What Living in Africa Taught Me about the American Election

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For anyone who has been completely unconscious, marooned on an island with absolutely no Wifi, or trapped in a cabin with nothing but Stevie Knicks cassette tapes for the past eighteen months, the word on the street is that the United States is in the midst of a presidential election.   I didn’t know exactly what to expect, spending an election year in rural Africa, but I don’t believe I envisioned being so damn informed about every nuance of the election from eight thousand miles away.

Yes, a large part of this hyper informative craziness that I subconsciously subject myself to has to do with being on social media. But Facebook aside, Africa keeps me informed. I sit on plastic buckets in traditional Maasai houses sipping goat milk chai, and the topic veers towards the American election. Seriously. Recently, I sat outside the fabric store in Moshi while friends did some shopping and a man came and sat down next to me. “Marakani?” he asked, which is Swahili for “are you American?” When I assured him I was, his next question was predictable, “Donald or Hillary?”

While I really, really have no desire to talk about Donald or Hillary, the concept I have come to understand is that when you come as an American into a different country, you must become prepared to explain America. Believe me, I try. We have fifty states and Puerto Rico is not a state even though we let them vote because we like them, but not like we like states. Yes, frat parties are real things, and no I have never met Sarah who is also from America. I get a lot of questions I can’t answer. Yet, strangely enough, the longer I stay in Tanzania, the more I realize that Africa has taught me a lot about being an American.

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Different worlds?

I learned that Americans worry. A lot. About being late for yoga class, about the price of a haircut, about who got invited to which party first and what we can do this weekend, and if I brought this same cookie to the party last year or wore this dress last time he saw me, or what she meant by that text or why your jeans don’t fit, or paint samples. I suppose a big reason I don’t worry about those things in Africa is because many of them don’t exist: there is no yoga, no one wears jeans, and all haircuts cost the same: twenty-three cents to and they’ll shave your head with a new razor blade. I’m not saying there is no stress. “Hakuna matata,” was coined for this very reason, to remind people not to worry when it starts to creep in. But what I have witnessed is that the twisted stomach and the furrowed eyebrow type of stress is reserved. It’s special occasion stress, for things in our control, with our consent, and for the betterment of those around us. No small stresses. Hakuna matata that traffic jam, America.

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Friends not bound by language or borders.

Africa also taught me that Americans do everything fast, except drive. You have not experienced fast driving in America, I promise. Tanzania has two speed limits: below 50 kph, and over 50 kph. That over 50 kph speed limit tends to apply mostly to huge trucks carrying chickens and men and maize in the bed, or buses 35 people over the maximum occupancy. It does not, however, apply to the speed of life. Cooking is slow and boiling water is slow, and meetings are long. Weekends are sleepy and at nights I take time to look at stars. There are no happy hours, or gym memberships or housewarming parties. What there is, are long afternoons in the bed of a new mother, under the covers counting the fingers of the new baby. There are slow walks through sunflowers to meet a student’s family.

There are many hours in waiting rooms and outside offices while scanning Swahili dictionaries and taking note of new fabrics around the waists of the women who walk past. America moves fast, and we get things done. I know that more than ever now. But I hope I remember sweetness of slow when I go home. I hope my peace stays.

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Gifts may look different but mean the same thing.

 

But all of this is fairly cliché and things you already knew: Africa moves slower and worries less, and it wouldn’t it be cool if America did that too? But that is not my point, not today. Moving from one country to another, I find that people focus on differences a lot. What is difference between Hillary and Donald, what is the difference between Africa and America, between Christian and Muslim, between black and white and what are the different things different groups are or are not allowed to do. The truth is, that while I have been forced to take note and adapt to several of these differences, the thing that sticks out the most is how similar we all seem to be.

I have found myself believing, now more than ever that the human soul is created in nearly identical ways. Of course, there are biological reasons for this: teenagers give you attitude on every continent and even first time mothers have an instinct how to comfort their child. But then there are different pieces of humans that strike me. I watch tears fall for the same things in both worlds. Laughter is identical. Families look different. But you see those who are attracted to each other lean, subconsciously, toward the person they love. It’s not the full moon or astrology or science. It’s humanity in its purist form.

