I was thinking last week that the only real impact the UN General Assembly was having on my day-to-day life was the traffic. I’m living on the same side of New York as the UN buildings are. Never mind that it’s some 60 blocks south of me. Manhattan is a small island, and pressure on one part of the island bulges out to the rest of it. So I know the UN delegates met because all their armoured cars and police escorts were delaying my cross-town bus by at least an hour each day.
And then I thought that I’d known that they met because the street I was walking down last Monday night was closed. And I had to go around. I figured that was because some diplomatic what-what was hobnobbing in some posh NYC penthouse. But, I learnt today, that wasn’t it at all. Apparently my neighbourhood is one of the preferred locations for shooting the US mafia television show The Sopranos. I’ve never watched it. But it seems they close down our streets all the time for filming. Who benefits from that? What if you live next door? Are you stuck inside all day? Never mind. I have no idea.
The other evidence I had that the UN was meeting was the exciting kerfuffle on Thursday afternoon when a whole section of the Columbia University campus was closed off and two police cars, an ambulance, three SUV’s and a limousine came screeching down the school’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, sirens screaming. The convoy slammed to a halt, six large men in suits leapt out of the SUV’s, sprinted to the black stretch limo, and hustled a man in a white military uniform the 25 metres from where they were parked to the back entrance of a campus theatre.
Evo Morales, the coca leaf bearing, resource nationalizing, imperialist decrying president of Bolivia had arrived to give a talk at the university. But what’s with the pomp and ceremony? Does he really think someone is going to leap out from behind the oak trees and give him a klap?
If even the “good” presidents get motorcades like that, what’s ever going to make robert mugabe change his ways!
Anyway. The politrixians keep meeting. And the rest of us keep muddling along. My best friend tells me even the IMF is estimating inflation in Zimbabwe to be on its way to 4000% next year. But it’s not like those esteemed heads of state gave baba chatunga the cold shoulder. The US might have travel bans on selected members of zanu pf, but they don’t apply for UN meetings.
As far as I can tell, the best thing to come out of the whole shebang was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calling US President George Bush “the devil.” And watching the conservative press foam at the mouth in rabid astonishment.
In an interview on Democracy Now radio on Friday, I heard Evo Morales reckon he’d “rather be the head of a rat than the tail of a horse.” That may well be true. But give me the horses’ tails over the heads of state any day.
United Nations, Zimbabwe
Ive been relying on the BBC World Service morning radio programme to keep me a bit abreast of world news as I begin a Master’s degree course here in New York.
This week, they have had some features on the Presidential Elections currently being held in Gambia. The country sounds very poor, and is very small. Illiteracy is so high, the country is voting with marbles. Rather than having paper ballots, voters go into a booth where there is a tray of marbles. And three different canisters into which the voter drops a marble. The drums are painted different colours, representing the three different candidates. As the marble goes in, it strikes a bell, so the officials outside the booth can hear if any one is voting twice. The bell sounds like a bicycle bell—so people aren’t allowed to bring their bicycles too close to the polling stations. The drums have been designed in a way that they stack the marbles in layers. To make it easier to count them later.
And as different and curious as the whole set up sounds, something about it really made me think of Zimbabwe. Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994, done a lot to develop the country’s infrastructure. He’s built roads and schools and clinics and people are pleased about that. But this infrastructure has not translated into economic prosperity. People remain very poor. And then there is that sticky question of human rights. The day of the elections itself is quiet, which will most likely lead many observers to call the elections “free and fair.” Never mind the fact that the few independent radio stations in the country are so intimidated they only play music—they think they would be too controversial if they covered any news. Two weeks ago, one of the few journalists who did dare to speak out was arrested and fired from his job. Another journalist “disappeared” in July and hasn’t been seen since. These days newspapers don’t wait for the state to crack down on them—self censorship is more the norm.
Self-censorship is one of the greatest restrictors of free expression in Zimbabwe. The Interception of Communications Bill promises to be problematic. But even more problematic is Zimbabweans’ own self censorship. This isn’t just the newspapers, it’s the public and civil society organisations as well. Yesterday I went to a meeting with a group of other people. We have grouped together to monitor New York newspapers and write letters about press coverage of rape and sexual abuse. It’s a small, informal, easy going set up. We pass around a calendar and everyone signs up to monitor, or write, or edit, on whatever days they can. For its simplicity, it really works. We’ve written 16 letters in the past three weeks, one of which has been published and one of which caused a correction to be published in that newspaper.
I know the circumstances are different. But it got me thinking about what a fun, engaging and potentially powerful tool something as simple as letters to the editor writing circles could be. Simple, inexpensive and motivating. If you never speak out, can you complain when you’re not heard?
The currency conversion madness continues at home. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the $6 million “old” dollars that I took out of the country with as a safety measure so I’d have some cash when I got back will be rendered worthless. And who knows what will happen to the plus minus $30 million I’d left in my bank account.
What about anyone else who was also travelling at this time? It’s school holidays, and many businesses and families who are able to take time out during August. I wonder how many are rushing back early to make sure they can convert their cash before the deadline on 21 August.
I guess it gives a whole new meaning to “you can’t take it with you.”
And unsurprisingly, the chaos with the currency is rippling out to the rest of the economy.
According to economist and commentator Eddie Cross, “this morning one service station in Bulawayo was asking Z$1 165 000 (“old” dollars) for a litre of fuel! That is up 100 per cent in 7 days.” Cross also reports that “the banks also say now they were not consulted by the Reserve Bank prior to the changes announced by Gono on Monday - they say his statement was the first intimation they had apart from rumours the previous week. When they asked the Bank about the rumours they were told to wait for a statement.”
It’s amazing, then, that the email that my bank, CABS sent around to its account holders was so staid and polite. More than ever, I’d hate to be in the banking industry right now. As if the closures and uncertainty of the past five years wasn’t enough, now they’re trying to keep up with converting an entire currency regime in less than three weeks. They’ve stopped their point of sales/zim switch type services, but amazingly still have their ATM’s open—though I assume the type of money you withdraw depends on whether they have the “new” notes in stock yet.
The police are apparently also stopping people and looking for “excessive” amounts of cash on person. The limit on “old” cash that can be deposited into the bank is $100 million—less than 10 litres of petrol at that Bulawayo service station. Two pastors were arrested and held for two nights and their funds confiscated (they were each carrying the domestic limit of Z$100 million). It took a lawyer to get them out and to recover their money.
Cross reckons that, at present inflation rates it will be hardly 8 months before the country is back to where it was last week—“piles of useless money to do anything with and would be looking again at chopping three zero's off our currency.” In fact, Cross reports, “[Reserve Bank Governor Gideon] Gono has said as much - he has promised a new currency altogether - and said this week that we would get no notice of the change and only 7 days to swap the old for the new. I guess he really thinks that practice makes each operation easier! I hope that they will learn something from this complete shambles, but if our recent experience is anything to go by - they will not learn anything at all.”
As Zimbabweans settle in for a four day holiday weekend, (“Heroes” and Defence Forces Days), there is yet again little to celebrate. But, somehow, there remains that dogged insistence on looking at the bright side. As I sit through a heat wave in New York City, with reports that a few thousand households here and there are sporadically without power when the temperature gets too high, and electricity demand exceeds supply, I’m reminded of an email a friend sent through recently. In New York, that handful of power shortages forces a public hearing and inquiry into the New York power company. In Zimbabwe, it’s just one more in a long list of day to day hurdles that make life more challenging. And we make a plan.
“We had LOTS of LONG times without ZESA last week . . . but at least it makes us really appreciate light and cookers and fridges and such when it's back and there's no gas (for back up cooking systems) in the country, so don't know what we'll do when the gas we do have runs out . . . but there is some wood . . .”
And, as I’ve commented before, it’s hard sometimes to know if that make a plan mentality is a blessing or a curse. Perhaps if we weren’t so resilient, we’d be more inclined to be more demanding of our politicians. David Coltart, a Member of Parliament for the Mutambara faction of the MDC, has speculated that political change in Zimbabwe is still some far time off. In [link=http://www.iwpr.net/?p=acr&s=f&o=321865&apc_state=henpacr ]Looking for signs of change in Zimbabwe[/link], the Institute for War and Peace Reporting stated “[Coltart says] the situation in Zimbabwe lacks ‘the pressure cooker build-up’ that is needed to make mass demonstrations happen. ‘There is not enough tension in the country because of the safety valves provides by the diasporans. There are millions of Zimbabweans in the Diaspora who are [remitting money home and] enabling many families to survive.’”
I am inclined to agree with him. But I would be happy to be proved wrong. Maybe this currency fiasco will prove to be the final straw that activates Zimbabweans into collective, non violent action to demand a government that respects and listens to us.
One of the things I’m most aware of from spending time in the US is how little world news I really follow when I’m at home. I read the world headlines on line occasionally, and maybe catch a bit of BBC World Service or Radio Netherlands news on the short wave radio. But mostly I keep up with local and national news, and that’s about it.
So it’s been a hard, sobering, eye opening time to listen to the BBC World Service News Hour each morning for the past several weeks. And, in my own cynical way, I end up not surprised that I ignore so much world news so much of the time. Who can keep up? This morning in particular it all felt like too much. Between Lebanon and Israel and Iraq, I was just left wondering, what’s the point in any of this. Where does one even start to understand or make sense of things. And, of course, what news does one trust and how do you sift through the biases.
And so, as I tend to do when my brain can’t cope up with the politics of something, I tend towards the personal. Like the story of the university student in Baghdad, whose family insists she travel with a mobile phone so they can tell her at the end of each day whether their house is still standing, their street is clear, and if it’s safe for her to come home then. The taxi drivers in Beirut who preface all new fares with the disclaimer that they may or may not be able to take you to your destination—the destination may not exist, and they may run out of fuel along the way. Residents in Beirut who say that Israel is now re-bombing targets that it has already destroyed. Families who sit outside in the evenings playing cards and enjoying the cooler night air, and look up not with fear but with fatigue and irritation when they hear the drone of the bomber planes overhead. The story of the 15 year old Lebanese boy now planning to join Hezbollah to defend Islam—with his 9 and 12 year old brothers, their mother standing proudly by to see them off.
I look for the interviews, the sound clips, the every day people’s take on things, like these featured on the BBC:
After Qana: Lebanese and Israeli views
Israeli army relatives speak
Israelis on the Lebanon offensive
And I look for the blogs, the stories of people living through the assaults on either side, like Siege of Lebanon.
One small glimmer out of the whole thing is [link=http://itf.typepad.com/lebanon/ ]Lebanon-Israel conflict via cellphone[/link], a blog established by Erik Sundelof to enable people in Israel and Lebanon both to submit blog posts of their experiences via SMS, MMS or email.
It does not seem to have been terribly well subscribed as of yet, and of course questions like how does an American blogger inform people in a war zone that they could be sharing their experiences with the world via text message. But as an indy-media type approach to reporting and information sharing, I think its admirable. And, seeing as how even when the Lebanon-Israel conflict ends there will still be plenty of other wars (and hopefully non violent people power resistance movements!) elsewhere, its an idea well worth all of us exploring more in our own contexts.
Iraq, Israel, Lebanon
I got an email from a friend of mine yesterday, saying that Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank (RBZ) Governor, Gideon Gono, has announced a new monetary policy for the country. This consists of the RBZ chopping three zeroes off of the currency, recalling all existing “old” notes and bearer cheques, and issuing “new” notes. These new notes are apparently all paper “bearer bonds,” which sounds at least like they are also not notes, but not “bearer cheques” either, which is what the larger denomination paper currency has been for the past few years.
According to economist Eddie Cross, the new “bearer bond” notes will be available in 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 50 cents, 1 dollar, 5 dollars, 10 dollars etc. up to 100 000 dollars. The first note is worth 10 "old" dollars, the last is worth 100 million "old" dollars. He claims that the cost of printing the smaller notes must have been at least 50 new dollars per note (50 000 "old" dollars) so the loss on this operation must run to many billions of "old" dollars. A complete waste of money as the smaller notes will be virtually worthless.
In the “old” note system, the smallest note that really had any value was the $1,000 dollar bill, and even that was virtually worthless, aside from the formality of giving change. A loaf of bread, for example, was up to $150,000 “old” dollars last month, or will now be $150 “new” dollars—so making any note worth less than one “new” dollar really seems pointless. The “new” $100,000 note will be worth $100,000,000 “old” dollars—worth maybe US$200-US$250 US, so useful for massive transactions and businesses, but obviously will be on the top of the list for forgers.
Are you keeping up? If all of this is confusing you, you’re not alone. As my friend said, “ today gono announced that we have a new monetary system. like even a one cent bearer cheque. now this is all too much for My Brain. but i went along to cabs to ask for 10 000 (not 10 million) and they said that they haven't been issued with the new bearers yet and that their computer programmers hadn't sorted out the software yet. i was going to get 10 000 in 500s and 100s. the mind boggles.”
To top it all off, in typical zanu pf fashion, the government’s decided that, having sat back and watched the currency decline rapidly and dramatically for the past 7 years, they now have to Do Something. And urgently. So people have until 21 August to turn in their “old” notes. They can do this by depositing a maximum of $100 million “old” notes—“$100,000 “new” notes at a time. But the new notes haven’t been released yet. And the next school term is coming up, with parents needing to find new and creative means to pay their children’s school fees—in the “new” notes, no doubt, if and when they can ever find them.
If my friend, a switched on urban professional working in Harare signs her email “losing it,” imagine someone living in the rural areas—who probably still has yet to see the new—now “old!” $100,000 bearer cheque, now being told that that note would be worth $100 “new” bearer bonds, but actually will be worthless if they don’t turn it into the bank, assuming they have a bank account, and can get to the bank, without paying more for the bus fare than they have on them, within the next two weeks.
The whole thing is just absurd. Doubtless it could make for some highly entertaining comedy sketches. Except that it’s the state wreaking havoc, as always, with every day Zimbabweans. And mugabe and his cronies are the only ones laughing all the way to the bank.
In the past few weeks I’ve spent in New York City, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for the extent of religious persecution the pilgrims who originally fled to America must have felt. I mean, sure, I always imagined they must have had things pretty hard. To have upped sticks from the comforts of the Netherlands, or wherever else they were, and set out to completely uncharted (in their minds) territory must have taken a lot of guts. And would necessarily have been encouraged by a deep level of fear, discomfort, and oppression in their homeland. But sweating my way down yet another city sidewalk on yet another unbearably hot afternoon, I thought to myself—what were those pilgrims thinking. And then, of course, I realised, they must have been thinking that they didn’t have much of a choice. Things must have been so bad at home they were willing to brave not only the high seas, uncertain futures with native peoples, and seemingly uncivilised conditions. They even endured the weather. Winters and summers alike.
Watching the news the other night, I was struck by the banality with which the newscasters delivered their news of inhumanity. I only lasted through two news items. The first was about five members of the US military in Iraq, who had been charged with raping a 14 year old girl and murdering her, and the rest of her family, in their home. To add insult to injury, the entire incident appears heart wrenchingly pre-planned. The soldiers allegedly changed into civilian clothes before they left their barracks, went to the girl’s house, committed their alleged crimes, and then returned to their barracks and changed back into their uniforms. At the end of the story, the screen went to a still photograph of a different US soldier killed in Iraq some months back. Remember our dead, the motto at the bottom of the screen said, Sgt So-And-So, died April 2006 in an attack in Iraq.
Yes, of course America wants to remember the more than 2,800 soldiers who have been killed in Iraq in the past few years. But heaven forbid they should dwell too long on the over 40,000 Iraqi civilians who have been killed in the process.
