Breaking down socio-political roles in Mwanza

Written by Carolyn Burns

A study of hairesses; daughters of fortune

Alongside clothes, make-up, glasses, piercings and tattoos, Western women are able to express themselves through their hairstyles. I never would have thought that in Tanzania a woman’s ability to grow and style her hair would be the primary signifier of her socioeconomic status. As such, it has been incredibly interesting to witness the transformation of young girls, who universally rock the same short buzzcut, to independent women who use their hair to cultivate their personal brand. It is not uncommon to hear a woman described as the one with the braids, the dye, or the half mohawk/half razor-cut do. Even Muslim women who cover their heads outside the home seem to take a silent pleasure in the ability to stylize their hair into longer lengths and interesting shapes.

It is unfortunate that only the privileged are blessed with the disposable income to express themselves in this regard. Many street children have asked to touch my hair as if feeling long, straight hair were equivalent to finding a lucky, four-leaf clover. Even though I am a big promoter of inner beauty (countless examples of chemo patients to army cadets have proved hair is just hair), I find it saddening that not every woman is blessed with the opportunity to express herself in a unique manner. I look at the plight of many women as a matter of chance and not a matter of choice.

Who let the men out?

During my time in Tanzania, I was fortunate enough to have attended several nighttime social events. At my first locals-only event, I noticed that it was all men in attendance. ‘Who let the men out’ aka where are all the women? The last event I was at boasted a ratio of 9:1. While normally I would feel blessed to have had the odds of finding a mate being in my favour, I was disturbed to hear that many of the men were fathers who were wasting their family money on liquor. It made me sad to hear that women were at home trying to take care of the children with whatever money the family had left.

On a related note my friends and I took our domestic helper with us to the event. This was the first bit of independence she had been afforded in a long time. She couldn’t stop smiling. I can only imagine what women who are double burdened; fulfilling both external positions and unpaid domestic labour would think of a night free of obligations.

Moving forward, I have encouraged many local NGOs to host a ‘girls’ night out’ event in the hopes of bringing forward greater gender equality in the home. I strongly believe if many men were asked to a day in a woman’s shoes, they would better understand their perspectives on life. Likewise, providing our domestic helper with her first football gave her another way of entertaining herself and friends. She now understands why playing ‘keep up’ is so addictive and how being physically fit can help her project confidence into other aspects of her life. She ‘gets it’, do they?

Let the children shine

After spending several weeks in Tanzania, I have become accustomed to seeing children self-direct and take action to fulfill their goals. At my local NGO, children organize themselves into small groups and work together to produce news broadcasts. The stories they tell are often hard-hitting and draw criticism from their communities. However, the children continue to report on the realities of Mwanza life. I am still impressed when I see these children come together to fulfill an adult’s job.

I was somehow even more amazed when I saw children organize themselves during church. The children came alone, dressed in their Sunday best and sat quietly throughout the service. They sang without any choir books and recited prayers without any prompting from their peers. They actively participated in the sermon, which lasted over half an hour. They donated whatever money they received from chores performed throughout the week. They took care of their siblings. They ran outside to play afterwards. Unquestionably, these kids have it together. Adults should just get out of the way.

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