Election years seem to bring out the differences in humans more than ever. Lines are drawn as we uncover opinions of friends and sisters and coworkers that we had never surfaced before. But what Africa has taught me more than anything, is that at the core, we are all the same. We need love, want patience, appreciate kindness, cry when we can’t find the peace. We hope for a future and find tears in our own eyes when we see someone hurt. We hunger and we sweat and we want things that we can’t have and scream like it will help. Then we pray to God we are able to create something worthwhile during our time on this planet. This is true of all humans.  On every continent.  From every belief or background.

So Africa, I don’t know if it’s going to be Donald or Hillary. But I promise, we are all going to be ok. We are on the same team. In the words of my beautiful African colleagues, we are together.

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Pamoja, the Swahili word for together.

 

 

A Letter from Africa to a Far Away Love

For those of you who don’t know yet, I like writing.  And a big part of writing is putting your words in places where more people can see.  The online magazine “Elephant Journal” published my article called “A Letter to my Far Away to Love: What we Must Remember.”

Read it on the website, comment, tell ‘um how much you like it, and I am one step closer to becoming a professional writer, and one step further from a life of cubicles, spreadsheets, and ill fitting dress pants.

Check out the article here:http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/06/a-letter-to-my-far-away-love-here-is-what-we-must-remember/

Thanks for the support, my dears, oh how it is appreciated.

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I’m Funnier in Africa

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I’m funnier in Africa. I found this out when I went back to America for a few weeks and less people laughed at my jokes. I suppose this needs a preface: I’m not saying I’m funny in either continent, but as a means of comparison, more people were laughing in Africa at my barely thought out and haphazard presentation of “jokes,” and poorly planned puns than they were in America.

Maybe they weren’t laughing more at my jokes specifically. Maybe everyone is just laughing a little more in general, myself included.

The point is that after about seven months in Africa then a brief three week stint back in America, I was receiving this question a lot (mostly from hipsters with thick rimmed glasses drinking fairly traded tea in dimly lit coffee shops): “What is the main difference that you have noticed between rural Tanzania and the newly metropolitan Denver?” And I put a lot of thought into this question. I thought about my primarily rice and beans diet in Africa compared to my “cinnamon roll with Bloody Mary breakfast” I was practicing in Colorado these past few weeks (and the fact upon my arrival in Africa, a fellow Tanzanian employee told me “Wow! You ate so much food in America!”) And then I started comparing fashion choices, women’s rights, speed of life, and primary education, but those topics seemed exhausting paired with how much travelling I have done lately, even if it is the kind of answer a hipster would have appreciated. Therefore, the difference that I wanted to note for everyone is that I am funnier in Africa, and it seems as if we all laugh a little more here. And I have started to wonder why.

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Laughing at a traditional Maasai dancing celebration.

I came up with a few theories. The first is that there is something in the water that makes people funnier. This theory got nixed because most of the villagers drink water straight from the well, and the Americans are confided to the big blue bottles of water bought in town, yet all of us seem to laugh a little bit more.

My second theory was language barrier, and there is plenty of that where I live. Most students at O’Brien School are taught to speak Maasai at home, along with the Swahili basics. Once they arrive at school, they are quickly instructed in English, and they continue to brush up on Swahili. This results in trilingual seven year olds and some wonderful responses to everyday questions. A common one is a sick student complaining that their “head is painting,” or “stomach is painting,” their “tooth is painting” (the equivalent of a headache, stomachache, or toothache.) And I feel for them, because a painting stomach is never comfortable, but it is all I can do but smile as I listen to “paining and painting” used interchangeably.

Another favorite is the request to “get in” to the office/classroom (instead of the incredibly American “come in.”) This usually takes the form of loud and excited request, such as “PLEASE MADAM, MAY I GET IN?” as if I am barring the office closed with arms outstretched, standing in the doorway in my Chacos. In fact, I love the phrase “get in,” so much more than, “come in,” that I have started using it, too. Mostly because replying, “Yes, get on in!” sounds like something you would do to a safari jeep or a sailboat, or at least something way more exciting than a school day chat in the office.

