Sunday, January 29, 2017

Feminism: It's Not Just About You

Feminism is Not Just About You.

In the past few months, I find myself continually discussing the idea of equality, and what it means to be feminist.  As an upper middle class white woman, I hear constantly this idea of women “playing the victim” or creating a problem and sense of inferiority where none exists.  This on the whole is a disheartening and frustrating view to hear, but it becomes more so as I realize that the only women who could really possibly believe this are other women like myself of extreme privilege. 

I have to say to these women, you’re right.  I personally do not face adversity every day because of my gender.  I have surrounded myself with people and organizations that empower women and see me as an equal, and more, as an individual.  I have grown up with two parents that have always fully and completely reinforced an idea of equality and individual strength between my brothers and me. I not only had the opportunity to go to college, but the ability and freedom to choose which college I wanted to attend.  I, of course, have had to deal with street harassers and the occasional man or teenage boy that makes sexist and demeaning jokes, or calls me “honey” or “baby doll”.  In truth, I have lead an incredibly and wonderfully privileged life. But this isn’t about me. 

I recently read an article titled “Yes, I am Equal.  I’m sorry You’re offended by Women Who Lack A Victim Mindset”, which attempts to explain in every way why feminism and this women’s movement are unnecessary and based on certain women’s need to avoid responsibility.  The author explains in her article,

In psychology, someone who has a victim mindset is said to have a martyr complex. These individuals seek out ways to victimize themselves in order to feed a psychological need or a desire to avoid responsibility. Unfortunately, the modern day feminist movement seems to be catering to these types of individuals.

Read the full article here: "Yes, I Am Equal.".    The author systematically goes through what she sees as being the feminist movement’s biggest causes and calls for action, and explains why, in her opinion, these are no longer things that need to be addressed.  While I disagree with ninety-nine percent of what she said, she does accidentally raise one of the biggest issues with “white” feminism: this idea that it’s all about you.  Inherently there will be people who disagree on certain points in every movement.  I understand that.  But we cannot deny that, although I as an individual, am accorded privilege and a sense of “equality” (whatever that word may mean), I am ONE incredibly lucky person.  The women’s march and feminism in general are not about how one person feels that they are not a victim.  It’s wonderful that there are women who feel strong and safe and fulfilled, but this movement is not about you.  It is about fighting for the marginalized.  The women who do NOT have equal opportunity, equal pay, equal consideration, or equal rights.  It’s about fighting for every shape, color, class, religion, and gender of woman. The author of the “Yes, I am Equal” article even states, that she applauds feminists who are fighting for a group of people who are legitimately being oppressed” implying that this only exists outside of the United States, but what she fails to address is that she has no basis for what oppression means or looks like to each woman.  NO ONE should ever have to feel unequal.  NO ONE should ever have to feel oppressed.  NO ONE should ever feel that they have to fight for rights that have been denied them.  It is the responsibility of those of us who are in a place of privilege, those who feel safe and equal, to stand up for those who are not.  Because there are women all over the United States who are not treated as first class citizens, who are pushed to the side and denied the rights that men and women in other classes of life are given freely.  I march and I fight for the rights of women who do not feel safe and equal, who ARE still victims of a system that is failing them.   





Friday, October 21, 2016

The Smells of “Home”

As many of you may have heard, or may not have heard, I am now back home in Alabama.  I have been medically evacuated for a series of issues ranging from security problems to my physical health to emotional health. To say the least, it’s been a rough few months. But rest assured, I am home safe and sound, and working to get back to Cameroon if my doctors, Peace Corps people, and myself decide that that’d be the right choice for me. 
            It’s been a whirlwind of changes over the last week.  They only decided to evacuate me the Friday before last, that Saturday I took the GRE test in Yaounde, then Sunday I went home, spent a wonderful last night in my house in Bamena, surrounded by some of my closest volunteer friends, who helped me get my house to an unknowing state of disorder and rest, we had a last spaghetti omelet in my village, where we were harassed and bothered by a very drunk old man who made me feel very sure that Peace Corps’ decision to send me home for a bit was the right one, and then Monday morning I travelled back to Yaounde to fly home on Tuesday. 

