Home > Uncategorized > Women get things done: a comparative piece on Tanzania & the UK (Part 3, British Feminism series)

Women get things done: a comparative piece on Tanzania & the UK (Part 3, British Feminism series)

If you live in a country such as the UK, chances are someone has asked
you whether you’re a feminist. When you vote or use birth control, you
are fortunate in ways women 100 years ago weren’t. If you take that
for granted, or if you hesitate to use the “F” word, please give it a
little thought. Across the western world, women have made great
strides in the last century. We might be tempted to think that women
in developing countries haven’t noticed feminism. Economic and
cultural pressures for women to remain at home can make us assume that
it simply can’t be happening. If they can’t dress freely or pursue
ambitions outside running a home, does that mean women are downtrodden
and powerless?

I spent 6 months living in Tanzania, at first in a house full of North
Americans, and for the second three months I lived with a local
friend, Teddy, in her family home. The reality of being a woman in
this East African country struck me in several ways. As Teddy told me,
“It’s always the women that get things done”. While the dynamic of her
relationship means she usually defers to her husband on financial
matters, she is also proud of the fact that “he understands my work
and always supports it”. For several years she has been running a
women’s network and a nursery school which offers free basic education
to village children. The building of a classroom, the teacher’s salary
and the rent for office space is usually funded by her and her
husband, along with donations. “It’s like there are four children in
our family,” she explained. “My son, his sister, his cousin and the
centre”.

In her office space Teddy keeps her records, a small supply of
medicines and rehydration sachets, vitamins for children and donations
of pencils and exercise books. It is used as a drop in centre for
women who come to discuss their businesses – commonly selling
vegetables, eggs or charcoal – and what they can do to improve them.
One organisation that partnered with Teddy made development grants
available to women who pitched plans that would provide ongoing
benefit – for example, a chicken coop means that fewer eggs are lost,
or a rain cover for a charcoal stall provides the means to trade even
in the rain, and therefore earn more money each month. Most of these
women are single mothers, the sole wage earners and caring for
extended family and even “orphans” who have had one parent die, or
simply been abandoned. Part of running a home in the villages means
tending crops, fetching water and earning enough money by whatever
means to buy what you can’t grow.

The office is rented from Mariam, who lives a five minute walk from
the school house. Mariam is regarded as a bit of a local authority on
family planning, another subject that may come up when people drop by
the office. She gives advice and presentations about using different
methods of birth control, allowing women to regulate the size of their
families. She is married, but her husband has another wife in town and
spends alternate weeks at her house. The weeks he is away, Mariam
might make longer trips to neighbouring villages and discuss the
importance of contraception with local leaders.

Fashion was important to Haika, the manager of the hostel that housed
the volunteers where I first lived. One evening we were looking
through photographs at her house, and she pointed out some of her
favourite outfits. We compared tastes and styles, tried each other’s
dresses on, giggled and gossiped, and it barely crossed my mind that
these were all very “Tanzanian” clothes. A country where more than a
third of the population is Muslim and between 30-62% Christian [1] is
going to be noticeably influenced by religious teachings about
modesty. I know native New Yorkers who dress modestly in accordance
with their Jewish faith, so this idea isn’t new or unique to Africa. A
hemline that is a little longer than you’d wear in London doesn’t have
to mean your style is any less of a reflection of your personality, it
just ensures that you don’t stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Haika got engaged just before I left Tanzania. She had been dating her
Ugandan boyfriend for 5 years, since they met at University across the
border. He remained in Uganda while she went back to work in Arusha to
save up enough money to complete her Social Work degree. Now they’re
looking at moving in together, and she’s still on track to finish her
studies. I can’t help but be optimistic that she’s found a good match,
another man who will support her as Teddy’s husband does – not simply
financially, but in her ambitions to make a difference.

All these women are trying to change their country and improve lives.
They try to raise awareness of issues that are important to them as
women, they try to motivate others to vote and challenge their
political leaders. They want their daughters educated, and educate
their neighbour’s daughters. At first glance, their feminism might
look different, but my experiences left me in no doubt that even if
our lifestyles aren’t identical, hope for the next generation is
something we all share.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Tanzania

Clara is a British feminist who spent several months working in Tanzania, and still has close ties there, despite now living back in the UK full-time. She can be found tweeting as @clarabelle12345

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