Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the tag “Women”


Until the lion learns to write, the narrative will favour the hunter.

My little sister is almost 13-years-old.  It feels as though she is blossoming into an adult before my eyes.  Almost overnight, she started asking teenager-type questions and doing young woman-type things.  I find myself telling her stories about my childhood that I haven’t thought of for over a decade.  I try to relate her emotionally and find that I’m surprisingly close to her level.  I would like to think that with the 14 year age gap, I am significantly more mature.  But I’m not.

I especially notice the same mannerisms in the way we talk about our accomplishments.  She admits to me the things she’s proud of – like finishing her math homework or learning her theatre lines – but the sentences come out unfamiliar.  When she exclaims, “Guess what, Bebe!” I can tell that she’s only telling a few people these triumphs, such as my parents and her grandma.

In North America, we’re taught to be humble.  We’re taught not to brag about our accomplishments.  But sometimes humility goes too far.  I often find myself arguing, “Oh I’m not that smart” or “I haven’t accomplished anything.”  I try to turn conversations so that they’re about anything other than me.

But maybe it’s ok to talk about myself.  I blog about myself, after all.

Blogging often feels like a self-centred activity.  “Who wants to read my words?” I think.  “I don’t have anything important to say.”

I justify it by reminding myself that no one has to read this.  Every person on this page can shut it down whenever they want.

But maybe I need to be more radical.  It’s time for a new argument: “Beth, you do have things to say.  Your ideas are worthwhile and people should listen.”

That’s the sort of pep talk I give my sister all the time because she – like all teenagers – should grow up to believe that her thoughts are valuable.

I know a lot of women who don’t inherently believe this.  They need constant validation from other people, primarily men.  Probably a lot of men feel this way too (except maybe they need validation from women), although my guy friends rarely discuss these sorts of thoughts with me.

On a related note, here’s a little story:

A few years ago I was flying on a trip that would eventually go from Vancouver to Cancun, but my cheap airline tickets had me crossing through the U.S. along the way.  On one of the flights I happened to be sitting beside an older American man.  He was a retired farmer who liked to race cars and was on his way home from a race.  He was the stereotypical southern gentleman: kept calling me a “peach” and told me about his wife who had loved since high school.

He asked me what book I was reading.  I gushed that Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favourite novels and told him the basic premise.  He showed me the book of poetry he had that was written by one of his neighbours.

He must have been intrigued by my synopsis of Eat, Pray, Love because he asked if I wanted to switch books.  We would also exchange addresses and mail the books back when we were finished.

Even though I liked the idea a lot, I hesitated.  “You might not like this story,” I said.  “It’s a really girly book.”

He insisted that he wanted to read it, however, so we exchanged.

Months later I got my copy of Eat, Pray, Love back in the mail with a lovely note that explained that he didn’t find it a “girly” book it all.  He felt that it explored emotions and actions that most people struggle with – just because it was about a woman didn’t make it any less valuable.

He was right.

In our culture, woman’s stories aren’t as valued as men’s, which are seen as normal.  Stories about women are characterized as “Chick lit” or romantic comedies.  They are classified by the fact that they’re about women.

Stories about men, however, get to be everything.  They can be dramas or comedies or action or sci fi.  It’s true that some of these stores can be about women (like Alien), but they’re few and far between.  Furthermore, men often think it’s embarrassing to watch or read one of these.

In contrast, most of the stories I read are about men, but that doesn’t seem weird to me.  That’s how the world is.

Sometimes I wonder that if I was a man, would I feel more justified about blogging?  Would I worry about coming across as self-centred by writing so much?

Regardless, I keep writing.  I enjoy it, which by itself is a good enough reason to continue.

I never want my sister to think, “I like writing a lot but I don’t have anything to say.”

So I give myself the same pep talks that I give her.



After reading yesterday’s post, you can probably guess that I haven’t made very many Ghanaian friends here.  I chat with my coworkers and host-family, but that’s it.

Is this a failure on my part?  I could be more outgoing and tolerant of the cultural differences, but it’s especially difficult in Tamale because women don’t go out at night.

I don’t only mean to bars and clubs, but just out.  They’re expected to stay home.  One of my host-sisters often doesn’t come home at night or arrives after 9pm and her father yells about it to the rest of the family.

After work, I always try to be home by 6pm before it gets dark.  After that, my choices are to hang out with my host-family or hang out with other expats.  Not only is it dangerous to travel in the dark, but women live with their families so they have responsibilities in the evening besides hosting their new friends.

This sounds horrible, but I don’t want to be too friendly with Ghanaian men.  The culture is so different here: if I “hang out” with a man, it’s basically seen as “courting.”

Other EWBers in different cities have been more successful at making friends.  Southern Ghana is much more liberal than northern Ghana.

