves, something that is bigger than our day-to-day routine, something that we physically cannot live without? It really got me thinking – can I say that about myself? I mean, everyone has things that interest them, or that they aspire towards, or that they are passionate about. I’ve felt that way about dance at one time, about academia, about Africa. But can I really say that something is my heartbeat? I don’t know about you, but to me, its overwhelming to meet people who devote their lives to something greater than themselves, that have so much passion to offer up to the world. Sitting in a small, candlelit backroom of a random Tanzanian restaurant, watching the shadows flicker over this woman’s face as she described what art meant to her life – it was such a powerful moment by such a strong and powerful woman.

What I guess I’m trying to say, is that Africa is filled with strong and powerful women. Yes, my day-to-day work consists of working through statistic after statistic of horrible experiences (Oh, just another witch burning of the elderly, another girl undergoing female genital mutilation, another rape survivor brutally assaulted and unable to access justice). These stories are incredibly important; without knowledge and evidence, these cycles of violence against women will continue to occur. But you know what else is important? Highlighting the dynamic, beautiful, powerful voices of the women in Tanzania, and across Africa more broadly. Women that are fashion designers, IT technicians, artists, farmers, or parliamentarians. Women that campaign to bring an end to violence and injustice occurring in their communities. Women that are creating and sustaining change at the grassroots level, inspiring both the people around them and, hopefully, in the rest of world. It is in these women that you can so clearly see what their passion is, what inspires them and and what drives them to continue pursuing their goals.

Want to see where real change occurs? It’s in these women, the ones whose heartbeats power a nation.

Posted in Gender | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment