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 café 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?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Rant about Sodomy and the British Empire

One of our projects at the Legal Assistance Centre concerns LGBT rights in Namibia.  The struggle is all uphill as not only is sexual orientation unfortunately not an express ground on the basis of which discrimination is prohibited under the Namibian Constitution, but the common law actually prohibits “sodomy”, which is the code word for criminalising (male) homosexuality.  It is a dead letter in the law that has not been enforced in years, but there it stands, nonetheless.
 
Namibia is a young country that has been trying to get the critical laws passed for the society to function and provide for the citizens.  So where did it find the time to legislate against homosexuality?  
 
Well, turns out it didn’t need to find the time.
 
When I was beginning my legal studies in England back in 1998, I learnt in my criminal law course that “sodomy”, as well as “gross indecency” (code for non-penetrative sexual acts between men), were still crimes in England.  The exception was that if only two men, who were both over 21, were involved and it all happened in private, then it was ok.  In 2000 the age of consent was lowered to match that for heteros, but group gay sex in a public toilet remains illegal to this day.  Famous British men have been convicted for homosexuality in trials that can only be described as political, e.g. the playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895 and physicist (and genius) Alan Turing as late as 1952.*  Shame on the nation.
 
However, even bigger shame on the nation that this insidious and hateful law was one of the most lasting exports from the motherland to the rest of the British Empire.  Have you noticed the fact that the current wave of public homophobia has inflicted hardly any countries in Francophone Africa,** but only former British colonies?  Well this is in large part why.  The Napoleonic Code did not criminalise homosexuality.  When the newly independent West African countries began replacing and complementing that with their own laws, they had more important fish to fry than regulate what consenting adults could or could not do in their bedrooms.
 
Not so in former British colonies.  These laws were exported to other parts of the world with the view of bringing European Christian morality to the indigenous populations.***  As a result, rather than having to make the effort to legislate against homosexuality, former British colonies should actually have taken positive steps to DE-criminalise it upon independence.  Again, they presumably had more important questions on their plates.  So here we are, in a situation where half of the just under 80 countries that still criminalise homosexuality do so on the basis of British colonial legislation (which has in some countries been updated and amended, but still).
 
Namibia inherited British legislation in a roundabout way.  South Africa became a British colony in 1806, but it retained the Roman-Dutch common law, which criminalised homosexuality.  Three years later the Dutch (and their colonies) abolished the law, but the British rulers of South Africa were keen to keep it, and so it also became part of the laws of Namibia when the country, known as “South-West Africa” back then, became South Africa’s mandate after World War I.  Pre-independence laws were retained upon independence, as the country couldn’t exactly start from zero as far as legislation was concerned.  So there it still is, the crime of “sodomy”.  
 
I ranted a few weeks ago that I though it commendable that Namibians appeared in general less bitter towards their former colonial oppressors and more forward-looking than Kenyans.  Well the exception is the gay community.  The Brits have a lot to answer for to the Kenyan as well as the Namibian sexual minorities for making their lives more difficult and providing the breeding ground for the current wave of homophobia that is sweeping across parts of Africa.
 
 
(The key facts in this rant come from two excellent reports on the subject of homosexuality and the British empire, a short and engaging one by Michael Kirby which can be found here, and a comprehensive one by the Human Rights Watch available here.)
 
*This can be compared with the 5-year jail term handed down in Malaysia in March this year to opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, after his party gave its best performance in the polls in the December 2013 elections.
**Or in former Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or German colonies for that matter.
*** Robert Mugabe and other nutjobs appear to fail to see the irony when they rant against homosexuality as “un-African”, or a “white man’s disease”, thus defending the colonial laws.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Rant about Mud Huts and Witch Doctors

 
I have found myself surprised by Namibia on several fronts.  I have been surprised by how good the roads are.  I have been surprised by how barren the land is, and how there is little local fresh produce, most of it coming from South Africa in exactly the kind of excessive plastic wrapping we buy our fruit and veg in Europe.  I have been surprised by how forward-looking the people are, not holding grudges against their former colonial masters but excited about the prospects for their young country and confident that they will not repeat the mistakes of some of their neighbours.
 
 Why have I been surprised by these and many other things?
 
 Because they are different in Kenya.  Kenyan roads are on the whole dreadful.  Kenya is a lush and fertile country that grows amazing fruit and veg.  Kenyans are, I feel, held back by their bitterness towards the injustice they were subjected to during colonisation.
 
 Kenya is my only other experience of Sub-Saharan Africa.  So I had subconsciously assumed that Namibia would be like Kenya.  This is about as smart as assuming that one knows what Lithuania is like on the basis of having visited Spain.  In other words: pretty stupid.
 
 It made me wonder, though.  Is this a particular, slightly racist, problem we have with Africa, or is it a more general, human reaction?  Or is it just me?
 
 I am beginning to suspect that it is the first of these options.  “Black” (ie Sub-Saharan) Africa has held this special place in the imagination of westeners since the times of Dr Livingstone.  It is exotic and it is mysterious.  But it is all one.  We cannot tell one country from another, let alone one tribe from the hundreds of others that exist.  We assume that all Africans are Masai,* wear loin cloths, live in mud huts and consult their local witch doctor for their medical needs.  They can all run a marathon in two hours flat, in bare feet.  Development since the times of Dr Livingstone has been minimal – not in Africa, but in the mindsets of us westerners.
 
