Monday, April 28, 2008

If Sisterhood is Imperative…

Movements often peter out when their goal is seen to be achieved. Then there are those movements that die prematurely or go into an indefinite hibernation long before serious gains are made. Is it frustration and fatigue? Is it an ingenuous illusion of success?

When I learned of the term “feminism”, it seemed to me a relic from the past rather than an ideology that was relevant to my life. Indeed there are critiques of feminism that question its relevance to millions of women . Do movements deteriorate because they fail to engage all of those who they claim to represent?

Or is it something as simple as an issue of language? Call it “feminism” and I see as something dated and distant and riddled with a questionable manner and intent. Consider it instead as “sisterhood” and it becomes a fact of life. It ceases to be a movement and becomes, as breathing is, an extension of being.

Defined as… the feeling of kinship with and closeness to a group of women or ALL WOMEN
Congenial relationship or companionship among women; mutual female esteem, concern, support, etc.
An association, society, or community of women linked by a common interest, religion, or trade…

“Linked by a common interest” – like being a woman? Like often being made to feel like some man’s property? It always strikes me that in the¬ Swahili language, women are married and men marry. Men who are seen to be dictated by their wives are always taunted – is it you who married her or she who married you! Such banter is usually harmless jest but, I have always found it difficult to disregard the oppressive connotations of the concept.

On one hand there are debates with mothers. Mothers wondering why Mrs. So-and-So hasn’t yet had children. The likes of me suggesting that maybe she doesn’t want children. Mothers protesting, of course she wants children! That is what is expected of women – that is their defining role. On the other hand, some mothers insist that their daughters never get married for the sake of it and that they take advantage of all the opportunities the mothers didn’t have.

My mother sometimes laments her youth where her father invested more in the education of his sons because his daughters would no doubt get married and have husbands to provide for them, thus making the necessity for things like university degrees irrelevant. Forget about the fact that women can have careers! Ironically, these same daughters would in later life turn out to show more concern (in heart and in action) over their parent’s welfare. I think my grandfather did come to appreciate the prejudice of his ways. I remember sitting in his room when I was much younger – listening to him proudly telling me stories of his Harvard days and encouraging me to read hard and do well so that I too could one day grace the halls of that revered institution.

And all this talk was successful – I grew up believing myself free of the limits that my mothers were expected to silently accept. But I am often reminded that this is still not the norm, regardless of generation. While in Tanzania a recent while ago, a vociferous cousin of mine took it upon herself to criticize my every action as if to demonstrate (implicitly and explicitly) my lack of “womanly” domestic skills. I could have chosen to ‘behave’ in the ‘proper’ way but my stubbornness would not let me be an accomplice to my own suppression. When I was younger, my resistance was more vocal but easier to dismiss by virtue of my age! Now I am dismissed as having been influenced by foreign values and having lost touch with the way things are done. It makes me wonder why, when there is solidarity on so many levels, there are still narrow avenues where sisterhood ceases to breathe? And I wonder, can there be true solidarity before consciousness?

“Women need other women.
Men need men too but it’s not the same.”
— my friend’s high school teacher who first got her thinking about feminism.

What opportunities are there for solidarity as a catalyst to greater consciousness, collective consciousness as well as personal? Women throughout history and across geographies have found ways, often through their everyday activities and obligations, to carve out spaces for some sisterhood solidarity. They have managed, through this congregation, to taste a morsel of freedom within their servings of captivity. Take for example the ‘Quilt Code’ in 19th century North America where slave women allegedly used quilt designs to send messages about when and how to escape to freedom. Even if these stories are more legend than truth, quilting has still served to build, reassemble, restore and express. Discussing these quilts, Susan Bernick asserts that “women’s art forms can be experienced as a source of strength, joy, expression and as an affirmative badge of pride.”

Yet the struggle continues to maintain these spaces – these minutes of liberation. I am reminded of a story (legend?) I was told about some NGO activity in a village somewhere in the less economically developed world. The women in this village would walk miles everyday to go and fetch water. The NGO workers thus decided that what the village needed a well but once built were confused as to why the women were unhappy with it! They came to find, when they finally actually communicated with the women, that the women’s daily walks had been their only opportunities for release (from their husbands and domestic duties) and communion with each other. Now that the well was at their doorsteps, they no longer had an excuse to get away! The NGO workers had believed they were doing the women a favour but had not taken a moment to actually consult with the women on their needs.

So let’s talk about women’s solutions to women’s problems.

What if sisterhood was imperative?
If sisterhood were imperative, there would be greater unity among oppressed and disadvantaged people because cutting across their differences would be the common experience of being a woman and all the implications of this in our still male-dominated world. If sisterhood were mandatory this status quo would be interrogated in every second of every day. If sisterhood was compulsory, we would think before slanderous speech about each other – think about why it is so easy to do this, think about WHY we do it and come up with an alternative constructive language. If sisterhood were compulsory, we would transcend other people’s images of ourselves.

If sisterhood was the norm, men wouldn’t flinch and feel uncomfortable or threatened when reading this, or think it that has nothing to do with them.

If sisterhood were imperative we would guide each other to our self-actualisation.

Imperative for what?! Imperative for what?!