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Friday smiles

And I am certainly not immune to the interesting, yet often inconvenient language mishaps. I know on more than one occasions I have explained that the car, “Is hungry and needs to eat,” because I could not for the life of me recall the Swahili word for gasoline. Or, more recently, the American director Lizzy and I watched in anxious anticipation as a student with a bike lock stuck on his bike requested soap to get the lock off. He graciously accepted the soap, then politely explained he needed a saw, not soap, and how was he going to get a bike lock off with soap?

Maybe we laugh more because of the language and cultural barrier here, and maybe its because there is a little bit more thinking time, listening time, joking time, space to acknowledge the odd and awkward and comical. Maybe when the power goes out there is nothing more to do than think of funny stories or learn all the lyrics to Nikki Minaj songs. I know that much of what I have written on this blog has been heavy and often hard to digest, but while I compare life in American and life in Africa, something new becomes quite clear: convenience isn’t that funny.

I take that back. Convenience isn’t usually that funny. I saw an advertisement online for some type of tool that would cut a banana into tiny pieces with one press of the tool. You know, because cutting a banana with several knife strokes is so difficult. That is a funny convenience. But most of the time, either fortunately or not, it is the inconvenient stuff that makes you laugh. It’s pausing a school committee meeting because a goat has walked into the office; it’s putting shampoo into your hair right when the power goes out. It’s causing a minor explosion attempting to bake a cake in a crock-pot when power surges are likely, and plucking your eyebrows in the dark with a headlamp. From someone who has been there I can tell you honestly that grocery stores that always have cheese and tofu in stock, and restaurants that have something other than chicken or eggs on the menu are great, but they don’t make me laugh.

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Uninvited office guests

I suppose that is the most accurate description of the difference between America and rural Africa: it’s just not as convenient out here in Kilimanjaro, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me smile. And while you can’t choose these inevitable and ever impending trials and setbacks (no matter where you are living,) you can choose whether you laugh or become distressed.   First hand real life experience told me that you laugh a heck of a lot more if you choose the former.

One day my Swahili will improve and these kids are going to speak perfect English in no time. And we may even stop having a cobra-near-the-shower problem, and the post office may stop having four-hour closures for lunch breaks, but until then, I like these inconveniences. I like laughing.

I’m also like the new recess game “pause and continue” the exciting equivalent to “red light, green light,” in a land where there are barely roads, let alone traffic lights. It’s wonderful and I am going to play it with my children one day. And when those kids are called to the school office because they don’t know the rules to “red light, green light,” I hope they knock on the door and ask if they can please get in.

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❤ 

 

How Far I Am: 6 Months and 25 Lessons

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I’m visiting home for a few weeks at the end of April. It is strange thinking that I have been in Africa for nearly six months at this point. I suppose like anything it life, the days are, at times, tediously long, but the weeks are short. The months fly by so quickly that I quite honestly looked up at the sky on my lengthy walk to the shower (my personal time to look for shooting stars and wish for things like cheese to be stocked at the grocery store this week and gender equality) and noticed the moon was full again. Never before have I had to do a moon double take, swearing that just yesterday I stood in awe at how huge and orange the full moons in Africa seem.

But from what I am told that is how life works: it gets faster the older you get. Maybe the speed we live is directly tied to responsibilities. Maybe there is no choice to slow it down, no escape route. Maybe this is true even if you move all the way to rural Africa and call that your home.

Regardless of the speed of life light, the speed of forming a Swahili sentence and the speed of anything in African time, I have taken a moment to write down a few of the biggest thing I have learned these past six months. I’m not sure which was more important: the fact I learned lessons that may never apply to my life when I am back in a first world country, or the idea I was willing to learn them. What I do know is six months in Africa has taught me most when I was willing to learn.  So, whether you, too, plan to pack up and move to Maasailand, you are happy in your Denver apartment, or are dying for an adventure that has not yet manifested: here are my top twenty five lessons learned six months into making my home in rural Africa:

