I had expected the chickens, (and that they would cross the road). Beans, also, and bricks, had been on my short-list. I even expected some pigs, and some home-made school uniforms. As the three regular blog-readers will know, we set no rules for the projects that would be born from empowering the women’s groups in tiny hamlets in the Tanzanian bush. Their mission, as you remember, was to reduce the appalling rates of maternal and child mortality, by boosting nutrition, reducing abject poverty, and enhancing any aspect of community health and development which might possibly serve the purpose.
So, yes, I had expected that some families might find themselves with an extra bit of protein, or an extra few shillings with which to part-pay the costs of illness, or of childbirth, or of sending girls to school. Maybe some would even begin on the vital but daunting project of improving water and sanitation.
What I had not expected, not at all, not one bit, was that they would simply just stop the awfulness of female genital mutilation. Or that those communities, who, for generations had steadfastly resisted new-fangled health interventions, despite a ten percent child mortality, would suddenly start getting their children immunised. Or that women in labour – sometimes even accompanied by their traditional birth attendants – would start seeking help in difficulty, before it was too late. Or that some of these TBAs would themselves be asking for training. Or that this year, in these remote and under-developed hamlets, the Grim Reaper has yet to claim its most gruesome and tragic toll – a maternal death.
What has happened? What is this amazing firework lighting up the Tanzanian sky? Not exactly what we thought anyway, when we lit the fuse. I have been giving this much thought, and a number of allegorical explanations have occurred to me. Given that as I write this, it is the quincentenary of his 95 theses being nailed to a door in Wittenberg, I think I am going to muse on the protest of Martin Luther – someone who also was part of a world in which an ancient set of rules and traditions were being turned upside down.
(Whatever your religious persuasion, by the way, and however seismic the consequences of his protest, one has to question the sensitivity of nailing stuff to a door as a means of communication.
What if neighbours started doing it?:
“Bang Bang Bang. Thanks for the sugar. Here’s your cup back. Bang. It’s a bit cracked.”
Or Parcel Force?: “Bang Bang Bang. Sorry we missed you. Bang. Here’s your parcel.”
Or even technophobes who eschew electronic messaging in favour of real paper?:
“Bang Bang Bang. Thanks for the text. Yes, 7 o’clock would be fine.”)
Anyway, 453 years before the invention of Blu Tack, that is how the Rev Dr. Luther chose deliver his challenge to the might of Rome. My point, however, is this: Why did this man’s one bold and uncompromising challenge re-write European History, and foment the most profound societal reform in a thousand or more years? Surely many others had been also harbouring similar thoughts? Indeed, they must have been, for Protestantism to have developed so swiftly. So why had there not just been a gradual trickle of influence, building slowly to a river and then a flood of rebelliousness against buying your way into heaven? All done slowly enough to let people come to terms with the new, and gradually to let go of any bad in the old?
Instead, one moment it seems that every priest in Europe is a Papist; and the next, Papists are hiding from hideous recriminations, in a hidden chamber between the drawing room hearth and the scullery, planning a moonlight flit via secret passage under the quince tree to the kitchen garden.
The origins and explanations of this, one of History’s more important conflagrations, are complex and many-faceted. However, I would like to pick up just a few smouldering thoughts, with which to shine a light on Tushikamane’s new and wonderful African mini-reformation. For in Tanzania there must also have been generations of would-be dissidents, who would have quite liked to have nailed a Women-and-Children’s-Charter to a tree. But didn’t. Women who would quite like not to have had FGM; who would have quite liked for their children to have been immunised; who would have quite liked to have got to hospital in childbirth before it was too late. But didn’t.
The first point that occurs to me is this self-evident one: the more rigid the straightjacket within which a culture is nurtured, the less able are the individuals to rebel, even in a trickle of dissidence, far less a flood. But here is an irony: when a traditional hierarchy aspires to be benevolent, perhaps it becomes even harder for the lowly to pick up the leaders on their follies. It would seem churlish to have a go at a leadership trying to do its best for you, albeit when they are doing so with an unwavering commitment to tradition and status.
Leadership follies thus blossom into peccadilloes, and peccadilloes become armadillos. (Not my best metaphor, but it sort-of wrote itself, and anyway, you get the point.) Meanwhile, the people continue to do what they have always done, not because it is always a good idea, but because it is always what they have done. From the hierarchy’s point of view, you cannot pick and choose which tradition you like, which decision you like, and which you do not. You inherit the entire lot – the culture, the traditions and the paternalism – and you pass it on.