I got into Birmingham after 30 hours (not including the time it took to get from Bamena to Yaounde) of airport terminals, too small airplane seats, and reheated meals coming in paper or tin boxes “elegantly” spattered on to plastic trays.   Needless to say, it was a huge relief to finally arrive in the once familiar Birmingham airport.  My parents picked me up, and, following an old family tradition, we went straight to one of my favorite Birmingham Breweries: Avondale Brewing Company.  There I saw my good friend Dallas, who became a father in the time I’ve been gone! And I had my first on tap IPA on American soil in a year and a half. I deliriously sipped my beer and tried to focus on my parents’ faces as we chatted about something that I can’t remember.  I responded to all the questions I was asked, I think.  But I was, and have been since getting back, lost in sensations. 

          The upwards view from the patio in my backyard in Birmingham, Alabama 

It is incredibly bizarre to feel like you are coming home to a place not because the sights and people are the same, because many of those have changed over the time I’ve been gone, but because the smells are the same.  Alabama will forever hold the smell of humidity, and pine trees wrapped in warmth.  Vague wafts of barbeque and red clay, brewing hops, and green grass, and something that I don’t think I will ever be able to describe as anything more than just “that Birmingham smell”.  After so long away, I’d forgotten how wonderful those smells are. 
            Cameroon is a very pungent place, but in general I wouldn’t describe the smells of Cameroon as being particularly enticing.  I think that if I came from Cameroon I would find the smell of fufu and legumes, red palm oil, body heat, the giant jealousy flowers, , as welcoming as I suddenly found the smells in Birmingham, but of all the things I grew to love in Cameroon, the smells were never one of them. 

Adora: the "thing" from Cameroon I miss the most. 
Someone who often smelled like cheap soap, dirty clothes, mud, and smiles.
And the person I'm most scared I'll never see again.

            It has been so long since I’ve been constantly surrounded by thoroughly cleaned clothes smelling of dryer sheets, women with body spray and perfume, constant smells of shampoo and conditioner, and not to mention the smell of trees. Trees were everywhere in my village, but I never once distinguished their smells from the mass of dust, mud, and over-ripe guavas. My family keeps laughing at my over sensitive nose (this makes me a super smeller right?), but each person I walk by holds a different “scent” often somewhat chemical, with bits of flower or spice or something to it, as opposed to the varying degrees of body odor that my village friends sported. It is so wonderful to walk into my house in Birmingham and be greeted by the smells of my mother’s garden, roasted coffee, and an underlying smell of rosemary, mint, and basil.

 
My dog Bacchus staring off our back porch

            In the last week, I feel as though my eyes and mind have been lying to me.  With how quickly I made it home, I can’t quite convince myself that it’s real. Even with my mom’s arms wrapped around me, it seems like an elaborate dream.  The only thing that is keeping me from discounting it completely is the smell. When I start to panic about where I am, what I’m doing, whether or not I’ll ever make it back to say goodbye to Adora, or my friends, I need only take a deep breathe through my nose, and instantly I feel more at ease.
            I am sure this sensation will fade, and I will eventually readjust myself to the smells and sensation that make up home in Birmingham, but for the moment, I’m taking every smell as it comes.




Thursday, August 4, 2016

Everything That's Trying to Kill Me

I am about to finish reading The Poisonwood Bible for the first time.  I think I would recommend it, although I really don’t know how much of it I would understand or be able to accept if I were not living here in Cameroon.  I think a lot of it would horrify me if I hadn’t already seen much of what the book describes (the poverty and daily life of the Congolese people, or some of their beliefs and traditions that I am slowly but surely trying to understand).  Modern day Cameroon is of course not exactly like the Congo in the 60s-80s, and my village with a large main paved road riding right through it, is not the tiny hidden bush village of Kilanga that the Price (lovely yet terrifying coincidence of names there…) Family found themselves in, but the observations of the Price girls resonate very much with my experience here, and the incessant guilt and insecurity of being a white girl in a country that is still struggling with the aftermaths of colonialism and contact with the Western world.