  1. When peeing outside, choose soil that is sandy, not hard packed. This will prevent back splash.
  2. ALL of those donations people make to Africa actually do end up in Africa! This explains why the gardener came to work the other day in gently used tap shoes. This also explains why my favorite guard tends to wear sketchers shape-ups at his post at night.
  3. Nuns  can (and do) ride motorcycles.
  4. “Kaka” is Swahili for brother, and does not have the same meaning as “caca” in Spanish. Because of this it is perfectly acceptable to call boys and young men Kaka in Tanzania, but not in Mexico.
  5. Never, ever underestimate the extreme power of letters, notes, snacks, coffee, stickers, nail polish, and (YES!) coconut oil received in the mail. Lord bless the postal service, seeing a letter or package in the mailbox (a bumpy thirty minute drive) has given me wings more than Red Bull ever has.

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    Treats from home. ❤
  6. My cat in Colorado isn’t actually fat. It just looks fat compared to the skinny cats I see in Africa (explained by my mama who swears she isn’t giving Macy Gray any extra snacks).
  7. Rainy season in Kilimanjaro is like waking up from a nap. The weather gets cooler, the grass peeks through the dust, the animals move a little faster, the babies laugh a little louder. I’ve been more energized by rain on our roof then any cup of instant coffee.

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    Rainy day celebration
  8. Crying for a speeding ticket won’t help you, but keeping a fire extinguished in your car will.
  9. If you carry around bubble gum on just one run, you will have cheerleaders for every run after that.

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    Cheerleaders
  10. People on their cell phone all the time isn’t just an American thing. It’s a universal thing.
  11. You can be hungry, hot, and frustrated, but still be kind.
  12. It’s ok if you don’t speak Swahili/don’t know the way/aren’t a very good driver/ don’t really understand. So long as you try.
  13. If you don’t think about it that hard, it’s not that bad (This goes for what you are eating, where you are sleeping, what just touched your foot, or how long its been since you’ve washed that shirt.)
  14. If you are ever having a bad day, find a few grade six students and have them explain American politics to you.
  15. It’s better to wear a skirt that’s a little too long than a little too short.
  16. Bring a gift when you are invited to dinner (for example, a jar of peanut butter) and expect a gift in return (for example, a newborn bunny.)
  17. If you add garlic salt to it, it should taste fine.
  18. Puppies and babies can make most things better.
  19. But both will pee on you.

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    Puppy prescription
  20. Sleeping with a fan on drowns out the scary noises.
  21. Shake out your towel before you dry off.
  22. A sense of humor doesn’t depend on your race, nationality, age or country. It depends on your personality.

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  23. Reggae music will make you friends in Africa. Drake will not.
  24. A cursed pencil is a legitimate reason for failing an exam.
  25. You can be scared and do it anyway. You can be uncomfortable, homesick, nervous and uncertain and still succeed. You can tell yourself and others “I’ve never done this before, I don’t know the language, this isn’t the right outfit and nobody ever taught me,” and come back with diva-like results that shock everyone (but especially yourself).   And I learned that when someone asks you how you managed the challenges and changes and tears that inevitably come with Africa, you won’t know what to say. All you can explain is, “It was important. So I did it.”

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    “It was important, so I did it.”

How Far I Am: 2 Barefeet and 1 Flower Crown

I got off my hippie soapbox for a while. Those of you who hung around during college know that soapbox I’m speaking of. It was the classic no shoes to class, nose ring wearing, flower crown rocking peace preaching Woodstock girl of so many college campuses. I was the one who liked her harmony so much that she rarely found a reason to speak up let alone start an argument, unless it involved tie-dye. I just didn’t really see a need to fight when we could all get along, talk about yoga pants, and run around Denver barefoot.   Maybe it’s age and maybe it is the atmosphere or I could boil it down to the fact I know more now than I did as twenty year old college student: but I’ve noticed I fight a little more lately. Especially since I’ve been in Africa.

