by Nancy McDaniel

A few years ago, I was sitting on a rickety plastic chair in the courtyard of a little motel in a dusty small village in northwestern Tanzania. I was trying to listen to old men tell stories about a magic chicken and an epic folk hero.

That was why I was there: Helping to document these stories. But the problem was, they were talking in the Sukuma language and there was no interpreter.

Taking Notes
It was warm sitting in the sun after lunch, and I was getting a bit drowsy (especially after a Safari baridi, that’s a cold Tanzanian beer, by the way). It would have been an extraordinary affront to fall asleep, so I decided the best way to stay awake – and look like I was taking notes – was to write poetry. The first poem I wrote was “Mama’s Voice” and it mused about one of the fates of the African woman and that she has a lot to say, but no one asks. And even if she is allowed to talk, the poem concludes with the question, “Will anyone listen?”

The second poem was “For Kabusinze Milembe.,” In it I celebrated the strength of African women and mused whether I had such emotional and physical strength myself. Click HERE to read another article I wrote, One Who Splits the Night in Half, which is about this trip and how I got my Sukuma name.

Silent Women
It would be presumptuous of me to pretend to understand the African woman. It is perhaps even more presumptuous to assume there even is a stereotypical African woman, just as it would be offensive to categorize a type of “American woman” or an “Australian woman.” Yet, in my many trips to the continent of Africa, I am always struck by the silent physical and emotional strength of the women there. The stoic, unswerving loyalty and determination, was symbolized so elegantly by the unbending strong neck and back. Silent because in their culture, their opinions are seldom asked. It is as though they have nothing to say, nothing of importance to contribute. They do most of the work in the rural areas but get none of the credit, many times are not able to vote, hold office or officially count much for anything at all.

Feminist Poetry?
When I showed my poems to some male Tanzanian friends, I was teased about my “feminist poetry.” I didn’t think it was, but the fact that it was seen that way by them was further reinforcement of the depth of the cultural differences between us.

In the villages we were visiting, our leaders had arranged for various male elders to come talk to us about the folklore. Sometimes they sang, sometimes they danced, and always they spoke animatedly. We asked why no women were invited. Our leader, a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, told us: “They don’t like to talk in front of people.” But a primary school teacher friend of ours countered that the women “are the best storytellers and the men just try.”

One night we went to a house to talk to a man and his (uninvited) wife came and sat down with him. He began to tell a story and she kept giggling and butting in, presumably correcting his telling of the story. She was having a great time and we were happy to see it, although we had no idea what she was saying. But you could tell that she certainly had something to say.

We Hold a Women’s Group
We asked if we might invite some women of the village to come talk with the women in our group, to have sort of a Women’s Discussion Group. The two women who came were the best English speakers in the village, a nurse and a primary school teacher. We wanted to learn about their lives, their experiences, their thoughts and dreams.

But they came because they wanted to ask us questions. And tough questions they were. They reflected the perception held by so many in developing countries (I hate the term Third World. It’s so demeaning. And, by the way, what happened to the Second World? If there is one, where is it?) that America is the Promised Land, the proverbial Oz, where troubles melt like lemon drops and where the streets may literally be paved with gold.

Hard Questions
They wanted to know about how America takes care of our elderly, assuming that all were well cared for by the government. We said, “Not exactly. There’s a thing called social security and Medicare but lots of old people are poor (I don’t think they believed us), uncared for, hungry and sick.” They looked at us incredulously and then said, “Then their families must take care of them until they are no longer living?” We replied: “Well, some do but many have no room and are just too busy with their lives and they put their elderly relatives in places where other people are paid to take care of them.” The looks on their faces reflected their silent disapproval.

Their other question may have been even harder. Given the rampant AIDS epidemic in Africa, they were concerned about the issue. They asked, “Does your government take care of all the people, especially the children, with AIDS? For as long as they live? And for the children whose parents die of AIDS?” “Well, not exactly,” we said. “Sometimes adults with AIDS lose their jobs because people are still ignorant and afraid of them. And then they can’t afford to pay their rent so they become homeless or have to live in a shelter somewhere. Although in our country, we are lucky enough to have medicine that can help these people, it is very expensive so many never can get it and they get very sick and die.” Some of the light seemed to go out of the women’s eyes. It was almost as though they were thinking “then what is so great about this vaunted, idealized Paradise called the United States?”

In some ways, it felt sad having to disabuse them of their fantasies that all would be well if they could just be in America. But in some ways it also seemed right because although they had hard lives, they were strong, courageous and competent. They seemed to be making a good life in their village where their families were and where they were respected as much as they could be, even though it was more due to the stature of their husbands than their own personal accomplishments.

The Big Potatoes Come to Visit
At the end of the time we had with these women, we invited them to attend the “Cultural Exchange” evening on our final night in Bariadi. I had been asked to read my poems and was somewhat nervous, as the Big Potatoes were to be in attendance (that’s what they call the dignitaries, because they don’t seem to have Cheese there). I was fearful of offending, or sounding as though I were criticizing their culture. But our professor assured me it would be all right. After I read my poems, the Security Officer of the province approached me, compared me to some “great Tanzanian poets,” told me that it was an “important issue” and asked me for copies of the poem. I was honored.

In my travels, I am always struck by how much we Americans can learn from other cultures, even those “less developed” than ours. If only we keep our eyes open and are willing to listen – even if we don’t always understand the words that are being spoken.