Princess Leia

Street harassment is probably my biggest issue with Ghana.  I just want to walk around without men yelling at me.  The constant onslaught is exhausting.

Luckily Hollaback Street Harassment recently made a great video to illustrate what a huge problem this is, even in North America.

Even luckier, a fantastic parody was made!  This video is excellent.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Moreover, it makes sense that so many men here have no idea how to relate to me.  They probably get most of their information from TV.  Can you imagine if you judged women from beer ads?  No matter they think I’m going to have sex with them just because they say hello.

Compared to here, Canadians are way more sexually active.  Ghana is relatively conservative, especially in Tamale with its high proportion of Muslim population.  Most people probably have a friend of a friend who dated an expat and they had sex without any thoughts of marriage.  So weird!

So I try to be more understanding.  Look at how Canadians view Africa, after all.  We generalize “Africa” as if it’s one big country.  We listen to songs like the new Band Aid 30 version of “Do they know it’s Christmas,” which is full of lies, racism, and bad rhymes.  We see Africans as lazy, dependent, and vulnerable.

Which is wrong.

Sometimes I feel like an alien from a galaxy far, far away – but I’m not.  I’m not going to say something stupid like “we’re all human so we should be able to empathize” because I don’t think that we can.  More and more during conversations, I realize “I have absolutely no idea where this guy is coming from.”  I can’t dig down deep to his fears, desires, and motivations.  Our cultures are too different to understand each other.

But I think that’s ok.  I think it’s ok to accept our differences as long as I realize that it’s not a black/white thing or men/women thing.

Beads of Hope – PLEASE DONATE

“Nafisa Rafiatu Adams is a social entrepreneur. Her business, Beads of Hope, started with ten women and girls in the community and now has nearly 50 women, who consist of rescued child brides, teenage mothers and girls engaged in child prostitution. She is proud of the fact that she have been able to provide an alternative source of income to these women through beaded jewelry and they are in turn able to cater for their children.”

Please donate to Nafisa so she can come to Canada as part of EWB’s Kumvana’s Program.

More information can be found here.

This is exactly what I was talking about in #1 from my Ways to Help from Home list: Support overseas education.  C’mon, do it.  You know you want to!

Mustn’t Know

One of the Tamale newspapers has a poetry page full of impressively wonderful poems.  Most of the submissions are anonymous, like this one.

Mustn’t Know

Mustn’t ask questions
Mustn’t do it
Mustn’t know
When I was young
I was warned
A child mustn’t ask questions
When I turned a teenager,
A girl mustn’t do it
When I became an adult
A woman mustn’t know.
Mustn’t know?
When it is my life
You are dragging along
the streets
Behind your broad back,
And you say mustn’t know?
It is my life you know,
And I must know
What you do with it.

6. Fight patriarchy

A friend recently asked me, “Is sexism a problem over there?”

Yes and no.

In the District Assemblies, people are generally educated.  They’re used to working with women.  While men who stop by my office are occasionally flirtatious, they don’t ever make marriage propositions.  I personally don’t feel that being a woman has made my job more difficult.

But I also don’t deal with very many people directly.  I have a few contact people at four different Assemblies.  I’ve talked to other female expats who have had much more difficulties in their jobs.  Men harass them or treat them like they’re inferior or don’t take them seriously.  While sexism hasn’t been a problem for me, it’s still a problem.

In Ghana, a woman’s work is never done.  It seems as though my host-mother is continuously sweeping, mopping, washing clothes, preparing food, cooking over a fire (which takes forever), washing dishes, buying groceries, etc.

[Side note: best invention ever?  The washing machine.  Definitely not the vending machine, as my little sister argues.]

You might be thinking, “So what?  What am I supposed to do about African women carrying firewood for miles on their heads?”

First, many charity projects are aimed at helping men.  We don’t try to understand the different impacts for women.  Do your research and ask tough questions before donating money.

Second, patriarchy is alive and well in Canada.  For example, a friend of a friend of mine recently completed an engineering co-op job with a mining company in northern BC.  During a meeting, she gave a progress report and one of the other attendants said, “I don’t believe you.”

“Uh… what?” she was surprised.  Maybe it was a joke?  What did he mean that he didn’t believe her?

“I don’t believe anything that comes from a person who bleeds for 5 days every month and doesn’t die.”

Statements like that, whether jokes or not, don’t belong anywhere – especially not a professional setting.

Last year, a study came out about North American female engineers that suggested that women have many reasons for leaving the engineering business beyond the desire to have families, which is the common reason stated for why women hold less senior positions.  The researchers found during their interviews that women cited hostile working environments and perceived lack of opportunities as their main reasons for leaving, not their children.

