Resistance is Restless

I am one of the many women who went to work on March 8th. I could say that I was in turmoil over it, but that would be a lie. That’s what I do… work. Every day. No days off (Wale voice).

I knew what I signed up for in this career and I knew this day would come. There’d be a moment when I’d be toiling over minutiae while everyone else was out fighting a good fight that I felt should be mine. This happened last year for any number of Black Lives Matter protests. It happened years before many times over. But, alas, life is not made of newspaper headlines or twitter rants. It is not the meta-narratives of history books that one lives while history books are being written. Instead, it is the particular histories of daily life that all seem mundane individually, but are collectively more than the sum of their individual parts.

In light of this, I’m sharing my mundane Women’s History Month resistance routine. The month started off with making a donation to WNYC studios so that podcasts like 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys could continue to give me spurts of joyous laughter between monotonous policy drafts and email responses (#trypod). Luckily for me, there was an option to get Phoebe Robinson‘s (1 dope queen) new book “You can’t touch my hair..” I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as a result, snorted a few times. With that in my memory bank, I’ll be symbolically burning a bra all month long. Here’s how:

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The lady on left is looking how I’m feeling! (Today Show)

1 – Making my husband visit his mom!  – This trip is the gift that keeps on giving. My mother-in-law is the salt of the earth. She’s also very sane. Her physical presence in the life of her eldest son is very sobering for all who witness it. He, of all people, could use her grounding right now. I, on the other hand, could use some alone time, followed by girl time, followed by work like a dog time, followed by more girl time. Snowball effect accomplished.

2 – Reading Sonia Sotomayor’s biography – I’m going to read more about Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s life, because I hear she’s got a great journey to share. I also feel it will balance out Phoebe’s book in both heft and severity. I can’t just laugh and cuss all month long. I need to be inspired to do something positive with the platforms I have. I’m hoping the judge will remind me of  a time when public servants and leaders were actually admirable and inspiring; I wanted to be in that number. It wasn’t that long ago. It’s good to know that some of them are still around – kicking and screaming beneath very powerful robes (keep the cape). And, like me, she’s not an immigrant, so at least we have that in common.

3- Self care – Ask me why I have a physical, dental exam (w/ x-rays) and spa day booked before the end of the month ? My response is a direct quote from Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — A Burst of Light: Essays – I won’t be undone, disarmed, minimized or placated, so long as I am well fed, well rested, well loved and able bodied. My job is to stay that way!

4- Starting a business – My amateur meanderings have led me to two very stimulating entrepreneurial endeavors. And rather than pussyfoot around any longer, I’m finalizing the LLC for one of them this month and reserving the business name for the other. Not regularizing my business investments leaves me personally vulnerable and that’s not sustainable or growth minded. See, ya’ll, I’m speaking that business-lady talk. Bossy pants all month long! #queenboss

5 – Writing an article on women of the Diaspora – In the works, as I type, is a piece I’m co-authoring with my PhD advisor on 2013 research data I collected in India. It has taken a combination of guts, cajoling, and stagnation to get me to the point where I can finally write this long overdue academic article. Hallelujah! The day (or month) has finally come. My March 24th deadline for a draft is well timed, because I’m sure that my academic sisters, mothers, and friends will help me finally execute. “We can do it!”

Even if you don’t take on one of my 5 pillars of the month, you too can create your own mundane resistance routine. I’m sure you’re wondering how to make a difference within the parameters of your daily routine. My advice? Choose daily wins and small victories with big impacts. Deliberately support businesses and development efforts of women. Affirm their femininity and their excellence. Hug a woman you love, or a man who loves a woman you love. Stop, smell some roses, and then… get back to work! There is soooo much to be done.

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Swaziland’s Reed Festival, Feminism, Monarchy and other Africanisms…

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P1090220.jpgSince I moved to Mozambique, I had heard that travel in neighboring countries was one of the best advantages of adopting Maputo as home. And since I’d started traveling outside of Maputo, I had heard that one of the most fascinating cultural experiences in the region was Swaziland’s Reed Festival. In layman’s terms, it is an annual festival where all the girls and women in the Kingdom of Swaziland dance and sing for the royal family, in the hopes of being chosen as the King’s next wife. Yes, I said “next.” The current King has 14 wives and each year that he is alive he is able to choose another.

