weeks ago, I was on my way to Amsterdam to attend a gathering of ‘Nobel Women
Initiative’. I shared a seat with a
man called Musi. He was one of those
curious passengers who start a conversation by complimenting you on your T-shirt but then goes on to ask you about your
mother, where you are going and what you do for a living. I told him I was a servant of women, going
to join my sisters in discussing strategies for defending women activists;
those that defend other women.
I had hoped that he would be put off by my deliberate use of the word ‘feminists’ but he was not. Instead he wondered if I was not borrowing western ideology, and was curious about how I became an activist and a feminist.
Below are the anecdotes from the story that I shared with him.
In my ‘Bakiga’ tribe when a woman produces a baby girl, it’s taken for granted that she will be a feminist leader. The mother teaches her a song that equips her with tools and strategies she needs to stay safe and healthy, to create memories that give her something to look backward to with pride, and look forward to with hope, joy and peace. It’s not just any song; it’s a soul song, a companion to life’s journey with elements that she should nurture. The song discourages what makes her smaller/invisible, less human but encourages what makes her visible, powerful and strong. It ignites fire within her so that she is able to fight patriarchy and its brutality. The song gives her the energy to stand up and challenge stigma, taboos and denial about sex and sexuality, tolerance for violence against women, and some of the most humiliating and degrading practices that subjugate women. The song emphasises the importance of creating a vision for her own life development, reflection and going forward wisely. It teaches her to take a moment everyday to love herself by appreciating who she is and nurturing her own sources of inspiration.
The song described above has leadership instructive messages, proverbs that enrich the soul and riddles that make a little girl stop and think.
The soul song is reinforced by different practices that train her to walk wisely in the world.
For example, the little girl is given exercises that teach her to remain alert, to continuously read her world and to respond creatively so as to create wholeness. Later on this teaching becomes a tool that reminds her to identify all major forms of exploitation, oppression, human rights violations and discrimination, including male domination, class exploitation, homophobia, imperialism, racism, corruption, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, and traditionalism and fight them.
The little girl is taught the power of passion as a driver of change by being introduced to toys and puzzles that she is likely to fall in love with, and games that nurture and build passion and those that destroy it. Later in life, she uses this experience to be passionate about whatever she gets involved in and her passion communicates itself to others. She works with dedication and commitment, with a big emphasis on quality and creativity, really working towards what matters for her and the people she cares about.
The importance of deliberately celebrating small as well as big victories in her personal life is taught at a tender age. When she achieves a small thing, it’s treated as a huge cause for celebration. She is told that celebrating herself and others is energising and is one way to combat the discriminatory systems against happy girls and women found in society, academia, the media and the art world.
The young girl is taken to a family field to cultivate alone (not as child labour but as a form of learning). She works hard on her own and at the end of the day, is tired but with little progress. The following day, she is allowed to choose other young people to cultivate with to lessen the burden. Naturally, she chooses her friends but the mother insists that she should work with many different people, even the ones she is not close to. Gradually she learns to appreciate that each person is different and hence to embrace contradiction, hold the polarities and an open free space for other voices. She also learns that different people have different strengths. Some can cultivate and do it well, others clear the ground, another group makes food and yet others are entertainers who make the task easier and enjoyable. The experience teaches her that by bringing all their energies together, a bigger ground is covered; the task is made lighter with lots of laughter, reminding each other of the richness and diversity of their existence. This collective style of work challenges the competitive nature of capitalist societies.
The mother continues to push her to create space for herself to be alone, and enjoy the power of solitude, to really understand that she is a political human being. Her mother emphasises the importance of self care and well being no matter how busy she is. She assesses that a fragmented body produces a culture of fragmentation where every thing gets split into pieces; self, relationships, time, work, and friendships. In a collective, lack of self care makes individuals chew each other and eventually chew whatever they are working on. The little girl is reminded that every moment, everything she does matters because that is how she creates the future.
It does not matter if she is an only child, she is taught to appreciate the power of walking with sisters, believing in them, accompanying each other on life’s uphill patriarchal journey. Later on in life, as an activist and feminist, she carries the lessons into adulthood and is able to appreciate the advantages of alliance-building with and among other human rights defenders across issue, sectors, and identity and how to use this to protect each other. She also learns that alliance building requires constant learning and relearning, developing a common language, strategies and tools.
Every evening, she sits with the family and is taught to listen attentively. Listening as a political act, paying attention to people and while she speaks, doing so assertively, looking authority figures straight in the eye without batting an eye lash, stating her position and values strongly and allowing others the choice of agreeing or resisting. Even if others disagree, she is encouraged to seize her power, take a stance and not carry a victim mentality. Of equal importance is the transformation of relationships between her and her parents and ‘big’ and ‘little’ sisters from patriarchal/matriarchal dominance to one of equity and mutual respect. In fact she is encouraged to call her parents by their real names. It is believed that this promotes equality.
From a tender age, the little girl carries her entire story of transformative feminist ancestors. These stories provide role models to inspire her to take action, individually and collectively. Storytelling also provides an opportunity for her as an activist to reflect on her life and the lives of other women, and achievements as well as challenges, and to display her talents as story teller, artist and analyst.
As a child, she is allowed time to have lots of fun; to run joyfully in the wind, and let the body stretch to its full height She learns that women can be all and everything, at all ages. It is up to her how she behaves; not necessarily to win the approval of others, but for her own dignity, pleasure and self-respect, while being respectful of others. Her mother repeatedly tells her to infuse herself and her movement(s) with a deep sense of humanity and love, of possibility and of a consciously chosen future.
I was about to explain that this was my story, that I learnt activism at my mother’s feet but I heard someone snoring. Sisters, it was Musi.
Hope Chigudu was attending the the Nobel Women's Initiative conference: 'Defending the Defenders' , April 24-26. Read more articles by participants and speakers. Marion Bowman and Jennifer Allsopp reported for oD 50.50.