Around the time when I published What am I doing here? I wrote to a friend of mine that this was compounded by feeling like I was in the wrong place. Weekly I get emails from various Australian women asking me about pastoral or theological issues. I love answering these emails, but they’re also a reminder to me that I would have lots to offer in ministry in Australia, and that’s a sharp contrast to our life in Tanzania.
What use is my interest in feminism, for example? It’s not that feminism doesn’t exist in Africa, nor that it’s irrelevant, but I feel myself unable to comment on how that might manifest. I simply don’t know Tanzania well enough yet, and I may never understand it fully enough. It’s something about me that feels like it would only ever be useful in the west, perhaps something to be put on ice until after our time in Tanzania.
This isn’t just a matter of trying to work out whether I ought to be expending my energy thinking about feminism; it’s also a matter of wondering whether I am just the wrong fit for Tanzania. Each morning I pray, ‘I trust that I am where you want me to be and that you will use me for your glory’ but most days I don’t believe it (hence why I need to keep praying it!)
But God in his kindness gave me an experience that confirmed that I am where he wants me to be. Yes me, Tamie Davis, with my gifts, personality and background. Even my interest in feminism.
One of the theories my Swahili literature class looked at this semester was feminist literary theory. I’d mentioned to my lecturer when I’d first seen the course outline that I’d studied that a bit in Australia and I was really excited to learn about it in Swahili. I wasn’t expecting to be asked to contribute on the topic but during the tutorial she asked me what I had to contribute. I said a few things about feminism in Australia. My conviction is that though the patriarchy manifests in different ways in Australia and Tanzania, there’s a commonality to our experience and our struggle.
Tanzanians easily believe that life in western countries like Australia is the next thing to paradise. In its most extreme form, there’s the belief that everyone in the west is wealthy, that there are no social issues, and women are free, valued and empowered. In this kind of narrative, Tanzanians are primitive in comparison to the developed west and their problems would be solved if only they could be a bit more like Australia (or whatever western country is on view.) Aside from the inaccuracy of this belief, it means that Tanzanians often fail to see the good things about themselves and their own culture so I was keen to highlight those. They end up believing they have little to offer others, and can only be receivers of others’ help and wisdom.
The example I chose was of clothing options. I’ve found myself significantly more comfortable with my body since coming to Tanzania, partly because clothes are much more modest. In contrast, in Australia I am constantly bombarded with pictures of photoshopped, highly sexualised bodies and fashion follows suit to some extent. This has the double effect of communicating that women’s bodies exist for men’s scrutiny and pleasure, and of distracting women from other worthwhile pursuits because it boils down their value to their bodies. My class were astounded that women’s breasts on a billboard were normal but that public breastfeeding was controversial. I think they started to see that, in this respect at least, Tanzanian women have it better than Australian women (though it’s by no means a competition and Tanzanian already have plenty to contend with!)
My lecturer pushed my point further though. She noted that lots of Tanzanian girls are starting to copy western fashion with its revealing clothes. She said when they do that, there may be unintended consequences, that they are in fact adopting a western tool of oppression rather than freedom.
She went on to ask me if I would repeat what I said in front of the whole lecture. She said to the tutorial that she can say stuff like this but when I say it, it has more authority because I’m a western woman while she hasn’t lived in the west. I came home from class elated and a little surprised that my background in western feminism was exactly the thing my lecturer wanted me to expound to my classmates.
For me, this was a massive affirmation of me as a person, with all my different experiences and giftings. And I really feel that this was God’s kindness to me, that on a week when I was feeling so useless and so out of place, that this was the week he chose for my lecturer to highlight the uniqueness of my views, and their relevance to university students in Tanzania. While it’s encouraging to know that I may actually have something to offer in this culture, it was even more heartening to feel that this was my Father assuring me that I am where he wants me to be.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.