My human rights and feminist mind said this would be a sad festival to witness. After all, Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy and “King Mswati III has ruled the small country with its one million inhabitants since 1986. In 1973, Mswati’s father Sobhuza II banned all political parties and declared a state of emergency, which is still in place today. The king governs the country’s 55 administrative divisions, known as Tikhundla, through its chiefs.” According to avert.org, Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, with 27% of their 15-49 age population infected with the deadly virus. “Heterosexual sex is the main mode of HIV transmission in Swaziland – accounting for 94% of all new HIV infections… In the context of the entire population, 31% of all women are living with HIV, compared to just 20% of men.”

So, what exactly did this festival promote? Traditionalists said it continued centuries old practices that insured clan linkages and promoted population growth to ensure ethnic survival. How could that be relevant in the context of contemporary realities? Democracy and political participation are non-starters, deadly STIs and STDs plague the country, polygamy remains prominent and partially explains the disproportional prevalence rate in women (42% of pregnant women are said to have the virus) , 63% of Swazis lives below the poverty line, and life expectancy is 48 years old.

I went in with an open mind. I knew that to most outsiders’ gaze this would be just a chance to see topless women or a condemnation of Swazi’s “backwardness” in the face of all the above, but for me this was an opportunity to see contemporary Africans performing and preserving what they considered to be an important cultural practice.

 

What I found was a mixed bag of emotion and observation, culminating in extreme gratitude. First, it’s important to know that the festival goes by multiple names, Umhlanga (officially), Reed Festival or Reed Dance. The festival is about 8 days long and it’s never the same dates each year. It’s typically at the end of August, but no one really knows until much closer to the date when the Royal Family announces the festival dates. The open space at Ludzidzini Field, the Queen Mother’s land, becomes the stage for scores of childless, unmarried, (I believe also virgin) girls and women dressed in traditional clothing, but bearing their breasts.

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Second, in the sequence of the dates of the festival, I visited on Day 6 and all photos here were taken from that small component of the entire event. We arrived at the field around 3pm to find that many of the dancing groups had already assembled and were making their way through the arena. The girls were jubilant and seemed to be having a really great time. As most people note that Swaziland is pretty boring most times of the year (except for Reed Dance and Bushfire), it came as no surprise that these young ladies were just enjoying the excitement of being together, dressing up and having something to do.

Since Swazis speak English it was a photographer’s dream! I asked them if I could take their picture before doing it and they all obliged. Some really enjoyed being the center of attention, posing in groups and staging themselves.

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Last, we left early to get back before dark. The drive from Swazi’s Ezulwini Valley to Maputo is about 3 hours, there are no street lights and Day 6 fell on a Sunday. Leaving after only an hour and a half felt like peeling myself away from something great that was just beginning to erupt. The press started to come and shoo us out of the way. More people started to arrive, including an aggressive group of Indian men who looked way too excited to be there for the festival’s intended purpose and seemed focused on a field full of breasts (…just the kind of creepy guys I expected might be drawn to such an event). More fashionable African women started to come too. Their breasts were covered, though they wore fashionable elements incorporating their traditional fabric (with the face of the King or the royal shield) with modern hipster jeans and sneakers.

As I left the festival with my 3 travel companions, we all walked away with different feelings. I was excited for having been able to take such interesting and intimate photos. My husband was sad realizing how young most of the girls were and constantly being reminded of the event’s purpose. One friend was excited to be back in Swaziland after having been gone since high school. He remembered places, recalled words and practiced recalling what he knew of Swazi. And his girlfriend observed, enjoyed and shared in the colors and styles of the fashion inspiration. So, we all left with our expectations shifted and perhaps a lot of food for thought, in all kinds of directions.

Turns out the festival is less about selecting a new wife for the King and more to “preserve the women’s chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity among the women through working together.” For me, it was one of those rare opportunities to see African people living their culture without caveats. There were no explanations or excuses, just Swazis being Swazis as they saw fit. While they spend the rest of the year shuffering and smiling, surviving in the face of historical and actual challenges, this festival felt like one of the few times they got to live out some form of vanity and celebrate themselves… in all their glory.

I was thankful to be able to catch a glimpse.

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Photos are the author’s own. Please request permission to reproduce elsewhere.

