17 October 2016

culture, tradition and knockin' boots.

When you are committed to long-term work in a developing country, the reality of affecting change in the lives of those with whom you live and serve can be daunting. Sometimes, I jealously look in the direction of folks who arrive for a short stay of one or two months in Tanzania, to do their work and then, jet back out. I envy how easy it can be to jump in and out of different worlds. At the same time, I think it's an approach that can lack the depth and nuance necessary to be a part of something that brings about real and lasting differences.

I sound pretty serious, huh?

In all honesty, these thoughts were inspired by a humorous but very honest conversation I had with the young women in my program, the LULU Project, within the last week. It reminded me of the difficulties surrounding long-term mission, the strength of culture and tradition, and the importance to try again and again to understand another people.

As I often do, I headed out one hot and sunny afternoon to visit one of the LULU Project clubs meeting in the small city of Mwanza. Although I dread the sweat, noise and occasional harassment involved in getting to these group locations, I truly enjoy meeting with the young women and hearing what they have to say about the topic at hand.

On this day, the lesson topic was HIV/AIDS, specifically facts and myths surrounding how you can contract the virus. This is one of my favorite lessons because young women, after being read a fact or myth out loud by the facilitator, try to figure out together whether the statement is true (a fact) or false (a myth). These discussions often result in strong and heated debates about why a myth could or could not be true. In a culture where girls are brought up to be quiet and demure, I value the moments when they feel comfortable enough to come out of their shells and express what really is going on inside.

One of the statements read to them was, "You can protect yourself from getting HIV by deciding to get married." Unfortunately, this statement is a myth, no matter what culture or country you reside in, as partners stray sexually and put their spouses at risk. Yet in Tanzania, this statement is particularly dangerous, as women are raised to be faithful to their future husbands and men... Well, it's complicated.

Tanzania, and the countries surrounding it that make up East Africa, have a history of polygamy, which was practiced in an effort to combat disease, famine and war that ravaged tribes and huge areas of land. It was common practice for one man to have many wives in an effort to strengthen the larger tribe and to create more offspring for the family, who could then be used to bring in more food or wealth into the clan. Even today, polygamous marriage is completely legal in Tanzania, although it is usually solely taken advantage of by certain Muslim traditions.

So what does this have to do with that LULU lesson? Let me bring it back now, y'all.

Tanzanian Christian men are not allowed to marry more than one woman but the tradition and culture surrounding relationships continues to encourage men to go outside of their marriage. This may not be overtly discussed but it is implicitly accepted by the history and the culture of the people.

This explains why more Tanzanian women have contracted HIV than men (520,000 men versus 780,000 women, as of 2015). It is not because women are the promiscuous ones, but because they are often the married wives of husbands who go outside of marriage, contract the virus, and return home, unknowingly infecting their spouses.

So what happens to a young married woman when she realizes she has contracted the virus from her husband after he has strayed? What should she do?

My young girls were discussing this question. Enter scene: humbling moment for long-term missioner. Stumped for an answer, the girls turned to me. "Sister Ashley, maybe you can advise us. What do you think someone should do in that situation?"


I began by working through the possibilities aloud with them. "First, there's the option of trying to speak to your husband about it."

Most of the girls replied by making noises signaling skepticism or disapproval. Before they said anything, I continued, "I know, I know. That's probably not the best action, unless you have a really honest husband."

Why did I say this? Because I know from being here for a few years that if a young woman were to confront her husband, essentially accusing him of adultery, he would turn it right back around on her, accusing her of contracting the virus because she strayed outside of the marriage. This would quickly backfire on her as the husband often has control of the finances and legally, control of the possessions and home. Within a day, he could force her to move out and she would be very hard pressed to do anything about it. So scratch that option.

I tried another tactic. "Second, you could try involving someone your husband trusts, like a government or religious leader, into the conversation to see if he could be persuaded."

The girls didn't like this one either. "But what if the leader also doesn't believe you?" they asked. I had to admit that this too was likely not going to end well, as most leaders are men and are prone to take the side of another man over a woman. Something about a bro code, I suppose.

I was quickly reaching the end of my rapidly fraying rope. "Well, you know what we advocate at LULU, right? Find a small business or skill such that you can provide for yourself and your family, so you don't have to rely on your husband for food and shelter. If you can do this, then you can be free and be able to be honest. If he kicks you out, you know you will be okay but he will also have to consider losing the income that you bring into the house as well."

They all nodded, making comments to one another that this was a surefire way to avoid problems for young women. Just as I was wiping the sweat off my brow, they hit me with another question, "But Ashley, do young women have these problems in the United States?"

Oh goodness.

I paused for a moment and thought through everything I wrote at the beginning of this post - the long-lasting effects of culture and tradition on a people and the inability of foreigners, even those of us who stay long-term, to truly understand what we're asking locals to consider.

"Both men and women are unfaithful in the United States," I began. "But I don't think the percentage is as high as it is in Tanzania..."

"Oh, you mean, it's not 100% of men?" one of the young girls responded jovially.

"No, I don't think so," I went on. "There's a lot more education about HIV/AIDS in the United States from a young age, so people are very aware and are afraid of it. It also has to do with the cultural practices in Tanzania that are still accepted and legal here. Western culture hasn't accepted polygamy for a very long time whereas it continues to be legal in Tanzania so that affects the way people think."

Everyone let that sink in for a minute. I held my breath, hoping I made some sense to the young women. Finally, one of the facilitators looked at me and asked, "But you see, don't you Ashley? You see the problems that we face?"

"Yes, I do," I responded. As much as a stranger in a strange land can understand after three years, I really do see.

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