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.

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