 

 

ladies of this land

imagemozambique is much like other countries in this region – there is rhetoric about strong women behind powerful men, with disparities and conundrums in the fore. women are perhaps the hardest working people in any society but often the least educated and the most vulnerable. in just the last 25 years, advances in mozambican development spouted gender equity in all sectors but the reality lags behind. i wont go into the details that can be found in texts by more learned scholars. stephanie urdang`s `and still they dance` tells most of the tale, and when paired with `s is for samora` by sarah lefanu, it says it all. what ive seen is my own glimpse into a more complex microcosm of the present.

being new here is a gendered experience. my male friends have a tendency to fit right in with a harem of the curious and available. i, on the other hand, have been made to silently compete with shapely women who adeptly tiptoe on cracking sidewalks in 3 inch heels. a little femme competition keeps us all young, but my experience has been made only more confusing by being the newest woman to join a family of territorial and outspoken mozambican women. their sense of conviction in rightness, traditions, unspoken family secrets are all traded as membership currency. in time ive learned to appreciate the fissures and to recognize the `in crowd.`

for the first time in my life i have sisters. i have obligations to people i havent chosen to let into my life. and some of them can relate to my feelings of being an outcast in a group i didnt choose. there are those who marrimageied into the family and their husbands have died, leaving them to deal with these battle axes alone. there are the daughters of men who never married their mothers. they, like me, have various levels of membership in this club and varying levels of interest in membership. nevertheless, we`re altogether and we`re all we`ve got at the moment.  all told, being part of this new sorority has been a learning experience. just taking a step outside of the microcosm and it seems that our internal squabbles pale in comparison to what the average mozambican woman suffers in a less metropolitan, less modern, mozambique.

a ven diagram perhaps seemed to open up this weekend, with our lil microcosm overlapping with the women in a new simageettlement in chibuene. it has no paved roads, no sewage lines (but there is a well), no electricity yet, but many families have bought land to build, in the hopes that in ten years this area will become something more than overgrown sandy forest an hour outside of the capital. as our family went to bless new land, neighbors came to play their role and thats where the following photos brought home the reality of the ladies of this land. not the ones who flounce around frelimo headquarters or in the halls of foreign cultural centers -us members of the squabble clan. here is what we are supposed to look like, when tradition calls for it and when it is convenient for the men in our lives. this is perhaps what has made these strong women so strong since a tender age in girlhood – they work harder, they live harder and they try their best to stand tall, even when sitting on the ground in their fresh capulana cloth. Life is a gendered experience and this is what it looks like when no one is looking.

 

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5 things people never told me about Maputo…

Teardrop, Matola, Mozambique (2014)When people talk about Mozambique, they often say positive things like “The people are really friendly,” and “The seafood is really great.” Both are true, but they only take you so far. When you stick around for longer than a holiday weekend, reality starts to set in and this ole’ girl called Maputo starts to show her crow’s feet. She’s not an impressive city in comparison to neighboring Joburg, but she has charm and class. And the people are friendly, but with a healthy dose of sass and wit. Let’s just say that there are a lot of things I had to discover on my own. Here are the top 5 things that nobody ever told me about Maputo:

10402678_10101267023870802_5432848354976959553_n5- The seafood is good, but it gets boring. Most Mozambican meals boast 4 main ingredients: oil, onion, tomato and salt. Put it on meat. Put it on fish. Marinate it all day. It’s going to taste like a slight variation on the same thing every time. And most of the vegetable sides are potato, chima, and/or salad with white lettuce. I love the flavors (even when they are doused in MSG powder), but after having such culinary variety in the U.S. and India my tongue is bored.

4- Mozambican women are BAD! So…I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this and not get my “heterosexual card” pulled, but really these women are effortlessly pretty. They are all well proportioned. Most work out actively. They have kids and still look good in bathing suits. They actually have lovely skin and awesome cheekbones. And, well, it’s all-natural (ish). People don’t believe in the botox or the injections, though they do have an affinity for new weaves/wigs every weekend. But what’s a little fake hair when your butt is real? Fair trade.

3- Nobody actually gets in the water. The drive along the Marginal every day really reminds why the hell I put myself through the torture of 9 hour workdays. But, nobody tells you that you can’t actually get in the water. It’s just decoration. It contains lots of gross matter that no one should have on their bodies, because it only recently came out of someone else’s body. The Indian Ocean looks so tempting you just might be tricked into wanting to dip a toe in on a romantic stroll on a hot summer’s day, but that would be a fool’s errand. Look, but don’t touch!

