Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Strength of Africa

In Lusaka, Zambia

When I asked Beauty, one of the widows at the Chikumbuso Women’s and Orphans Project in Lusaka, Zambia, how the women in Africa carry things on their heads so effortlessly, she laughed a hearty chuckle and simply said, “It’s tradition!” Seeing the baffled look on my face, she explained further. “I’ve always done it, even when I was a little girl. It’s much easier that way. And if it falls off, I just pick it up and keep going.” Beauty’s anecdote epitomizes the natural strength the women of Zambia convey each day. From carrying babies on their backs wrapped in chitenges, to cooking steaming hot nshima for several friends and family members, to the infamous loads of goods they rest upon their crowns, these women are the true warriors of Zambia.

During my internship, I have witnessed hard work and perseverance of African women. The widows and single mothers resort to Chikumbuso because Zambian life is difficult for them on their own. Society and lifestyle do not easily support women, even with development and independence. Many women that I have spoken with do not go past grade 8 in the Zambian school system. They become employed in hair plaiting (braiding), maid service or not at all. One of the girls that I spoke with at Chikumbuso named Elida enjoys repairing bicycles, though she confided in me that it is difficult for her to be taken seriously when she does because of her gender.
Our encounter with Chief Nkana also shed light on some of the conditions women face in Zambia. He spoke of the tradition of having several wives, and though he felt that 10 or 12 were too many, two or three were still acceptable. The Chief also brought up the situation of young girls drinking and having sex, cautioning against such activities, as though females were solely responsible for unprotected sex. His views were far different from ours, as we could see when he pointed out that our shorts were also too short; and then questioned how our fathers ever let us out of the house!

Unfair Expectations

When we visited the village of Mazabuka and were given tours by women of the village, they also spoke of the hardships that are faced by Zambian women. Men often take several wives, though they can “drop” them at any time. When I asked if the dropped wives could remarry, our village tour guides laughed as if I were a lunatic. When they noticed that I didn't understand, they exchanged a subtle glance. One of the women, Patricia, said, “Well yes, they can but… they normally don’t.”
It is impossible for me to comprehend marrying someone with several husbands, let alone being “dropped” at any point and then being barred from remarrying. It still seems as though the U.S. has a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights, it may be that Zambia has an even longer way to go. Traditional thinking about gender roles that exists in rural villages is beginning to clash with more modern, urban ideals. It is believed that women are not allowed to smoke in public; however, at a popular urban bar in Lusaka, I noticed a woman enjoying a cigarette outside (though it was the first and only time I witnessed it).

A Warrior’s Heart

Women are the driving force of the Zambian family. While men enjoy rest time during the day, married women gather food, cook it, and then clean up afterwards and continually throughout the day. All the while, the husbands sit outside their homes and wait for this process to take place. Seeing these women work so arduously and selflessly fills me with admiration. Though they face tragedy each day, these women possess a resilience that is untouchable.
When women at Chikumbuso received news that a community member died in an auto accident, many of them mourned together and left the compound. The next day, however, they were back making bags, sewing fabric and earning a living for themselves. In the face of Africa’s most brutal hardships, Zambian women stare the fiercest lion right in the face and challenge it.

Brooke Bunce is one of 18 students from Ohio University, studying abroad in Zambia over winter intercession about media, society, and governance, through the Institute for International Journalism.

She is a sophomore magazine journalism major with a specialization in women and gender studies.

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