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Continuing on the whole covering up thing...

SO, I was going to write a blog today about a phenomenon called ‘community feet’, which turns out isn’t that much of a blog, because it can be described in a PICTURE (oh, technology, what you do for me), which you can see below:

The mind blowing part is that I had washed my feet twice the day this picture was taken.  But when your schedule takes you to four different schools in one village, all about a 20 minute walk from each other, on dirty roads, and you have impromptu games of football with children (the football is actually a bunch of plastic bags wrapped with duct tape…I should get a picture of one to share…) and you also work with Shimoni Environmental Agency making alternative charcoal out of coconut shells (again, this would be a great time for another picture…)

OK, you get the point, and I guess there actually is a pretty interesting story that goes along with the dirt on my feet.  However, I really want to expand upon what I was writing about yesterday.  After some great discussion with my fellow GVI members and some private contemplation on the matter of women covering their heads and bodies to respect their religious beliefs, I feel that I have a lot more to say.  DISCLAIMER : What I’m saying in no way reflects Islam as a religion, or Muslim people as a culture, in general.  I am merely reflecting how I view the women of Shimoni village, a village that relies mostly on fishing as a means of making a living, a village that can be described as conservative (albeit a relative term), and a village of which the majority of its inhabitants identify as Muslim. 

This is how I walk into the village everyday, I think I look pretty cool...

Moving on.  So the question that I’m after, and that what people who have read this seem to want an answer to, is “Is the empowerment of women hindered or helped by the fact that they have to cover their heads, shoulders and knees?”  I have to admit I don’t have an answer to that in ANY WAY.  Because, I have seen a lot of un-empowered women in the free world, let me tell you.  For example, is  this  an empowered woman?  Is this?  

These are two very obvious extremes, but they illustrate my point.  How can we tell how strong, how smart, how worldly, how creative, how beautiful, how hard-working, how loving a woman is by just looking at her?  I know a few women in the village, a few very strong and smart and beautiful women, and they inspire me more than any ‘regular’ woman I have ever met in the states.  They have next to nothing.  I mean, they are the people you hear about living on less than $2 a day.  They have children, husbands, homes to care for…and yet they volunteer teach, they come to GVI’s outreach programs, they come to the women’s group to learn. A woman came to our adult environmental education course out of her own time and she was at first shy, but then she was taking notes and even said to me she would love to use this knowledge to become a community facilitator.  It gave me chills to hear her say that, it took a good amount of teeth clenching not to yell “You go girl!!!!”

I remained professional, but just thinking about it now makes me giddy.  Women are fucking awesome.  I’m sorry, but they are.  And they are here in Shimoni.  When I see a woman here, she is carrying 15 gallons of water on her head, nursing a child, washing clothes, and she stands tall.  She looks at me in the eyes and dares me to say hello first.  She welcomes me into her home and offers me chai and asks me about my life in America.  She is my friend, and she is my equal.  I guess I have my answer after all.  


The whole covering up thing...

The whole covering up thing
So, everyday I wake up and climb completely naked out of bed.  I have your attention now, right?  Well, at least for a minute.  Not long after that I am getting dressed to go out into the village.  Mind you, Shimoni is much more modern than Mkwiro.  You only have to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered.  Only!  In Mkwiro (the island village) you have to have your head covered as well.  Or they will stone you.  Literally.
Ok, maybe they would only stone you if you were in Zanzibar.  But it would be pretty close.  My headscarf slipped once in class and a 7 year old chastised me harshly enough that I made sure it never happened again.  I was also brought back to the days of my first visit to a rural coastal village in Kenya, about three years ago.  My homestay mother, an ancient woman who spoke not a lick of English, ripped my kanga off of my body because I wasn’t wearing second one underneath it.  A SECOND kanga??!  In 100 degree heat…with 100% humidity…I had literally passed out because of dehydration and I still wasn’t getting it right.

But that’s another story.  This is the story about Shimoni, a village that is ‘modern’, however, when you walk around in nothing but bangs and a long sleeve shirt, you still get dirty looks.  Compared to when I walk into the village with a headscarf, tied up as shown below, and I get many more welcome greetings. 

When I dress like this, I am told “Umependeza!”, which means, “You look smart!”, which means, “You look dern good woman!”  I feel like a crazy person, and when you are wearing three different pieces of fabric, a strong gust of wind can almost undress you completely (remember the stones) and freak out accordingly.
However, I am welcomed into people’s homes, someone even bought me LUNCH the other day.   I am called Fatuma by people, and asked if I’m a real Mzungu Muslim.  I reply truthfully, no, I am not Muslim.  To which they answer “Ohhh you’re Christian.”  It’s a statement, you are either one or the other.  Trying to explain that you are ‘spiritual’ is sometimes interpreted as ‘I’m into witchcraft and devilwork’.  So, I usually just try to speak KiSwahili and people laugh at me and then I go along with my day.

I’m actually really glad I’ve never been fervently religious or fervently agnostic, because this would be really hard either way.  I like to think I’m coasting the line between being culturally sensitive and ignorantly religious.  I have to say I haven’t gotten anything negative by dressing the part, except very sweaty, and only good things from trying to fit in.  I even once had a man come up to me and say thank you.  He was genuinely impressed at my effort.  I felt really good.  I feel really good, I have a lot of friends in the village now.

And I also can’t say I feel oppressed.  I feel the exact opposite of oppressed.  When I dress like a Mzungu, I get snide, even disgusting remarks from men.  Now I am treated as an equal.  My mind screams that this is wrong, I should be empowering myself!  But I realize now empowerment isn’t forcing society to look at your skin.  Empowerment is trying, its putting yourself out there, testing the limits.  I would be oppressed if I stayed in my room naked all day, I would be alone, I wouldn’t have a voice.  I’m still working it out, but for now I say it’s a good fit.  


I'm baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaacckkk (and in Kenya!!!)

So!  Hello.  This is a little awkward for me, because I feel really guilty about abandoning my Vermonter blog after only a few months.  The truth is that the novelty wore off, and I really thought I had embraced Vermont culture so much that I didn't have time for blogs, because I was too busy tubing down rivers, smoking all natural tobacco, drinking out of paper bags and attending free music festivals at farmhouses (see below)

I truly fell in love with Vermont.  And I miss it.  Which leads me to the reason of re-vamping the Vermonterlusting blog...I've moved to Kenya!!  I am currently working for the most kickass organization evah  , which you can real all about here.  I have been doing the most amazing things ever...and as of now I'm still in the 'volunteer intern phase', so I get to move around to the different projects going on in Kenya.  We do 6 weeks of community work, 2 weeks on Forest, and 2 weeks on Marine (which I am MOST excited for...we snorkel and look for dolphins all day long).  As I write, I am in Shimoni Village, which you can see in the little location thing.  There really are only those two main roads, with forests on each side, full of Angolan Black and White Colobus monkeys!!!

Needless to say, there is just tooo much going on to NOT write about.  I already have six weeks worth of adventure that I should have been sharing with the world.  So please, stay tuned...I am going to regiment myself to write ONE BLOG every DAY this WEEK.  Yes, its happening.  I promise.