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Deborah’s Love Notes

I am not talking about trivial fights. I don’t purposefully cause a scene. But I have been off that hippie soapbox and in Tanzania long enough to understand worthwhile change requires a little controversy. So I suppose I have been raising my voice a little more than usual. In five months I have managed file a police report for a mistreated young women with a mean mug on my face and an “I mean business attitude.” I ditched the peace for a minute so I could speak out for young voices drowned out by adult responsibility and insisted they get their four-foot frame back in the classroom. I fought speeding tickets accompanied by bribes. I stood up for unfair taxes on my mama’s shipment of Starbucks instant coffee from the states. I called the power company and told them that four-hour power outages during hundred-degree weather were ridiculous. I’ve negotiated with social workers for women’s rights, and I cried at the swimming pool that tried to overcharge us with the mzungu’s (white person’s) price.

Yes, I felt results, and Lord, there were triumphs, but after all that, do you know what I am about to do? I am about to take off my shoes, find my flower crown, and climb back on that peace train. First and foremost: because I am exhausted. But second, because I feel such a tremendous lack of love on our planet lately.

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Lunchtime in Maasailand

I’m not just talking about my life in East Africa, but really from all over the world. I know I can’t be the only one feeling undeniably heavy from simply tuning into reality. I log on to Facebook and see a man preaching hate and bad hair techniques as a frontrunner to lead the entire United States, a terrorist organization causing heartache in every way that they know how, a close friend’s father shot and killed by complete strangers. And that was just this past week. As I sit in African heat and fight once again to find a shred of peace in all that is filling my brain and my newsfeed, it becomes more apparent that every reaction boils down to one of two options: anger or love, anger or love, anger or love. I think about all that I have fought for and over these past five months and every good intention held behind the fight, every fuming word I’ve uttered to get my point across, every skinny girl foot stomp, finger wag, aggressive eye roll; and I am resolved to nothing more than this: I should call my family and tell them I love them.

I understand getting caught up in the hustle, I understand that now more than ever. I know anger pulsing through veins when important words aren’t heard or acknowledged. I know the heat that rises on the back of the neck when you know you are ripped off and taken for granted. I understand that most of the time our fight is for what is good and pure and noble. But one thing I never want to know is saying goodbye for good to someone without my last words being, “I love you.”

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Upendo. ❤ 

The is a short post, and debatably sour, hopefully sweet but it is for everyone I have come in contact with these past five months. It’s for my family who has stood beside me through every strange plan I have devised, the friends who send me new music and postcards and stickers and jokes. Its for the the mystery student who rights “I love you Madame Ella,” in my agenda each morning, the police officer who smiled instead of pulling me over, for the man selling phone credit on the corner that knows my name and waves each time I walk by, and Rosie who carries her little sister on her back but always, always smiles. It’s for the girls who hold my hands, fingers interlocked, when I walk in the village, the women who work in the office and laugh even when my jokes aren’t funny, and the nuns who tuck me into bed on the occasional nights I’m just too homesick. It’s for the man who lets me call him and cry because “it’s too hot and I miss bacon,” and to the mamas that include me around their dinner table when it’s a struggle to feed just the family: I love you. I love all of you! I needed to take a pause from the fight to tell you this.  And if you ask me how far I am from where I want to be I will tell you this:  if you know that you are loved from all the way in Africa, then I am already there.

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Maasai wedding with a handful of my wedding dates.

The Ecstatic Opening of the Enraptured Heart

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There is a yoga pose called the “ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart.”   It’s not quite as dramatic of pose as the name suggests. Basically, two feet and one hand are on the ground and you press your chest up towards the sky. I really have nothing against the movement itself: but the name always seemed a little extravagant to me. The ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart sounds like it should be life changing and momentous. It should be jumping off of a waterfall after releasing all previously held inhibitions and screaming a word you just made up because you are no longer bounded by the confines of language. It should be dancing around a fire wearing nothing but a bikini sewed from seashells. The ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart better be skydiving, ribbon dancing, naked surfing and elephant riding. The name itself deserves something of that magnitude.