2-Maputo is everywhere you want to be. The city is only a three-hour drive to Swaziland and South Africa. Sure the roads are kinda unmarked and poorly lit, but those are no match for people with an adventurous spirit in need of widely spoken English interaction and South African supermarket products. I always thought it was the scarcity of consumer goods that drove people over the border, but it’s more than that. The grass isn’t always greener, but it’s definitely more orderly. And South African magazines like Bona and True Love are my new favorite addiction.

 

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1-Mozambicans are the biggest haters on earth. This is a real photo, from a real wall, on a real street in Maputo. No lie! I have never in my life met people who celebrate with suspicion, instinctively. Tell someone that you graduated from college or that you got a new job! It is not met with unfettered happiness and congratulations. It is met with a slow and deliberate questioning of just how you did it. Somebody must have helped you. You could have paid somebody a bribe. The very last thing that will come to people’s minds is that they should be happy for and with you. Actually, it’s as if most people don’t even think ‘positivity’ is an acceptable reaction. I chalk it up to the country’s socialist history, where having more than the next person made you the brunt of suspicion, not the example of accomplishment. The sentiment lingers on well into the present and today I wouldn’t call it socialism. I just call it hate.

Well, you’ll have to come and see for yourself all the good and bad things Maputo has in store, including the exclusive beaches and resorts throughout the rest of the country. There you can get in the water and the women are still drop dead gorgeous. It hasn’t been determined if the hater quotient is still a national phenomenon or a localized epidemic. Be suspicious ya’ll, be very suspicious.

Bostonian meets Bedouin

JenniferJennifer Barefoot Smith is a world traveler who hails from the great city of Boston. She is a teacher  and college counselor who prides herself on making her students college-ready and world savvy. Jennifer spends her vacations traveling to far flung corners of the world – often alone. Her adventures are many and her experiences diverse. Her goal for this year is to bring her country count up to 70.  Whether she is traveling or at home, she enjoys taking pictures, talking (in various languages), dancing, cooking, and eating. The Howard University alum doesn’t shy away from the road less traveled. And somehow she always manages to return safely and with a smile!

I always enjoy traveling in predominantly Muslim areas: North Africa, Turkey, East Africa, and, this week, the Middle East, Jordan specifically. Generally, the atmosphere is family oriented, bright and richly colored, and inviting. As a woman, I always feel respected and safe—protected almost. As someone who travels frequently, and sometimes alone, this is refreshing and allows me to relax in a slightly different way. While every country is different, of course, there is something in being purposefully respectful and knowing that I will be respected in turn by choosing to be modest. It is also nice to feel that women are appreciated, as a group and as individuals, for more than just their bodies. Call me crazy, but I think that is one of the things that feminism has been arguing for and yet I find Westerners often have a problem with Muslim women covering and with respecting the norms when in majority Muslim countries. Two of my previous trips to Islamic countries have been through European tour groups where the majority of the tourists on the trip wore modest clothing (at least knee-length pants and shirts that were not revealing, i.e. sans décolletage), but there was always someone who insisted on wearing clothing that I would argue was not appropriate for walking around in public other than at a beach, let alone in a Muslim country in the middle of Ramadan. I felt offended. And their constant questions to the guide as to why he couldn’t just have some water or why women had to cover up really bothered me. They could not fathom that someone might be freely choosing to do these things, just as some Christians choose to go to church and others choose not to.

This brings me to why this trip was so great. I was able to travel in the Islamic world with others, enjoying the knowledge that no one in my party would be offensive or disrespectful. Sometimes I think I like to travel alone just to avoid having to babysit someone. This week, however, I traveled with a like-minded friend from college; traveling with friends who know how to travel makes life so much easier. What made this trip even better was that another friend, who works in tourism in Jordan, arranged my itinerary and connected me with her Jordanian friends at each point of my trip. Having personal connections in a new place always makes the experience that much better, and having personal connections in a country as hospitable as Jordan, meant that we got the best treatment ever. (Big up Janine, yuh have Jordan pon lock!) Jordan, like many of the other Muslim majority countries I have visited, subscribes to a brand of hospitality that is unknown in the U.S. I had more tea in the last week than I have had all year, and I do drink tea regularly. Anywhere you go, any store you enter, you are offered, nay, required, to partake in several cups of tea. Everyone checked in with us every day to make sure that we were still doing well and to let us know that if we needed anything they were X amount of minutes away from our next destination and they could be there if we called. Let’s just say I felt taken care of.

