Saturday, 26 July 2014

Rant about African Women Part 1 – Mama Africa

I ranted earlier about the western “exoticiation” of everything “black” and the consequent blindness (including my own) to differences within Africa.
One area where this has manifested itself very clearly is the creation of the stereotype of the “African woman”.  In the western collective imagination a woman from any part of Sub-Saharan Africa is one of two types.  She is either a physically and mentally imposing matriarch, the “Mama Africa”,* or an oversexualised semi-wild creature, who I will call the “Josephine Baker” for short. 
I will rant on this occasion about Mama Africa, and return later to Josephine Baker.
Based on my limited experience of spending in total just over half a year in two Sub-Saharan African countries, I would tentatively suggest that there is some truth to the Mama Africa stereotype.
Taking as a starting point the undeniable fact that due to structural sexism there are not many women who have managed to make their mark on the world stage to begin with, the European ones are likely to be somehow still soft and “feminine”, no matter how “tough” the job, situation or decision.  This is for example how Angela Merkel or Christine Lagarde come across.  Even Margaret Thatcher would fall into this category, as would Finland’s own Tarja Halonen.
This is not the image the impressive African women have.  They are more like Wangari Maathai, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Fatou Bensouda or Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.  It is hard to pinpoint the difference, but these women appear to have an aura that their northern counterparts lack.  It is not just because they are physically more imposing (partially undoubtedly due to their wardrobes – it takes bucketloads of charisma to pull those outfits off, and they always do), but you will have no trouble imagining them taking charge.  Of a situation, of a family, of a country.  European women have to battle much harder to achieve that appearance that instinctively invites confidence.
The other thing is that, on a continent many parts of which suffer from more sexism than most of Europe, it was easy to come up with several examples of such impressive women who have put their stamp on the world.  So with the same or lesser opportunities, African women seem to be better at achieving positions of power.
There has been no shortage of examples of Mama Africas here in Namibia.  I do not want to belittle the problems arising from sexism that this country is still facing (such as high levels of gender-based violence, traditional roles, lack of educational opportunities etc.), but you see powerful women everywhere.  They are on boards of companies and they run government ministries.  Admittedly I have also met women, like a young university student who told us that she hated studying and really just wanted to marry and become a housewife,** who do not fit the stereotype of Mama Africa, but there are enough Mama Africas (to varying degrees of course) for me to notice it.  The first among equals is Libertina Amathila, whose memoir I am currently reading.  She is an inspirational figure for Namibian as well as other ladies.
I have been racking my brain over the past few months to try to understand why this is.  I’d love to be able to export some of that back to Europe, as the sisterhood could and should learn from best practice everywhere.  I don’t want to make any facile and racist assumptions that these women have been molded by their difficult childhoods, since in most cases I know nothing of their childhoods, which may have been overwhelmed by privilege and love.  Probably they have been on very different journeys and would have different stories to tell.  But something about the way capable, bright African women are brought up, or educated, appears to create confident, all-imposing Mama Africas that rock the world.
*I hope nobody takes this as an offensive term, it is certainly intended with the utmost respect.  I got the idea for it recently when reading a book called Mama Namibia by Mari Serebrov.
**In a weird way this young lady exemplified a positive development from a feminist viewpoint.  It really should be for everyone to decide on their own dreams, and (a) this means that wanting to be a housewife is a permissible future plan, and (b) it is a plan that should be available to women in Windhoek just like it is in Geneva.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Rant about Spanking with Dignity

