Friday, March 09, 2007

International Women's Day Wrap-Up And More

More Fun With High Context Speech. The mama who comes to wash my clothes said to me this morning, “Wewe ni huko.” You are over there. I was thinking, well, no, I’m right here. But I let her make her seemingly irrelevant and inaccurate observation undisturbed.

She repeated herself several times, until I started to suspect that she was asking me a question. “Wewe ni huko?” You are over there?

What a strange question, I thought. Can’t she see that I’m standing right here giving her blank looks because I don’t know what she’s talking about? And even if I weren’t right here, exactly where is this “over there” place that she thinks I am?

“Wewe huko?” she said, as if this clarified. You over there? “Wewe ni kazi?” You are work?

At this point, any Kenyan would have figured out what she was asking. I was only getting more confused by the minute. This lady has maybe an 8th grade education, but she’s not crazy. “Kazini,” she said. At work. “Wewe kazini.” You at work.

“Yes!” I said excitedly, finally getting her. “Yes! I’m going to work today!”

Whew. I will never master this language.

Fun With SMS. Yes, this is how many volunteers spend a significant portion of their living allowances. I stopped writing down brilliant smses after about three months, but I wish I had kept a log. Some good ones:

“Hmmm… Jst saw a barefoot guy in a parka preachn 2 a flaming garbage pile. I <3 kenya”

“Thr’s jst sumthn about seein a billbrd th@ sez “imagine, freedm frm unpleasant odors.” While ridin in a matatu th@s jst 2 ironic 4 wrds.”

“A bunch of baby spiders hatched in my shoe last night so I killed them all. And such is the cycle of life.”

“Help, is the red spot on a black widow spider on the back or on the belly? Would be good to know rite now…”

[Editors note: Someone has a spider problem.]

Everyday Is Women’s Day. But International Women’s Day only comes once a year. And Kenya definitely teaches you to redefine what you think you know about what constitutes a successful International Women’s Day. I’m just happy because:

1. My purple ribbons were a huge hit all over town, and enabled the ladies on the IWD committee to more than cover the expenses of running the event. (They bought fewer sodas for attendees than they had originally agreed to do, and took themselves out to lunch instead. So they now also have an opportunity to develop financial responsibility.)

2. The ladies are so enthusiastic about having a designated day each year to make a lot of noise about being ladies that they’ve decided to continue celebrating International Women’s Day every year. They’ve already started brainstorming ideas for next year. Three hundred and sixty-four days in advance is unheard of in Kenya, and everywhere else. I’m so proud of them.

This is one of the only projects I’ve worked on here that sounds like it will sustain itself after I’m gone. So in the development world where sustainability is the whole point, I’ve done good.

I noticed that the whole time I was thinking of ways to infuse the day’s activities with thought-provoking message that go beyond the clichés that already pervade women’s empowerment dialogs in Kenya. I started to wonder if I was just imposing my own expectations of what a day like this would look like in the U.S. Kenya is in a different place than the U.S. in terms of women’s rights. That goes without saying. But also, the path they clear for themselves to achieving equality will probably end up being very different from ours. These ideas are brought to the developing world from the West, but ultimately it’s up to countries like Kenya to hold the torch the way that works for them.

It always surprises me, though, to turn on the BBC and hear about women in Afghanistan and Iran demonstrating or filing lawsuits for their rights. That brand of loud, visible protest and seeking legal recourse are options that women in my town aren’t even aware of. I think there’s such a profusion of confusing messages about women’s rights, and so many different communities of women in various stages of self-awareness and empowerment in Kenya that I don’t see a neat, unified movement happening at once. Women in Nairobi are so different from women in my town, and even more different from women in the villages.

The fact that 100 women made it a point to leave their chores to attend three hours of speeches yesterday shows that there is significant interest in learning more about their rights as well as being mobilized to do something about it. Yesterday was only a tiny step, and a different me would have written it off as insignificant, but I like to think that Kenya has trained me, in some ways, to be an optimist. Giving women a forum to speak about and listen to each other talk about things they like, things they hate, and things they want to change about their lives and their own culture is something that rarely happens in this community.

Listening to the guest speakers, some of whom were men, I realized that most people are well aware that the injustices that women face are wrong, or at least they’re aware that they’re supposed to say they’re wrong. Walking around town talking to people, I tend to forget this, because I think that in a non-confrontational culture like Kenya’s, people hesitate to speak out against a random injustice they see perpetrated against someone else on the street. Instead, things like wife-beating, unequal divisions of labor and power, and the sublimation of women’s and girl’s needs are considered part of everyday life. It’s just the way things are, just as packing matatus beyond the legal limit and overcharging customers are just the way things are, and most people have never bothered to challenge the status quo.


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