In the following story, the newscasters expressed their shock at how “clever” alleged terrorists were. The anchorman seemed personally offended that one particular “Al Qaeda suspect” had the nerve to drink, smoke and womanise. Even while he was allegedly training up on his “terror tactics in the name of Islam.” He questioned whether this person was “genuinely fundamentalist,” and was trying to be so under cover that he sacrificed his religious principles to act the part of a wealthy playboy, or if he was really just a violent, drinking womaniser who had latched on to terrorism not out of any particular religious conviction. But even more than the reporter’s questions of the “terrorist’s” religious beliefs, he seemed offended that such people would disguise themselves so completely. The gist of the argument was, essentially—if these potential terrorists have the nerve to go to bars and dance halls and strip clubs, how will America ever stop terrorism. Because, clearly, tracking would-be terrorists down and locking them up or killing them is a much more effective deterrent than actually changing US foreign policy—including ending the war in Iraq—so that the “would be terrorists” have less fuel for their understandable outrage.
At which point trying to understand American news, or knowing what to do about it, all became too much.
The pilgrims must’ve been desperate. But maybe they also benefited from the allure of the unknown. The potential ability to create an entirely new reality for themselves, by conveniently ignoring the reality the existing population in “The New World” experienced. Personally, though, I think I’m inclined to fight my own repressive dictatorship, than to try and take on the Evil Empire. Even with the inflation, and the shortages, and the desperation, it feels more manageable. And best of all, the weather’s better.
I’m in the US for a few months, doing some training courses, tying up some loose ends, contemplating whether I could really tolerate living here for a few years and doing a Master’s degree. Because, as much as the inflation, and the repression, and the sexism, and the government, and the despair gets me down, Harare is Home. And there is something entirely outside of logic or explanation that’s tied my heart to that place.
It’s Monday morning in New York City. I’m sitting in a one-large-room bachelor flat 38 flights off the ground. On the streets far below, the cars and people go past in miniature, tiny toy cars, tiny model people made miniature by the trick of distance. Perspective. It’s grey and raining, and the last sun I saw was the Zimbabwean sun on Friday morning. Which feels somehow entirely appropriate. Like what other sun is worth seeing right now, anyway.
I rooted around and found the BBC Newshour playing on a local station here, and heard an interview with musician Angelique Kidjo. Having heard her lambaste Jacob Zuma as “ignorant” earlier this year, I was curious to hear her again. In connection with the UN World Conference on Small Arms which opens today, she is speaking and performing in several different venues in New York in the next few weeks, and part of her tour is to raising awareness about arms trafficking.
The AK-47 is the world’s least regulated weapon. It has already been the weapon of choice in many conflicts across Africa, and given the huge number of AK’s already in circulation, will continue to be a major factor in conflicts for years to come. The Million Faces Petition is one attempt to raise awareness and encourage leaders internationally to agree on and enforce much stricter measures to control the AK trade. As Kidjo pointed out, if the world can mobilise against Nuclear Non-Proliferation, maybe in time all weapons can be seen for the devastating potential they have.
The interviewer tried to put her in a corner—people want weapons, he argued, therefore there is a market for weapons. When there is a demand, someone will step in with supply, he tried to say—basic economics. He argued it’s like trying to control the drug trade. Kidjo held her ground strongly. Admittedly, pressure to reduce the flow of AK’s won’t immediately convert the world’s swords into ploughshares. But, she said, taking a few steps that make it harder for all groups to access these weapons might at least be a start.
The interviewer was understandably cynical. What’s the point, he asked. Why bother. When people are still violent and conflicts are still pervasive, does something like a speech or a concert or a petition at the Conference on Small Arms really make a difference?
Kidjo replied: “It certainly makes much more of a difference than staying home and doing nothing.”
As Archbishop Oscar Romero said: “There is a sense of liberation in realising that we cannot do everything. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”
Activism, Angelique Kidjo, Arms Trafficking, Arms Control,
I went across the road yesterday to get some airtime recharge cards. Tariffs have gone up again. In January, $50,000 lasted two days easily. Then the rates went up, and it was up to $100,000 a day. The charges have just been doubled again, and $200,000 burns through the phone much more quickly than I’d like to think about.
There was electricity on the side of the road where I work, but not in the shops on the other side, so I left empty handed. But in the shop, a woman in her sixties or so, her grey hair cut into a neat shoulder length style complemented me on my short hair (number one shave plus one month’s growth). It got one of the shop attendants talking, who said she was also thinking about cutting her hair short. Not only is it quick and easy to maintain, she said, you also save on shampoo.