The thing is, I have jumped off waterfalls before and I have ridden an elephant before and I have even gone cliff diving before, and it was all a lot of fun. But I don’t think any of that ever unfolded my enraptured heart.   Strangely enough the closest thing I think I have experienced to this ecstatic opening has been sitting in a sweaty ninety-five degree sewing room while working on a Saturday. Not what I initially considered ecstatic “enrapturement.” In fact, the very concept of working on a Saturday with no electricity to turn the miserable fan that sits in the corner was a personal definition of hell. However, it was just outside of that office three days before that thirty plus Maasai mamas sat, intricately beading jewelry that would be sold back home in the States in order to raise money for the school. I had been out in that throng of women for the majority of the day: checking and rechecking beadwork, and rattling off instructions in Swahili the best I knew how.

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Maasai Mamas

Working with the jewelry mamas is always chaos. It’s a mass of needles, beads, a jumble of languages and a friendly competition of who can show me what they have created first, of who can place the jewelry closest to my face. These mamas are sassy and stubborn and my Swahili can’t always keep up with them. I heard a voice behind me on this particular day, someone whispered in my ear in the midst of the madness and the unforgiving sun: “This mama has run out of red beads,” the voice explained, “And this one over here needs more leather.” I turned around quickly, desperately wanting to thank whoever had made the chaos seem slightly more manageable. There standing was a small woman wrapped in traditional Maasai clothes, just like all the other mamas wore, with a piece of fabric over her head as protection from the sun.

“Thank you!” I exclaimed, and reached out for a handshake, “Where did you learn to speak English?” There is one thing I have found consistent in all of my travels from South America all the way to South Africa: it’s the kids who know how to speak English. Tanzania has been no exception. If you need a last minute translator, the most efficient thing to do is run out on to the soccer field, promise a twelve year old some bubble gum, and have them translate what the adults are saying! That being said, I was surprised to see a jewelry-making mama with such competent English. The woman smiled and laughed in a way that let me know that she wasn’t a woman at all, but instead a young girl sitting in the hot sun with other grown women, making jewelry in the middle of a school day.

“Well, I used to go to school here,” the girl explained, “But then my father ran out of money and we had to stop paying tuition. I even sold my old school uniform to one of the girls here for a little extra money.” My mind raced to an image of a child selling her school uniform so the family could eat. The red beads and extra leather would have to wait. I asked her to come into our breezeless sticky office and talk with me some more.

She was sixteen now. She had left school about two and a half years ago. In that time she had given birth to a son. I had a hard time imagining someone so small being pregnant. “But you have some of the best English I have ever heard,” I said to the girl, “You haven’t been in school for nearly three years, how do you speak so well? Languages are hard to remember if you don’t speak them every day!” My mind flashed to a few weeks ago when a Spanish tourist had come to the school, and I confidently told everyone I spoke Spanish quite well and could give him a tour. I stumbled through “Como estas, rafiki? And Jambo, amigo, no probelmo hakuna matata” Nearly all my Spanish had been transformed into a Swahili hybrid that no one could understand.  But this girl was carrying on a very normal conversation in obviously perfected grammar, in a language she had not been formally taught in years.

Sitting in the office now, I couldn’t believe I had not realized she was a child before; she seemed so young and wide-eyed. The girl continued to explain, “I wasn’t going to school, but I practiced my English every day. I took old papers from kids at the school and I studied them. I have a whole book of them! I speak English to them at home, I like learning.”

“If you had the opportunity to come back to school would you?” I asked her, looking at her straight in the eye, thrilled I could use big words like “opportunity” with a young girl who I was confident would understand.

“Yes. I would.”

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First day of school ❤

Fast-forward three days to Saturday. An American sponsor had been found for the student and she was scheduled to start classes on Monday. I sat on a wooden chair in the sewing room and waited for a woman turned back into a girl to come out from behind the curtain to show off her freshly made school uniform. It was hot and humid and I was tired and had week’s worth of work to get done in a two-day weekend. She peered around the corner before stepping cautiously out in front of me and the seamstress: anxiously awaiting our reaction to her new clothes, her new story.

“How do you feel?” I asked, unsure of how the idea of returning to school was settling in on her. Maybe she was self conscious?  Second guessing herself?  One of twenty thousand emotions I felt before coming to school each morning?