            I like to joke with my volunteer friends that this country is “literally trying to kill us all”, and a lot of the time that is what living here feels like for someone from the “temperate swamp-land” of Birmingham, Alabama. I have lived in places with extreme heat and humidity, and places of extreme cold and snow (Minnesota), but this country fights against the Western invaders in every way that it can.  The water is full of parasites and microorganisms ready to find their way into your blood and start eating your brain, the ground is full of chiggers and worms ready to burrow into your toes and start laying eggs under your skin.  The vines and vegetation grow faster than we can keep them back; constantly trying to reclaim the land we stole from them.  There are infections and diseases here that cannot actually be fought against, but only dealt with once they have already infected you. And lets not even go into the poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders bigger than my fist, and spitting venom cockroaches, than protect every corner of this country.  In my last year, I’ve already had intestinal parasites, staph infections, and three chiggers (not like American chiggers: they burrow under your skin to lay their eggs, that then hatch and spread... I will spare you the pictures). But really, I’ve gotten off easy.  One of my close friends was sent home a month ago due to a severe mango allergy, a severe bamboo allergy, and malaria, (not to mention the stinging venom rash, scabies, and stomach worms that he dealt with) all of which kept him in and out of the hospital for about four months before he got sent home for good. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love this country most of the time.  It’s hard, but living here is a completely different perspective on the world.  The people of Cameroon are some of the most ingenious and strong people I will ever meet. They are faced with all of the same problems as those of us coming in for a brief spell, but they handle it all in stride. Death is a common occurrence here, and both children and old age are precious, as neither is easily achieved.  Every person in this country walks on a razor’s edge balance between nature and industry.  The trees are being cut down right and left for timber and firewood, roads are constructed between major cities, and every family strives for electricity and a television.  Yet, the trees and vegetation may disappear for a moment, but as soon as the rains arrive, they are back taller than the houses made from their forefathers, the roads are full of potholes and often become rivers with the heavy rains, and electricity and power are based on the whim of the drought and the storm;

“I am coming to understand the length and breadth of outsiders’ failure to impose themselves on Africa. This is not Brussels or Moscow or Macon, Georgia. This is famine or flood. You can’t teach a thing until you’ve learned that.  The tropics will intoxicate you with the sweetness of frangipani flowers and lay you down with the sting of a viper, with hardly room to breathe in between.  It’s a great shock to souls gently reared in places of moderate clime, hope, and dread.” – Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

Reading The Poisonwood Bible, I have developed a wish that I could have seen Cameroon before colonialism.  Before our western ideas of “civilization” and “commerce” were imposed on a society that was so incredibly developed in a different line from our own.  Every now and then I find myself thinking that my students will never be able to learn the lessons I’m trying to teach, or that my neighbors will forever be stuck in their “simple” way of life.  I hear my more educated Cameroonian coworkers commenting on the stupidity of the students or the people of the village, and the underdeveloped and “stupid” nature of all Cameroonians, but what upsets me the most is that all of this comes from a contact with the Western world.  The toy cars and water systems that my neighbors develop out of nothing but dried wood or mud and sand are incredibly complex and much sturdier than the imported tools and mechanisms.  The farming systems around me, and incredible uses of land baffle me.  Each one of my neighbors speaks at least 3 languages, although most speak closer to 6 or 7, even the young 3-4 year old children (and none of them can understand why I only speak French and English, and am struggling to learn the local language).  They may not be able to read, but their ability to immediately size up a pile of potatoes and give you a price high enough that by the end of 20 minutes of negotiating they will end up with a price that still gives the seller a net profit, but doesn’t lose them money, is more than I can ever hope to achieve. Their acceptance of death, paired with their sense of “unity” and “family” makes me consistently feel like the most selfish and self-involved person in the world. I am learning things from this country and it’s people that are impossible for me to really understand, even as I adopt the customs.  Learning the difference between someone asking me for money because I am white, or having mama Clemantine ask me for 2,000 CFA because we are family and her husband did not leave her enough today, is an incredible difference.