This caused the two women to launch into a discussion of the ever rising cost of shampoo. A million dollars or more, the one said. And you have to wash your hair at least twice a week! The other complained. I never realised just how lucky I was. I’m not exactly a glamour queen. And the $200,000 bar of soap that I bathe with seems to do just fine on my head as well. So it’s one stop beauty secrets. Their conversation made me curious though, so I had a look in the shops. Sure enough, the cheapest decent sized bottle of shampoo I could find was $995,000
And of course, it’s not just shampoo. Or airtime. Bread went from $80,000 to $140,000 per loaf over night. Commuter taxis, the most common form of transport, have gone from $50,000 to $70,000 a ride or more. Every time you turn, the price of something has gone up, and there’s no guarantee that the metaphorical belts can get much tighter than they already are.
All of which might make you think that the time is ripe for mass action, some kind of non violent collective action in which the people of Zimbabwe finally stand up for themselves and demand the responsive, accountable, democratic government we deserve. Except that, as people get more and more poor, and more and more hungry, do they also get less and less able to think beyond individual survival for themselves and their family. I’m not entirely convinced that a hungry woman is always an angry woman. Sometimes she’s just hungry, worried and desperate.
Since the Morgan Tsvangirai led MDC held their Congress in March this year, they have been speaking of a “winter of discontent.” The winter part is certainly covered—temperatures have dipped below 10 degrees most nights, and those victims of last year’s Operation Murambatsvina who are still homeless are feeling the bite. But leveraging discontent is something the MDC has yet to really master.
As the IWPR article “Opposition Protests Set to Fail” recently pointed out, "Tsvangirai has been like a boxer who, with his opponent against the ropes, fails to deliver the killer punch." Zimbabwe has presented a host of dream opportunities for organisers of civil disobedience, including two rigged Parliamentary Elections, a rigged Presidential Election, and shortages of food, medicine, cash, fuel, water, electricity and just about everything else. But the opposition has not been able to leverage any of these as the spark to ignite popular resistance.
Even Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube, long a fierce critic of government, is expressing doubts in the MDC’s capacity to effectively maximise on the discontent this winter. In an interview with Catholic News Service on 12 June he is quoted as saying: "It is hopeless: There is no one to inspire confidence." He said Morgan Tsvangirai "is big talk but has no vision."
Tsvangirai himself seems to be rethinking the hastily announced plans of a “winter of discontent.” He is quoted by SW Radio Africa as saying: “We don’t want a one-off activity that then dies off. We want a sustainable programme until the goal is achieved. . . . [Any action will be] “determined by our own state of preparedness and nothing else.”
I am all for actions that are carefully prepared and thoughtfully executed. Destabilising a regime like Zanu PF doesn’t happen over night, and there are many, many examples from other countries that remind us of the importance of coordination, planning and thoughtful preparation. This preparation is not glamorous work, however. It is not the stuff of press conferences or international tours. It is slow, thankless, tiring effort sustained over a great many months or even years. As Kurt Schock reminds us, “Between 1983 and 1990 activists in South Africa used at least twelve different tactics within major campaigns aimed at challenging the entrenched power of the white regime.”
Zimbabweans are hungry for bread, mealie meal, and effective leadership that organises carefully planned, well coordinated actions of resistance. I have no doubt that it is possible. But how much longer can we wait, and how much hungrier will we all be before it is achieved?
Activism, Civil Disobedience, Zimbabwe
Running home today, I decided to make a t-shirt. Something simple and stark. White with red writing, or black with reverse text. Front: Yes I am Sexist. Back: All men must die.