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Getting fitted for a new uniform

Then, she smiled the biggest most genuine smile I have ever seen in twenty-five years of life. And sitting in a hot dusty room in the middle of Africa, miles from any family to kiss goodnight or waterfall to jump from, I felt a new kind of happy. Here was the kind of happy that I felt on my skin and in the back of my neck and inside my ribs and sinking into my cheeks. That kind of happy was, right there, was the ecstatic opening of the enraptured heart. It was the life giving feeling of accomplishing something you know you were placed on this planet to accomplish. This was the adrenaline pounding heart pumping high that I longed for and imagined when I heard the word “ecstatic.” There was no coal walking, fire breathing, adventure seeking altitude changing moment of bliss. But the simple, smiling face of a child with a second chance at life. It was the most exciting feeling in the world. And I hadn’t even jumped off of anything.

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High Waisted Jeans and the Second Worst “F” Word

I have never met greater athletes then the women in Maasailand. They possess superpowers, I swear. Every single day I wake up and know they are travelling to school from miles away in plastic flip-flops. Yet they never even break a sweat, wrapped in a rainbow of cloths of energy as they come down our dusty driveway. I watch them carry heavy buckets of water and awkward bundles of firewood with perfect posture on their head, all the while giggling and gossiping and acting as if it were nothing more than an early morning stroll. And I watch young girls, hardly six years old carrying their brother and sisters on their backs like a backpack and care for them like a well seasoned adult, changing their clothes, wiping their tears, feeding them sweet mangos or biscuits if they cry. I watch these women have babies, carry babies, cook the food, keep the house and make money they can to support the family: all without Starbucks, Asics, or basic human rights. They run this town. A smart African lady told me recently, “I consider a child an orphan if their mother dies, even if their dad is still around. The mamas are the one’s who get things done.” My god, what women could accomplish if we gave them some level playing ground.

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Teeny tiny babysitter
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Mango sweets.

This isn’t a very fashionable topic; I know that, it’s like high waisted jeans: kind of awkward to explain and often comfortable. We talk about it way too much and often blow it out proportion or take it to the extreme. It’s the second worst F word the first worst headache and the sole reason counting sheep doesn’t allow me to fall asleep at night. In America, it looked like beautiful friends who were lawyers and real estate agents with advanced degrees comparing their pay to male counterparts and being silently dismayed at the discrepancy. In Africa today, it looks like a pregnant child sitting outside the gate of the school with tears on her cheeks because she is no longer permitted to step foot on the property. A lot of people like to say “Feminism” when describing a solution to this plague we created ourselves. I just prefer calling the solution it “equality.”

I stray away from that “other F word,” because like all big ideas, the extremists have made it seem… well…. extreme, and that is not the image I am going for. I am a fairly feminine woman. I like to shave my legs and get pedicures and prefer my men to resemble NFL players. Yet there has yet to be anything on this whole planet that has me more frustrated than the fact that restrictions are put on women because, well, they are women. Restrictions have been placed on girls all over the world that are so strange and confusing it will make your head spin. Solutions to gender problems that are so outlandish that you will stand under the African sun and throw rocks at the cloudless sky; because that solution is just as fruitless and ridiculous as the solutions posed. Bear with me. It gets more interesting and less predictive.

Perhaps it was just my situation in America, but the inequalities were a little less blatant. I went to college and got a job with benefits on the first interview. Fast forward two years from my first big-girl job, and I sit in an office in East Africa with a crying child, slowly nodding her head that yes, she was, indeed, pregnant. Furiously shaking her head no, she did not want to be with that man, and yes, she did try to stop it. Words couldn’t come but she continued to answer in head nods: Yes, she knew there were other girls in the village who had babies, and yes she knew that they turned out okay. No she didn’t know where the father had gone, and no, no, no, she hadn’t even met him before.

Words finally came when I asked how she was feeling; “I’m sad and mad because I want to go to school!” And that’s a fair answer. It’s definitely worth using words to express. I know this isn’t just an East African thing. I know that all over the world the choices of men prevent girls from finishing high school, college, or in this particular case: fifth grade.

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Some of the brightest women I know.

