First, before I start rambling on and on, a bit of background on my life in Africa. It’s relevant! I promise!
In 1993, I did an internship in Tanzania at the Tanzania Media Women’s Association, a fabulous organization that was at the forefront of women’s rights in Tanzania. They opened the first domestic abuse shelter in the country, they built latrines, and they had fashion shows to celebrate being a woman in Tanzania. They also did a lot of networking and were active both in the international and the Pan-African movements. While I was there, I noticed that a lot, if not most, of African women’s organizations were in South Africa. This was at the tail-end of apartheid, and women were a part of the resistance from the beginning. This was something that was encouraging when I got the Peace Corps invitation to come here: there is a long history of movements and NGOs and I was going to be a part of that history.
However, Peace Corps volunteers aren’t sent to the places with this history, the history of organizing for justice and human rights. There are many reasons for that, the biggest being that those organizations don’t need volunteers, while NGOs in the rural areas, in the neglected parts of the country, are just getting on their feet and can use some support. These are the organizations that started after the end of apartheid and their purpose is different from those that developed earlier. Obviously, they aren’t advocating for the end of apartheid. Instead, they provide community services like home-based health care, training, HIV prevention, micro-finance, etc.
But, another interesting thing about the NGO situation in South Africa is that, even though they are Non-Governmental Organizations, they get a lot of money from the government (in fact, they are now known as civil society organizations, but old habits die hard for me. You will see NGOs in this blog). They are seen as a tool to create jobs, not just provide services. So, you get a lot of people who start NGOs for the money. Not everyone, of course, but enough for it to be an obvious pattern. In fact, Makotse Women’s Club is the largest employer in our ward. All of this to say that I’ve seen a lot of organizations created out of greed, not compassion, and it gets frustrating and depressing after a while. These aren’t necessarily the organizations we volunteer at. MWC certainly isn’t like that. But it’s sometimes difficult to find the passionate people who attracted me to this field in the first place.
Then, you travel to another part of the country. Cape Town, for instance. And you feel like you’ve gone to another country entirely. And if you go there for a conference on women’s rights in development, then, all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by passion. Passionate women doing amazing, amazing things all over the world.
So, that’s what I did. I volunteered at AWID’s “The Power of Movements” conference doing rapporteur work, so that the content of each session could be published on their website. Everyone was wonderful and the volunteer organizers gave me sessions focusing on Africa and South Africa, as I requested. Which led to a four-hour session on reinvigorating the women’s movement in South Africa (the link goes to the report I submitted to AWID). This was a practical session about next steps and we ended up creating a listserv to keep in communication, a press statement protesting some of the more flagrant violations of women’s rights in the government, and a vision for a national women’s movement to speak for all of South African women.
So, this is all very exciting and inspiring for me. But it keeps getting more exciting. A few weeks after the conference, AWID sends out a call for proposals for projects that developed from the conference, projects that strengthen the power movements, which is exactly what we’re doing. Due date: December 15.
Now, in South Africa, the whole country basically shuts down for the holidays, starting mid-December through the second week in January. People who work in Jo’burg go home to their villages and spend a few weeks with their families. People with more means go to Durban and spend Christmas and New Year’s on the beach (it is summer here, after all). So, we have the potential to kick-start our national women’s movement creation, but no one except the Peace Corps volunteer, with no family in the country and no social life, to work on the proposal.
And that’s the story of how I’m helping to start a national movement in South Africa. And I couldn’t be happier.
Of course, I’m not doing it by myself. There are several others collaborating with me. And the due date’s now December 22, so that’s helpful, too. But, it just makes me think about the cycles in life. Fifteen years ago, I was discovering the strength of South African women while working in Tanzania. Now, I’m working with that strength first-hand. Life is truly amazing.