Furthermore, I’ve read many articles like this one about the additional difficulties women have in the tech start-up business.

Women, stay strong.

Men, listen.  Don’t become defensive.  Don’t say #NotAllMen.  Thank you, I know not all men are sexist.  But some are and it would helpful if you understood why that’s harmful to everyone instead of telling me that I’m reverse-sexist.  Read this if you want info.  Actually, read it especially if you don’t want more info because then you probably do.

A Script of Petty Arguments

Scene 1

In the VOTO internet cafe, which is packed full of people.

Man: Hey white lady.

Me: [Silently types at computer]

Man: Hey china girl.

People working on the surrounding computers glance at us.

Me: Stop talking to me like that.  It’s rude.

Man: What?

Me: I would not say to you “Hey black man.”  No, because it’s rude.  So stop talking to me like that.

People on the surrounding computers start laughing.  Man looks sheepish and goes back to his work.

Scene 2

In the bathroom at nightclub. Two men lean against the walls while I wash my hands.

Man to his friend: That’s pretty, don’t you think?  Really nice.

Me: Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you.

Man: What?

Me: Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you when I’m right here.  It’s demeaning.

Man: You’re pretty.

Me: I don’t care.

Man: Let’s go inside and dance.

Me: No.

Scene 3

With a friend while buying fruit from a woman in the market.

Nearby man to my friend: Hey white lady, are you married.

My shy friend: [Pause] Yes.

Man to me: Are you?

Me: Yes.

Man: I want to marry a white woman.

Me: No one will marry you if you only want her for her skin colour.  That’s very shallow.

Man gets mad and huffs off.  Returns 30 seconds later while we’re still waiting for our change.

Man: [indignant] I don’t believe you’re married.  You’re only small girls.  You’re liars.

Me: Good thing you figured that out.  You don’t want to be friends with liars.

Man: You’re lying.  You just don’t want to be MY friend.  Why are you lying?

We walk away with our cut up papaya while he angrily yells after us.

Scene 4

Walking through the bus station.  A man comes up behind me and wraps his arm around my waist.

Man: Hey salaminga.  I want to talk to you.

I jump to the side and angrily turn to face him.

Me: Don’t touch me.

Man: Hey, I just want to talk.

I walk away.  He’s not worth my time or disgust.

Script Analysis

For every unpleasant interaction I have with stranger, there are at least 50 good ones.  Regardless, sometimes I want to scream, “Stop being such a stereotype! Have some fucking decency and respect.”

The thing that really bothers me is the constant harassment.  In Joburg, it was bad in Hillbrow (where I worked) but I didn’t have to put up with the comments in the rest of the city.  Back home, I know that by clubbing I’m putting myself in a situation where I’m more likely to be harassed and accept it.  It isn’t ok – women should be able to do anything and go everywhere – but I put up with it without complaint.

Here, though, it’s wearing me down.  I miss the days of anonymity.

Sports Analysis

Last week, Amplify Governance had a team meeting.  We all traveled from our various locations in Ghana to spend a weekend going over what we’re doing, how we’re adapting, and where the organization is going.

Our directors kicked off with a reminder to stay humble.  Ghanaians are used to foreigners coming to the country with grand schemes that rarely work.  Usually we come with some sort of project, spend a ton of money, and leave without solving anything.  Furthermore, we think we’re right.  We think that we can enter a new culture and context and somehow solve everything in less than a year.  Understandingly, Ghanaians tend to resent foreigners’ arrogant attitudes.

At the risk of sounding pompous and missing the point, I totally see where Ghanaians are coming from.  Maybe this is too much of a stretch, but during the discussion I thought a lot about Ultimate Frisbee.  Ulti is huge in Vancouver and I’ve been playing for years.  It’s a co-ed sport, but not completely fair between men and women.

I’m pretty good at Ultimate, but I’m a girl.  As a result, every time I play with a new team, I need to work 110% to prove myself.  If I drop the frisbee once during the first game, I won’t be passed to again.  It doesn’t matter how many passes I catch, the dropped one will still have consequences.

It isn’t the same for men.  I know guys who drop a lot or can’t throw, but they still get the disc more often than a girl of superior skill.

I think it takes 2 seasons of playing with a team regularly before we start to trust each other.  It takes about 2 years before I get comfortable enough with a team to take some risks, but actually play better.

In Ghana, Amplify is like the new girl on the team.  It’s going to take a long time for us to overcome our reputation of just another foreign organization with a useless project to implement.  We feel our mistakes are magnified – like it doesn’t matter how hard we’re running and that a throw to us was so bad it was uncatchable, everyone still sniggers when we drop the frisbee.

Unfortunately there’s no way to expedite team bonding.  It just takes time.