One of the most challenging aspects of NGO work is to learn to pick your battles: to know when to insist on a point and when to drop it; when to challenge the government and when to work with them.  We are witnessing these decisions being taken every day, and it is fascinating to see how and where the strategic priorities and battle lines are drawn. 
The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) has been very involved in drafting Namibia’s comprehensive Child Care and Protection Bill, which is about to go to the Parliament.  It has been twenty years in the making, so the patience and perseverance of the people pushing for it is admirable. 
LAC is also involved (by way of providing research help and materials to the prosecutor*) in a case against teachers from a private school who, against the express prohibition of the parents, physically chastised a student.
Namibia has an unfortunate culture of violence, and it is hard to see whether the prevalence of corporal punishment of children is the cause or the consequence of it.  A colleague told me that he was speaking to a young teacher, who seemed to care for the children and her job, but who didn’t think twice about hitting the students.  According to her, it was the only way to maintain discipline. 
Namibian courts have recently decided that public officials, such as teachers in state schools, police and social workers are not permitted to use violence against children.  This prohibition against corporal punishment is now being written also into the law by the Child Care and Protection Bill.  But I was very surprised, when I first read the Bill, to find out that the Bill is NOT outlawing corporal punishment altogether.  Parents are still allowed to use violence against their children.
I raised this with our boss Dianne, who is not only the person most involved with the drafting of the Bill, but also extremely skilled at the very kind of strategic thinking I mentioned at the beginning of the rant. 
Dianne explained that it would have been futile, in the current political climate, to push for an outright ban on corporal punishment.  It would not have been accepted.  So instead the Bill does something quite clever. 
First, it specifies that corporal punishment of children must always respect the “dignity” of the child, as guaranteed by the Constitution.  It is hoped that not only will this significantly limit the type and severity of chastisement that can be meted out by parents, but with time the constitutional notion of “dignity” will evolve and at some point a court will find that ANY violence against a child infringes the child’s dignity. 
Secondly, the Bill obligates the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare to develop programs to teach parents about non-violent forms of discipline.  This is something LAC is already involved in: practical workshops to teach Namibians (teachers, social workers, police, nurses, nannies …) about alternatives to hitting children.  Namibians are not mean or evil people.  They spank their kids because that is the only thing they know how to do when kids misbehave.
So the Child Care and Protection Bill appears to provide (hopefully) an effective compromise between a progressive legal framework and practical effort to effect change on the ground.  If only I could also learn to find this kind of balance between idealism and realism …  Watching what the people at LAC do is, I find, a good start.
* Amici curiae (“friends of the court” – third party interveners in litigation) are not permitted in Namibia, something LAC is thinking of challenging before the courts in its own right.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Rant about the Inner Snob

Living in Windhoek is not that dissimilar to living in any other city, especially if you have a certain level of income at your disposal.  For the most part we have slotted into the life of the Windhoek middle class rather effortlessly, the only major difference being that we walk or use local cabs rather than drive a massive 4x4.
 However, it has been interesting to discover what are the issues where I am unwilling to modify my conduct to how things are done in Namibia and instead insist on doing things my way, regardless of the expense or hassle.  In other words, I have discovered my inner snob, and these are the areas in which it has manifested itself:
Coffee:  Coffee provided the first instance for the inner snob to rear its ugly head.  Namibians drink a lot instant coffee, I have even been provided with instant coffee with some warm milk stirred in when ordering a cappucino at a bar.  If it had not been a situation of desperation, I would have refused to drink it.  F has adapted much better, I have blankly refused.  I don’t care if I have to go down to the main building at work for the one pot of filter coffee at the whole Centre or if I have to walk 20 mins to get to a cafĂ© on a weekend, but I will get proper coffee.
Heat:  Namibia (in winter) is the only country in the world where you put your coat on when you enter a building and take it off again when you exit.  I don’t know how they manage to build houses this way, but even when it is a nice 23°C and sunny outside, as it is every day, it is cold indoors everywhere.  I got sick and tired of freezing my tits off pretty quickly, especially when wearing thick socks to bed and fingerless gloves to work was not enough.  So my only major purchase here so far has been a portable electronic heater that I carry around with me wherever I go in the flat.  I see the impact immediately as we have pay-as-you-go electricity, which is not cheap.  No regrets.
Sports:  Windhoek is not a sporty place, so we have struggled a bit to find ways to stay fit.  Running along highways (there are no parks) is not enough.  There are two gyms in the city.  We tried the cheaper one right next to our flat for a week.  However, not only was the selection of equipment not impressive, but the clientele consisted mostly of beefcakes who, when not busy admiring their own biceps, were blocking the machines I wanted to use in the nominal circuit and unashamedly oggling at me.  So I snobishly insisted that we invest the significant wad of cash it takes to get a membership at the posh (not only by Namibian standards but by comparison to Geneva, Paris and London as well) Virgin Active gym much further away.  As a bonus, it has a sauna and a steam room, which I use with impunity (see Heat above).
TP:  Last but not least, the paper I have found in all toilets here is so thin I feel like I might just as well wipe my bum with my bare fingers.  No thanks.  So the first chance we got, we got some decent double paper and have been happily wiping away since then.  
I don’t think I would have guessed many items on this list before coming here.  My inner snob has been an interesting discovery.  Would you guess what yours is like?