A passivity thereby grows up, particularly among the vulnerable – which, in almost every culture on earth, have traditionally been the young women, and their babies. FGM. Childhood death. Have six children. No female education. Fetch the water, fetch the firewood, cook, clean, die. Best not think too much about it all. Count your blessings.
No-one in a benevolent autocracy – not the leaders, not the men of the village, and least of all the women themselves – intend that bad things should come with the good. But there is no space in the cultural evolution for careful discernment and planned change. No platform for the voices of disagreement. When poorly-educated, rural traditional societies in resource-poor cultures are trying to be benevolent, there is therefore a built-in latency which implicitly and steadfastly opposes change. As with Luther and presumably millions of his contemporaries, perhaps people in such cultures tend just to put up with things that they do not agree with … perhaps doing so for far too long, until a valve blows in the society’s engine, and the steam rushes out.
Before I go on, I think I ought to challenge what seems to be the assumption behind these thoughts, that, by and large, it is men who are the dominators, and women the dominated. Is the desire to dominate archetypally a male trait? Kobudai fish say “Yes”; and Hilary Clinton, Maggie Thatcher and Boudicca say “No”. (And of course Queen Khaleesi of Game of Thrones, who maybe even invented ‘No’.)
Let’s take the ‘ayes’ first: Up to middle age, Kobudai fish, amazingly, are all female, (as exquisitely illustrated in Blue Planet 2). Life is all fish chat, sardine mornings, and making krill jam in autumn. (If my wife is reading this: only joking, darling!) Genuinely, however, these extra-ordinary marine enigmas manifest as shoals of younger females, prowled on the periphery by big fat ugly old males … who dominate – each other, and the females. (Any resemblance to the Houses of Parliament is strictly coincidental.) When one or two dominant males move on, something happens to the biggest females. They sullenly shuffle off to a cave. They eat lots, and swill down more sea-water than is good for them. They lose their social skills. They brood on life. These activities seem to switch off the female hormones, and switch on the male ones. A month or two later, they emerge … as males.
The first thing they do is to seek out any smaller male, and give him a bit of a finning. Then they eat a bit more, and then get on with the business of procreating the next generation of daughters.
The inescapable conclusion, (for Kobudai, anyway), is that male hormone and the desire to dominate seem to go hand-in-hand. Bulls, lions, rutting stags, and a host of Father Nature’s other mammals and birds seem to agree.
Hilary, Maggie and Boudicca would point out, however, that it does not have to be thus. Traditionally male-dominated societies and cultures seem to have the capacity for encompassing the voice of women – under certain circumstances. In the UK, universal suffrage for women came in 1928. It our case, the final push had been provided by the First World War, where women successfully took on male roles.
(By the way, it is a little-appreciated fact that it was in the same Act of Parliament that all men acquired the right to vote. Prior to World War 1, only 40% of men were eligible, with the most vulnerable men excluded, in a society where status was one of the most important operators:
“Alright Guv’ner! Me and the missus want ter say ‘appy Christmas to you an’ all at the Manor, and ‘er indoors sends this bot’l o’ potted turnip fer yer Christmas vittles!”
“Thanks awfully, my man. Take it round to the servants’ entrance, and the second footman will deal with it. Then come back and clean up those boot-prints on the step.”)
So, finally, in the UK in 1928, a big fat nail was driven into what one day will be the coffin of all-pervasive upper-class male dominance. What women received that year was legitimacy. A platform. A voice. From there, it has been possible steadily to unpick the uglier parts of our culture’s tapestry, and to weave in some bright new threads. We now, for the most part, provide for and protect the disadvantaged and the needy. No priest-holes were necessary. No inquisition. Nothing nailed to a door. The natural respect for women that was already represented in the enlightened, found legitimate expression, and led to Progress.
In Tanzania, many rural villagers for generations have been performing FGM, avoiding immunisation, and eschewing modern health interventions. Suddenly now, in Tunguli and Msamvu, it is different. I wonder, then, whether an undercurrent of rebellion – by both men and women – against the inadequacies of tradition has suddenly found a channel in Tushikamane. Not just an outlet, but a legitimate outlet, and so we now find the unsavoury beginning to be steam-cleaned away.
Is it too much to hope that this will be an irrevocable advance? An advance that, generation after generation, will close the one-hundred-fold gap between their mortality rates and ours?
Well, I will be dead before we know the answer.
But if you are reading this in 2060, and wonderful things have happened, no need to shout it from the rooftops.
Just nail it to a nearby door.
For progress reports and uplifting stories on the future of Tushikamane, please go to:
Here is a sample – where Tushikamane’s community engagement has led to the restoring of good water supplies to Mjuwimi, one of the hamlets:
Maybe every year or so, I will treat the three blog readers to an update.