 I would have thought that I was a bit better than the average westener in this regard, but, alas, I was not.  Time for some self-reflection, I fear …
 
 
*Case on point: the tribe that Corinne Hofmann joined, and discussed in her Memoir The White Masai (Die weisse Massaï), was actually not the Masai at all, but the Samburu.  I suppose The White Samburu just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Early Musings about Namibia

First impressions on a few issues to which I will undoubtedly return once I have thought about them a bit more:

“Bureaucracy”:  Let’s just say we did not get the warmest welcome to the country.  I won’t bore you with the story of our visas/permits, but the end result is that we should have been all set to enter Namibia.  Apparently we were not.  The reason why we were not is essentially because the rules are so vague that it is anyone’s guess what is sufficient for the border guards on a given day.  The vagueness provides rich soil for bribery, nepotism and other wonderful things to flourish.  We were in the end ok, but to a large extent thanks to our boss being able to pull some strings.  As great as that was for us, it is obviously not how it should be.  Immigration and home affairs is the hotbed of corruption in many countries, even though much of it could be reduced, with fairly simple methods.  When we entered Egypt a few years ago, there were big signs at the border, in English, telling all entrants what was required for a visa and how much it would cost.  Rules such as this need to be clear, they need to specify what is required, on what basis can an application be denied, how much will it all cost and what is the timeframe within which the decision will be taken.  This all then needs to be publicly and visibly explained wherever necessary, with a number to call if a person has any complaints.  But there may have been a silver lining as our adventures were the last straw for her: our boss is now preparing a memo on necessary reforms to the Minister of Home Affairs.  Watch this space for future developments -- hopefully positive ones.

“Demography”: We naively thought that since the whole country had gone through oppression and the independence struggle, it would not be suffering from the problematic aspects of race relations that its former colonial master and neighbour South Africa is still experiencing.  We were wrong.  I am fascinated by how totally segregated the society is.  There is black / coloured Namibia, then there is Afrikaner Namibia, and at the top of the hierarchy (at least in their own opinion) is German Namibia.  Whites own everything and outside of the context of work, where they must interact with their black employees, the races do not mix.  It has so far been weird, sad and fascinating in equal measures.  On Saturday we were at the Windhoek Country Club for a wine tasting event.  It will surprise nobody that there were no more than a handful of black people among the several hundred guests.  To balance things out, on Sunday we went to an Africa Day exhibition football game between Sundowns (from South Africa) and the local African Stars.  In the stadium of several thousand spectators we spotted three other white faces.  When another traveller we met asked a local white teenager whether he had any black friends, apparently the response was that he didn’t, but this was “not because they were black, but because they had not gone to similar schools or had a similar life, so they just had nothing in common”.  As I said, weird, sad and fascinating.

“Muggings”:  When it comes to safety, we’ve heard some pretty wild stories.  We’ve been told time and again that we are prime targets as not only whites, but as foreigners.  We’ve been advised that carrying bags is stupid, walking is stupid, taking local taxis is stupid … basically everything apart from staying indoors and clutching our money to our chests is stupid.  By contrast, we’ve also been told by a foreigner who has lived here for close to 30 years that she has been mugged once and that was in New York.  Apparently there are many possible reactions.  We’ve met an American couple who rented a house in the leafy suburb, bought a car and basically lived their life here as much as possible as if they were still in the United States, avoiding all contact with the “local” environment to the extent they could.  We’ve also met a backpacker who clearly relished the story of how he was robbed at machetepoint and how he was now on his way to the border region with Angola, because that was the true wild west where it was all happening.  As for us, we’ve decided that we can’t waste our time here being scared.  We walk, we take taxis (there is no other public transport) and we attend “local” places and events.  We already had a taste of the more creative side of business at the football match, where there just happened to be an “altercation” at the narrow exit gate when we were leaving, and during all the jostling the people on both sides of F “accidentally” placed their hands in F’s pockets, as opposed to their own.  We cannot guarantee that we will not be mugged, the best we can aim for is that we will not be carrying anything that we will have trouble parting with if that happens.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Rant about Cynicism and Privilege



I think many of us aging hippies are fighting a constant battle between the idealism of our youth and the cynicism of experience that is slowly suffocating the idealism.  Thrown into the mix is also a generous dose of LIFE – that insidious thing: the work, the chores, the family, the friends, the hobbies …  It all seems to mean that even when we still have plans to save the world and give cynicism the finger, we wake up to notice that weeks, months, years have passed since we made that decision and we have in fact achieved nothing, because we have just been too busy getting on with our lives.

How to prevent idealism from dying?  There is no question that it is worth keeping it from dying, because a cynical world with no idealism is a bleak place in which I, for one, do not wish to live.

Then there is also the issue of privilege.  We all know we have it, but we often forget just how much of it we have.  We become blinded to the wealth, the opportunities, the love that surrounds us.  We forget how lucky we are and we begin to take everything for granted.  We think we are entitled to it, which is not only a sign of being ignoramuses, but also diminishes greatly the enjoyment we get from our good fortune.

We all have our ways of dealing with such profound issues of life.  I try to dabble in this in my everyday life by supporting organisations that do the valuable work of saving the world while I’m busy just doing work.  I also do it by keeping myself informed of the world, and engaging in discussions about it, whether over brunch with F or by ranting at my friends on the internet.

However, I find that none of this is enough for me.  I find myself losing perspective.  We can’t change anything anyway, so why try?  It is so easy just to give in to the cynicism, because it has the effect of justifying the privilege.

I need something more radical.  I need to ditch it all, to remind myself concretely about how the other half (more than half – vast majority, in fact) really lives and humbly offer the skills that I have to try to improve their lot, even if just by a little bit.  This is about wanting to save the world, but more honestly, it is much more about wanting to save myself.  From my cynicism and my privilege.

For the next three months my posts will come from Windhoek, Namibia, where F and I are currently giving a hand to the Gender Research and Advocacy Project of the Legal Assistance Centre.  Check out their awesome work at: http://www.lac.org.na.