30 January 2014

women's work? say what?

Every day, as I mentioned in my post on our daily school schedule, we have two class periods, back to back, called Conversation and Stories. These classes, while annoying because much of the content has to be memorized, are great for cultural learning and practicing our KiSwahili. We get the opportunity to discuss local customs, ways of thinking, and situations we may encounter, like being a guest in someone’s home.

So what was my reaction today when I learned the topic was going to be all about the role of women in Tanzania? Well, to be honest, I was a bit disgusted.

perfectly captures my reaction.

“Stop the press!” you’re thinking. “Ashley is all about women's equality and loves talking about the role of women!”

Ding ding ding! You’re right. Except, only knowing the little bit that I know about Tanzania, I’m already dissatisfied with women’s conditions. And many of the male teachers at the language school know how I feel. And they like to push my buttons, because they know they can.

michael can tell you that this is not wise.

Plus, our Conversation, which I am now memorizing in KiSwahili, went a little something like this:

Scene: An American is visiting the home of a married Tanzanian couple.

American: How are things at your home?
Man: They are good. How have you been these days?
American: I’ve been good. Are you relaxing today?
Man: Yes, I’m relaxing but my wife can’t relax.
American: Why can’t she relax?
Man: She’s doing women’s work.
American: In my country, men and women do work equally.
Woman: Our tribe’s customs dictate the work we do.
American: Do women like these working conditions?
Woman: No, we don’t like them. We have begun to complain.



“But wait, what is women’s work?” you’re now saying aloud to your computer. “Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds?”

From what I can understand so far, women’s work is basically anything men don’t want to do. (Kidding! But not really.) Women are expected to do all of the housework, which includes all of the cooking, keeping the house clean, and tending to the children.

“Hey! That sounds like a stay-at-home mom!” I can hear you saying. “What’s the big deal?”

Well, usually, they’re not stay-at-home moms. Women are expected to contribute financially to their home as well. Many have jobs outside the home, such as tailoring, cooking, and farming alongside the husband. They have demanding jobs in addition to all of the "women’s work".

pretty true here.

Women are considered such fantastic workers in Tanzania, that when a woman is married, her future husband has to pay a dowry to her family, acknowledging the financial loss that her family will feel because of the marriage. Most of the time, men have to set aside money for this dowry. I’m no expert, but I’ve heard from our teachers that it can take up to a year for the average man to save up.

a dowry usually consists of a good amount of these.
As told to me by one of my male teachers, many Tanzanian women are aware that the current gender roles are unequal and would like to see things change in their lifetime.

But there are voices from all sides telling them, “NO.” There are tribal voices, sometimes even elder women, instructing them to honor and respect the roles as set by their tribe. (There are over 120 tribes in Tanzania and although all citizens now consider themselves "Tanzanian", their customs still have a profound impact on their lifestyle.) There is the voice of poverty, which keeps them so mentally, emotionally, and physically engaged in the act of caring for themselves and their children that they don’t have the luxury of thinking about a better life.

what tanzanian women are hearing. 

Most importantly, there’s the voice of their husband, who being raised in this culture, is not likely to want any change in gender roles. More than that, it is openly acknowledged that domestic violence is a tool used to keep women in this situation. Many times during our day at language school, Michael and I will be asked, jokingly, if we beat or hit each other. The male teachers have told Michael that they will teach him how to hit me. And they have assured me the same right.

Incredible to us, right?
'nuff said.

As a newly arrived foreigner (let me underscore that!), domestic violence and its acceptance will likely be one of the most frustrating aspects of the role of women in Tanzania during our time here. From Michael and I’s work in the United States with domestic violence, we know it keeps women trapped. They fear to leave. They fear to advocate for themselves. They fear to lose their children.

Tanzanian women have those same fears, only magnified because of the importance of being married and bearing many children. In this environment, how could anyone expect Tanzanian women to rise up and advocate for change?

hard not to stay silent, though.

As much as I would like to get up on my soapbox and get Tanzanian women riled up, I can’t. Michael and I are completely new. We know something like 1% about the country in which we are now living. We need to sit back and observe for a good long time before we jump to rash conclusions and actions.

To appease ourselves, all Michael and I can do is translate the following sentences into KiSwahili as homework:

“Our male teachers like to wash clothes.”
“Michael helps Ashley clean the house. Ashley loves Michael.”
“Michael and Ashley teach young boys how to cook.”
That’ll have to do for now.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Ashley and Michalel ~
    The love, honor and respect you demonstrate on a daily basis toward one another will speak more than any words you can say! Live out your Christian beliefs with a quiet, gentle spirit -- allow the Holy Spirit to do His job. You're not going to change a nation overnight -- but, you might effect change one person at a time......
    Ask God for the peace that passes all human understanding and seek His wisdom and discernment on a daily basis! Ask Him to guard the door to your mouth and the opportuity to speak when, what God wants to share through you, will be received. Seek His Grace daily and continue to show acts of kindness toward one another -- you will be asked "why"? Then, God will give you the opportunity to share that it is out of God's love for you that you share that love for others....
    People are going to have to trust you to receive it -- that is a privilege that will be earned over time. So, don't just ask God for patience -- seek His Patience, His Peace, His Joy, His Comfort!!

    I know you both know all this -- Christians are in relationship with one another to lift others up and encourage. I pray that my words (really the Holy Spirit's) will settle deep in your hearts.

    I love you and am praying for you every day!!
    Aunt Eileen

  3. By the Way -- you have a great sense of humor - I pray that you will never lose that!
    Love ~ Aunt Eileen

  4. Very well-written! I see the same things in Brazil. At a luncheon last year, the women joked that "you know (my son) isn't Brazilian because he's helping in the kitchen!" They they joked that my toddler son needed to give lessons to their husbands. Sometimes much of the work we do is simply leading by example.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Kim! And kudos to your son! :) I often have to remind myself that actions are stronger than words. I can say all I want to Tanzanian men about women's rights but Michael's actions are what will truly lead them to think differently and to change.


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