Tanzanian law requires that pregnant elementary age children be not allowed on school grounds or property. This not only prohibits them from coming to school and furthering their education before they start “showing,” but also encourages girls to keep it under wraps (i.e. tell as few people as possible about the rape and/or pregnancy) so they can continue to go to school. That not only prevents adequate care to be given to the new mama, but lets young men get away with things like getting a fifth grader pregnant and peacing out.

And it is a sad and frustrating world to live in, and my generally glass-half full overall optimistic personality knows enough to say that we will probably not see the end of girls too young for sex or bras having babies, at least not in my lifetime. But my optimism will stand up enough to say that perhaps we do see a way to continue these girls to continue their lives and their dreams (conversely, their education) regardless of this new heartbeat. But maybe that’s too positive. Maybe that’s living in a Lisa Frank world.

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Israel’s walk to school is several miles.

The law is weird and confusing so I asked a teacher about it here at school one day. She upheld the law as fact, although I’m sure she had some hidden opinions about it. “It’s so other children do not see a student and think its ok to get pregnant at that age,” she explained gently. As if being a fifth grader and being a female was equivalent to playing with fire. As if growing up was a risky choice she had made without consideration of the consequences. As if another student would see the sad eyes of this precious girl who now has two lives to care for and wish the same thing for herself.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard about an institutions encouraging “moral behavior,” through eliminating women. It happens in America, too. I had several friends at different private colleges explain that unwed pregnant girls were asked to leave the university. It’s the same thought process: if we had them around, we would be condoning immoral behavior. I understand the basis of the argument, I do. I am not here to argue what is moral or immoral in the eyes of God, your grandmother, Africa or America. What I am here to argue is that we are punishing 50% of the population for an issue that that is affecting 100% of the world. I’m not sure about you, but I have never passed any test while pursuing 50%.

I am challenged here today to find a balance between my first hand experience in East Africa, and the overall truth of how one woman carries the weight of a two-person action. Village elders gathered around our sweaty and windless office to discuss the situation of our beautiful pregnant fifth grader, and, I was hoping, to be on the lookout for a man who had cost a girl her education and her childhood. The meeting didn’t go as I expected. “We’ve noticed she has been hanging around the school a lot, after hours,” an elder announced, “This is obviously against the rules and needs to stop immediately.” Our girl wrung her hands nervously.

He added in his solution for the problem we came to discuss, “We aren’t going to talk the men. This is a woman’s problem.” He threw in what he considered a fair compromise for all of the ladies out there: “But we will talk with the mothers’ of the village on how to better prevent ‘unwanted attention’ from men.”

And this right here is the most mind bending, irrational, bold faced universal lie that I have seen circulated from Colorado foothills to East Africa’s desert: that women’s problems are solely the result of women’s action and can therefore be eliminated solely by women. This is fairly equivalent of calling deforestation the problem the trees need to solve. Risk of extinction an issue for the rhino to figure out. If we want these problems resolved we don’t tell the tree to grow a thicker trunk or the rhino’s mothers to teach their kids how to fight off “unwanted attention.” The victim cannot be the sole resolver. What we are looking at right here is a good old-fashioned joint effort. That joint effort is the terrifying second worst f-word equality I am talking about.

I think people hear concepts of women’s rights and think “anti-man,” but that couldn’t me more incorrect. We need those guys around to get things done in the human rights game. And putting some of the ownership on men to help women reach their fullest potential by no means women are off the hook. It is now more than ever women must figure out how to be the street smartest, hardest working, creative thinking, opinion forming, confidence wielding bad asses that the world has ever seen.

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Girl Power.

Perhaps this isn’t so much a call to action as it is a call to awareness and imagination. Awareness of how heavy inequity still is today, no matter what country you live in. And enough imagination to see the global warming fixers, cancer curerers, conflict mediators, and disease eliminators we would create if we let girls stay in school when the unexpected arises. My only request is to think about it, talk about, cry about it, be mad about it. Tell your sons, daughters, yoga teachers and dentists. Because first you think then you talk then you do. And that’s when the magic happens.

NOTE: If you are interested in finding out about how YOU can directly impact women’s rights and education in East Africa, email me and lets chat!  ellakerr.du@gmail.com