Put a ring on it

This time around, I’m doing things differently.  I’ve learned from past mistakes and know how to travel in Africa now.  I’m more worldly and knowledgeable!  Is this what it means to grow up?

This time, I’m wearing a wedding ring.

If anyone asks, I’m married to a prince.  The Prince of Canada.  And I’m a princess!

Yep, so much more mature.

Part of me despises this.  I should be able to tell men that I’m not interested and they should back off.  My refusal should be enough.  Why does another man have to have a claim on me for them to take “No” seriously?  It’s bullshit.

But I also don’t like the hassle.  I’m picking my battles and I don’t want to waste time on this one over the next few months.  I’m not here to focus on gender work and I don’t want to get side-tracked with useless conversations.

Plus I like the sound of Princess B.

Are We Serious About Violence Against Women or Not?

Are we serious about violence against women or not?

I want to say yes.  I want to say that I fight against patriarchy every day, tooth and nail, until I’m exhausted and spent, but victorious in the little battles.

But I don’t.  I let things slide.  Patriarchy is so imbedded into South African culture that I frequently find myself lost and unable to react.

When someone is an obvious jerk, it’s easy for me to tell him to fuck off.  Although, to be honest, even that reaction took me a long time to develop.  As I transitioned into a young woman, it took years of inappropriate comments to harden me enough until I could react with anger.

Every day I walk through the streets of Hillbrow and give men the death glare, if I even bother glancing their way at all.  They grab my arms and I snap out their grip Small Circle Jujitsu style, without missing a beat in my walk.

It’s easy to be angry and aggressive to these men.  They’re a mass of faceless strangers.

But what about the men I know?  My friends?

One of my coworkers – let’s call him “J” – is a major flirt.  Almost every day he says something inappropriate to me for the workplace.

“Good morning, sthandwa sami.”

(“Sthandwa sami” means “my love.”  Even though I’ve argued against him to stop calling me that, I can’t shake him of the habit.)

“Good morning.  How are you today?”

“It’s going to be a good day!  You’re wearing my favourite shirt.  Did you put that on just for me?”
“This might come as a surprise, J, but I don’t pick my clothes with any consideration towards you.”

J walks away laughing.

Sometimes J and I walk to the taxi rank together after work.  Each time, he tries to convince me that I’m one of his “partners.”  Apparently he has a Zulu partner (his wife), a coloured partner (one of our other coworkers), and a foreign partner (me).  He’s still looking for a Khosa partner (in case anyone out there is interested).

I usually comment with something like, “That’s quite a harem you’ve got going.  Amazing that you recruited me without my knowledge.”

Once I asked him if the other interns were part of his harem.  “What about the woman I took over from?”

“No.  She and I were buddies.  But you’re a partner.”

“Lucky me.”

“Not anyone can be a partner, Beth.  You’ve got to have certain qualities.  Like you.  You’re shy but not shy.  And fun.  And –.”

“That’s enough.  I get it.  I’m still not one of your partners.”

I’ve told J over and over again that we would be friends if he wasn’t such a flirt.  I’ve even told him that in my culture his comments are very inappropriate.  “Back home, someone would’ve charged you with sexual harassment by now.”

“Guess I can’t go to Canada.”

Even though J frustrates me, however, I don’t hold any anger towards him.  We’re friends.  I don’t think he knows any other way to engage with women except flirting.

But then I found out he’s going to become a House Manager.

The directors at work can’t be so clueless to miss how flirtatious he is – not only with me, but other women too.  Everyone knows he’s inappropriate!  I’ve called him out on it, loudly, over and over since working here.

How can he be moved into a position of authority?

Don’t get me wrong – like I said, J and I are friends.  I think he’s fundamentally a good person.  Actually, I think he’s a great person.  But I would hate to have him as my boss or house manager.  The workplace should be professional and the home space should be respectful and safe.

In this country, though, his comments aren’t a problem.  His behaviour is not significant enough to hinder his career.

Moreover, despite being a strong feminist, I won’t say anything against him.  I would never bring these complaints forward.  I don’t want to ruin him.

Yet I’m still unsettled by the situation.  Is my silence going to lead to other women feeling uncomfortable?  J has a good heart – I don’t believe he would purposefully hurt someone else.  But his good intentions don’t excuse his bad behaviour.

I’m strong enough now that I can laugh with J.  When I was 20-years-old, though, I was in a similar situation in my workplace; I used to go home and cry almost every week.  I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong to make the men think they could treat me like that.  I don’t want J’s advances to ever make a woman cry like I did.

At what point does flirting become sexual harassment? 

When does joking with a friend turn into supporting a patriarchal system that accepts violence against women?

Am I serious about violence against women or not?

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