Have you (and here I’m talking exclusively to the women) ever been in the company of amazing, intelligent, funny, positive women and felt the warmth of utter resonance? Have you come to such a situation with preconceived notions, with your guard up just WAITING for someone to act in the less-than-positive way that you expect? … and it never happens? Instead, you find yourself getting to know people for who they truly are and discover that they are truly beautiful and interesting and capable of enriching your life. Have you ever ran to your sisters for solace when you thought there was nobody who could understand you or what you were going through. Have you ever communicated the world to your sister through a simple glance and when she wrapped her arms around you the silent dialogue was whole? I COULD get even more sentimental than this (and what would be the matter?). I see it quite simply:

If sisterhood IS, then sisterhood is imperative.


*Thanks to the sisters who shared their experiences and knowledge with me ☺
Other sisterly things…

For Coloured Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf: a great play (‘choreopoem’ is what author Ntozake Shange calls it) I recently read that reinforces just how common many of our experiences as women actually are.

The L Word: a great TV series where men only get the occasional supporting role and as a result you don’t really think about them that much. A show that opens up a world of opportunities (in many ways)!!!

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
– Womanist Prose: a thinking collection of essays by Alice Walker.

Monday, April 14, 2008

People want the Earth but they Don’t Care to Feel It

He drew a circle around my feet
On the concrete with a
Piece of chalk
Thus marking the shape of his

I moved in and out of
His visibility
Remaining still, out of reach
And in the palm of his

And then one day,
He didn’t see me dancing.

My pedestal
Was made of air!

When I tasted the earth
I found that it
– Was sweet
And gritty
– Moistened my mouth
And chipped away at my teeth

And the soil made way for
In its terminal embrace

Readjusting contours
Unchanging composition
Even as I

He wants the earth
But he doesn’t care to
Feel it

Copyright Lulu Kitololo

Monday, April 07, 2008

A Necessary Dose of Affirmation

I recently returned from a glorious two weeks in my mother’s land – Tanzania. The good-feeling that filled me began as a drop in a petri dish – slowly but determinedly it expanded to meet the full circumference of my being.

I cannot think of a place where I have felt so much love – both from those who “should” as well as the mutual recognition, with absolute strangers, of a common divinity. How else do you explain Dunga, the trader at the fish market in Dar es Salaam, who insisted on devoting over an hour of his day to show my friend and I all the fascinating fruits of the sea? The skeptic in me kept wondering how many shillings he’d demand in return but I realized my own deplorable (in my own opinion) capitalist configuration: when offered, he declined. The abundance of true brothersisterhood is something that warmed me yet worried me too for its conspicuous presence, in my perception, alerted me of its absence in my everyday life in the UK.

“If your granny’s your nanny, should she get paid?” the presenters on a TV breakfast show asked the other day. I thought back to childhood Decembers spent in Tanzania. The children of all my 6 aunts and uncles in my grandparents home – playing in the crisp clear stream at the bottom of the farm. The smells of fresh manure toasted in the generous sunshine mixing with the floating aroma of mangoes, oranges and passion fruit. Like a band of soldiers we’d take off on adventures through maizefields and forest, with neighbours offering us supplies on the way, in the form of fruit. After dinner – which often we made collaboratively, when our parents went on strike – we’d make up songs and dance and entertain the grown-ups with our laughter and energy. It sounds so idyllic now I often wonder if it was real and I lament the likely discontinuation of an experience that my children might never know.

All of us grandchildren, at some point in our younger days, were sent to live with our grandparents – for weeks or even months! There were varied reasons for our stays and our grandparents never saw it as an inconvenience but rather as a joyful opportunity. The bonds we formed are incomparable. Our grandparents shared their stories, wisdom and discipline, instilling in us a sense of pride and a grounding that cannot be matched. And a closeness that bolsters through and through, the meaning of family. Monetary exchange, between our parents and grandparents, was merely an issue of logistics – extra money to feed the extra mouths. Yet, as this TV show would suggest, people in today’s UK, view spending time with their grandchildren as work demanding a wage!

These are different times and this is a different place. In a country that is so expensive to live in and in the context of a system that leaves less and less opportunity for the fostering of close familial relationships (particularly those beyond the primary family unit), I can understand the roots of a demand that in many other parts of the world would be unheard of! Would be insulting to the grandparents in fact!

And yet, this the society a vast majority of us in those same distant parts of the world aspire to, often without appreciating the full social implications of this economic machine. Meanwhile a growing minority of people in the West are now seeking to ‘downgrade’ their lifestyle and move ‘back’ towards a simpler way of living that is more in tune with the environment and community – privileged by having already experienced an affluence that those outside the window can only dream. And who is to deny another of dreaming?

Today I was completely disgusted by a comment that someone made to an online newspaper article: “the only thing africa exports is bullshit moaners and Nigerian e-mail scams… africa is a pimple on the wests backside and is a bottomless pit for its aid money.”

I cannot help but take it personally when people attack the things I love. Especially when they fail to appreciate the majesty, complexity, texture, wonder, energy, beauty… of a continent. And I am affirmed by something Alice Walker once insisted:

“Please remember, especially in these times of group-think and right-on chorus, that no person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended. Or who belittles in any fashion the gifts you labour so to bring into the world.”
In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

I think this reminder is very useful in the context of the global community and especially in a decade where catchy slogans (Make Poverty History) and pop-stars are singing these choruses that seem to mirror the longevity of a sub-standard seasonal radio hit. All continents, countries, nations, people have a right to respect – and understanding is a prerequisite to that respect. Imagine what can happen with not only open, but engaged eyes and minds…