On Samora Machel Avenue, one of Harare’s main access roads to both Mutare to the east and Bulawayo to the south west—and from the Harare suburbs into the Central Business District is a billboard. It was created for the 16 days of activism against gender violence, and is written “Real men know, a woman is not for beating.” As I approached that billboard on my left, to my right was a group of three young men, their clothes loose, their gait slow. When I passed them, the one closest to me, in a blue basketball type vest and worn green pata patas called out to me—“can I join you.” Further along, on Livingstone Ave, a hunched over man was walking in the opposite direction, towards me. As I passed him, he peered up at me, his chin down, his lips damp with saliva: “You’re what, Form Three?” Form Three would put me somewhere in High School. Maybe 15 years old or so. I’m twice that age. Turning onto Herbert Chitepo Ave, another group of men was standing outside a block of flats. One whistled as I went by, “Hey baby. Look over here.” His friend whistled long and low. It really didn’t matter whether they were heckling at me, red faced in my running clothes and cap, or at business dressed woman in her pink flared pants suit, or the woman in a track suit walking towards them. It’s all the same thing.
What will it take? Clearly standing across the road from the 16 days of activism billboard did nothing to deter the first group of men. Do billboards make a difference? On television lately there have been safer sex advertisements aimed at reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Targeted for a young audience, they advise: real men (or women) wait. They show scenes at beer halls, drunken men pressuring women into sex, drunken women dancing provocatively. The message is abstain, wait for marriage, wait until you know the person before you rush off into bed with them. Do they make any difference? Does a young man, out with his friends, a bit drunk and a bit pressured think back—My friends might be doing this, my uncles and cousins and my own father might be doing this, but the advertisement says real men wait, so let me wait.
And, really, who am I to say. You can’t always understand something if you haven’t experienced it yourself. A friend of a friend has recently been dumped by his girlfriend of a year or so. At least, he thought she was his girlfriend. He’s somewhere in his mid forties, I think. She’s in her early twenties. They had never had sex. They’d never even kissed. She’s needing space, he’s missing her desperately. My friend feels like her mate has been a bit deluded about the whole thing. Like everyone—the sort of ex- sort of girlfriend, her friends, his friends, outside observers, etc—can tell that he’s taken the whole thing much more seriously than the object of his affections ever did. But he can’t see it. He doesn’t want to admit how wrong he’s been. My friend is struggling to know what to tell him, what sort of advice to give, how to support him and help him move on without either perpetuating his delusion or making him feel bad for having been so swept away by things. But maybe if you haven’t been in his shoes, you just don’t know what to say. In which case it might be better just to listen. I’ve never been a young man who makes lewd or sexually predatory comments at female passers by. At least, I haven’t in this lifetime. So do I even know how their minds work? Would I even know what to say or what to suggest. Maybe it’s just my problem, and I need to find a way to listen more.
My workmate has just come back from a training in Amsterdam. He described the red light district—but he said he visited, but didn’t partake of. He reckons he could think of better ways to spend his 50 Euros. He said it looks a lot like old houses, or flats, women waiting in the windows and men walking past and choosing what they want for the moment. Some men bring their wives or girlfriends, just to see what’s there. Like a restaurant or a café, the busiest times are in the mornings before work starts, at lunchtime, and after work. And, as much as I resist even thinking this, maybe that’s a much more realistic approach to the whole thing. Maybe the women of Amsterdam don’t have the same frustrations when they walk down the streets of their city. But for me, the Harare reality is enough to make me consider violence. I hate that I don’t feel safe on my own at night in my own neighbourhood. I hate that I don’t enjoy going to one of my favourite local restaurants, a few blocks from my flat, on my own—the sea of testosterone that awaits inside those doors is too much to navigate alone.
And, of course, it’s not just about sex. It’s about men’s attitudes towards women. Maybe the message that a woman is not for beating already resonates with many men. But gender based violence is about much more than beatings. It’s about much more than rape or sexual assault. Surely it also includes the safety with which women move around in their own homes, their own streets, shops and neighbourhoods. Women are not for beating. They are also not for raping, heckling, objectifying or harassing. What messages do men grow up with then about what women are for. What do men think men are for? What do women think women or men are there for? Society has changed dramatically in the past 100 years. It is no longer acceptable to judge or stereotype someone on the basis of their race. Somehow gender differences feel like a harder thing to crack. But maybe in 1906 so did racism. Possibly it’s naïve to think in another 100 years, or sooner, people might also look back with a mixture of shame and amazement, that people were ever so regularly, consistently, consciously, prejudicially divided into “men” and “women,” rather than just being seen as what they are, accepted for what they are there for—people.