As a travel location, Jordan was one of the good ones. Amazing historic sites from several different periods and cultures abound. There are Roman ruins at Jerash, Castles of all types left over from the Crusades and other eras, Holy Land sites in Madaba, Mt. Nebo, Lot’s Cave, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, and of course the Jordan River itself. If it were permitted and I wanted to get my feet wet, I literally could have waded across to the Promised Land. It goes without saying that the Dead Sea is relaxing and an experience without parallel on the planet. But it also forms a unique border, the boundary between the Muslim/Arab world and present day Palestine. The West Bank is across the sea, a constant reminder of the political conundrums that occur when a colonial power does what it wants with pieces of land it controls without regard for the people within that land and the future ramifications those actions will have for its inhabitants, and in this case, the world. At the Red Sea, where the snorkeling/diving is lovely and the vibe is very nice, I kept trying to figure out where Egypt and Israel were in the skyline across the water from me, but everyone had the same answer as they pointed to the lights across the way—Eilat. Eventually I surmised that this was a way of not recognizing Israel without stepping on any toes. By only referring to the neighboring land by the name of the city with whom they shared a shoreline, rather than the state whose existence is in conflict with their beliefs, they did not have to come right out and say that the land next to them was being illegally occupied. They also did not usually refer to it as Palestine either. In fact, guides, drivers, and other people we encountered referred to the cities across the border rather than the larger political entity. At the Dead Sea, I was looking at Jericho, full stop. As a country that is immensely affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with millions of Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan for several decades, I am surprised it did not come up more often, but I am sure if I stayed longer than a week in the areas most affected by the conflict, it would become more apparent. When I came home, someone said to me, “Jordan, aren’t they in the middle of everything?” And yes, they really are. There is conflict occurring around them on every side except for their southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia; in addition to the decades of Palestinian refugees who have sought safety within their borders they have been receiving refugees from Syria too.

But for me the best part of Jordan had nothing to do with it being a welcoming Arab country or the site of ancient Biblical events. For me Jordan’s greatness was in the desert. The night stars, the rocky cliffs, the moon, the peacefulness, and the timelessness of it all. Petra is breathtaking and unique—a funky architectural mix of columns, cylindrical shapes, caves and amphitheaters. Nestled in a valley of equally funky rock formations rising out of the ground, these colorfully changing, soft sandstone walls and craggy formations look simultaneously smooth and like God dripped melted wax in erratic designs that solidified into odd chunks that we behold, here and there today. Nature and wilderness abound with numerous wadis, nature reserves, and springs. We stayed at Feynan Eco Lodge where everything is run by solar power, or candles, and you can hike, star gaze, or be a Bedouin goat herder for a day. We viewed Saturn and its rings in a high-powered telescope calibrated for us by a Bedouin, who then showed us where to watch Scorpio rise over the mountains and stayed up watching shooting stars while he and another friend made us tea on a fire powered by the compacted resin refuse from pressed olive oil. We were lucky that our visit coincided with a yearly meteor shower, but I have a feeling that shooting stars are not an anomaly in this landscape. And thanks to Janine, we slept in the desert, not at one of the many camps that dot Wadi Rum, but just in the middle of nowhere next to her Bedouin friend’s jeep, on a carpet, with some Bedouin mattresses and sleeping bags under the stars, with some great food, and of course, more tea.

Jennifer’s photos from Jordan:

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Bossypants for the Public Service Soul

zoraI am not an expert on how women can make the most of a twenty-year career.  However, I also haven’t had a twenty-year career yet.  Suffice it to say that I’ve looked to successful senior women to point out high points and pitfalls, but very rarely have I felt understood.  I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In with baited breath, hoping to stumble upon tools I could employ in my workplace.  I do not, and have never, aspired to work in corporate America, however.  So, few of her suggestions apply to me – the female public servant.  To make matters more complicated, the female voices in my line of work tend to come from the top down, shrieking Ann Marie Slaughter’s declaration that, ‘Women still can’t have it all.’

Read my complete guest blog on ‘The Fly Coach’!