In teaching and working here, I often feel a sense of futility at what I am trying to impose upon my students: the English language and an understanding of different cultures and ideas, the importance of reading and education in making your way in the world, etc.  But what I keep coming back to is the sense that this is not America. In telling my students that if they have a good enough education and study hard enough, they can achieve anything, I am lying to them.  In this country, it requires so much more: money and good connections in a system built on bribery and corruption, the ability to not only move to a bigger city but also the luck to find a job there, the simple amount of money it takes to continue in education even just to high school.  I still, of course, encourage them to work hard and find their passion, but the entire education system and sense of commerce and “success” feel like western ideals that I am continuing to perpetuate in a country that may have been better off without us. 
 I am considered beautiful in this country because I have white skin.  My students and neighbors envy my sleek, black kindle, not because they are impressed with the amount of books I can carry around on it, but because it is an electronic device that looks “french” ...whatever that means. Having electricity and a tv within the house are more desirable than running water, because it connects them to the western world.  My fellow teachers and neighbors love to tell me things (generally wildly false) about the United States, and Europe, and what they imagine life to be like there. Despite my protests and calm explanations, it’s clear that they never fully believe me when I try to dispel their ideas that, for example, it never gets colder than 70 degrees F, that no one is poor or homeless, or that you can buy a Mercedes for what would be $50.  These are the ideas they have developed or been taught by the news and their Spanish tele-novellas.  The biggest insult I hear Cameroonians using against each other is “villageouis!” (directly translated as “village-y”), but it is in the villages that the true heart of Cameroon still thrives: the aspects that have not been shifted and modified by the need for better roads to transport goods or for a new Christian church.  It is in the village that the souls of the ancestors still live, and the totems (or spirit animals) still stalk their prey.  
This sounds very condescending and presumptive of me, and I am still working hard on not judging my surroundings based on my own western understanding of the way things “should be”, but I do wish that I could have experienced this culture and lifestyle before colonialism.  I am desperately curious as to what this life would be like: how colonialism and the introduction of Christianity and western ideals has shifted these people, how this country would have developed without our influence, whether it would be more of a global presence of its own accord or if it would still be it’s own world.  Of course, my presence would completely defeat the point of this “untouched” Cameroon, but I often have to wonder if my work here is merely a continuance of imposed ideas of “westernism” and colonialism: the benevolent American swooping in to save the poor lost and misguided souls of Cameroon.  I like to believe that I am helping my students and village for their own purposes, to help them survive in this country and this world, introducing new ways of thinking, and new ideas that may or may not help them, but how much of that is my own sense of self-importance and that what I believe is more “right” than what they believe? I do not think that women should be prevented from going to school or that children should be beaten so that they learn better, but how much of that was not originally Cameroon, but ideas brought in by colonialism and missionaries in the beginning?  In talking about woman’s “place” in the household, I often have the Bible quoted at me as reasoning.  When I speak out against corporal punishment, I am told that “Africans must be beaten or else they won’t learn”.  I have had many conversations with some of the well educated leaders of my village who give me articles written by professors at Cameroonian universities who have travelled and studied in Europe or the United States, that claim that the problem with Cameroonians is their inherent “African-ness”, that they are too lazy and unmotivated, and therefore destined to be forever left behind the rest of the world. When I argue against these ideas, and sight the issues of fewer resources and opportunities, the corruption within the government, or issues of poverty or imposed ideals, I am told I do not understand because I’m not “African”.



To be fair, I don’t fully understand. I do think that what the Peace Corps does is very important, and in general is a wonderful and idealistic organization.  In a perfect world, the Peace Corps would be superfluous and unnecessary, but despite my fears of imposing my ideas upon another culture, I believe that we are generally striving to do good.  I like to, perhaps very self-righteously and arrogantly, believe that I am not trying to change a country’s culture, but that I am presenting my students with different options and ways of thinking: not trying to force them into it, but giving them an option and allowing them to choose for themselves.  I am trying to instill the idea of critical thinking and observation into my students, not so that they will come around to my way of thinking, but so that they can make informed decisions about the paths their lives will take.  I do not want to tell my girls that they should not want to get married and have children, but simply give them a chance to take another path in life if they choose.

I can never fully understand the life my students lead, the daily trials of my closest friends here, the worries of money, food, floods, droughts, pregnancy, death, support, corruption, etc.  I am so privileged to be able to glimpse even a brief moment of the hardship in this country and walk away from it saying “wow, that sucks, thank goodness I was born somewhere else”, but I can never experience what it means to truly be Cameroonian.  I will never lead that life. I can only come in, and try to help where I think I can, and hope that my influence has not negatively impacted what it means to be Cameroonian, and if I’m lucky, I will have offered a new opportunity to one or two of my students.