Zimbabwe, Sexism, Sexual Harassment
Running home today, I turned my head as I hit an intersection to see if any cars were turning onto the road in front of me. None were, but a gaunt white man, his hair cropped close to his head, pulled up beside me. “Where’s your bike?” he asked, and cycled slowly next to me. I looked at him blankly. I don’t have the world’s best memory for faces, but I was pretty sure at least his face would register somewhere in the recesses of my mind if I had met him before. “Your bike. Where is it?”
I sighed to myself in irritation, and decided I really didn’t know him. And really, what business is it of his where my bike is. He persisted. “Your bike. It is red. I saw you on it this morning. Where is it?” I gave in. And I told him I’d left it at the office so I could run home. A small conversation followed, consisting mainly of him asking me why I run, where I run, how often I run, how far I run, and again asking a few times where my bike was. As if I hadn’t already told him.
I don’t really understand the desire to engage people in conversation, particularly when they are running. Running, at least for me, is not really conducive to discussion. And yet some people seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable. Mark, he told me his name was, wanted to accompany me on his bike while I ran. No thank you, I told him. And then was caught in that horrible female dilemma (at least it feels more common to women than men) between that socialisation to be polite, versus my own personal desire to just be left the fk alone. So I made something up about being almost at my destination, and thanks very much but no thanks. Because getting into a conversation about why I don’t like to run with random strangers cycling next to me just felt too tiring.
It got me thinking. Do men really not realise how predatory their behaviour often feels? It reminded me of another part of Reviving Ophelia, where a young male college student says sometimes he walks around his campus at night, and watches women skirt away when he goes past them. He wants to say—hey, it’s okay, I’m not a rapist, you don’t have to be afraid of me. But women are afraid of strange men that pass them in the dark. Women are afraid of men in general. Far more so, I imagine, than men are afraid of women. Or maybe even of other men.
Some friends of mine have gotten me hooked on the TV series Six Feet Under. A fellow guerrilla girl came back from the UK recently, and brought with her DVDs of series 3, 4 and 5. In the one I watched the other night, a woman in her early twenties is walking home alone from a club one night. Some men come up behind her and start wolf whistling, heckling her, propositioning her for sex. She walks faster, and they keep at it. Afraid, she darts across the road into traffic. When the men see her run into the road, they call her name. It turns out they are friends of hers from the neighbourhood. They were just joking around with her. It didn’t occur to her that she would genuinely be afraid, or that their behaviour would upset her. In a panic, she doesn’t look at the oncoming traffic, and she’s hit by a car and dies. Sure, it is perhaps an over dramatisation. But once again, it brought home for me the very different realities of men and women.
Walking through the car park this morning, I watched the women walk slowly, watch, follow behind cars, wait for them to pass. And I watched the men move forward, not looking, claiming their space and ignoring how they might inconvenience others. I don’t know that either of these behaviours is more “right” than the other. Ideally, perhaps, there is some kind of balance between the arrogant insistence of one and the passive submission of the other.
Complaining to a friend of mine about all of this, she reckoned “I think men think women exist to want them.” I don’t know that I would have thought of it that way. But the minute she said it, I got what she meant.
Certainly wishing that the male half of the population would somehow spontaneously evaporate is not very Zen. And it’s probably not very helpful either. I mean, it’s not Mark’s fault that I am suspicious of men at the best of times, or that I feel more vulnerable when I run. And maybe I have no right to complain if I’m not willing to engage strangers like that in the kind of conversation or “education” that might contribute to a change in attitudes. Even though it’s draining. And how much of us really want to listen, anyway. But still. I know I’m not perfect. And certainly I could be trying harder. I’ll take responsibility for not doing my part for world peace today by engaging Mark. Or yesterday by engaging Gutu. Or Christopher the day before. I just wish I wasn’t so cynical about the prospect of even one of them pledging to not harass any women for just one day.
Women's Rights, Zimbabwe, Sexual Harrasment
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