Every afternoon while Elliot eats his dinner and then Arthur puts him through the bath, I go for a walk, skirting the boundary of the university. It’s not exactly a power walk, but it’s energetic. I normally listen to a podcast while I walk so I’ve got headphones in but can still greet people, and there are some people I see every day.
But without fail, there is always someone who stares at me, or who looks me up and down, or calls out to me in proposition rather than in greeting, or laughs and points at me. Sometimes, like during uni break when there are lots of soccer matches and secondary school students around, this becomes crowds of people.
I ask myself, why is this?
Is it because I’m white? People stare at me all the time wherever I am. They call out to me and they tell each other when I’m passing. They’re interested in who I am and where I come from and what I’m doing in their country. That doesn’t only happen on my afternoon walks. People will often stop me in the street to talk or to tell me they like my Tanzanian clothes or to find out if I speak Swahili. But the attention I get on my walks is more than the normal staring. Girls in particular will often giggle out of their own awkwardness at seeing a white person, but on my walks it’s much more raucous.
Is it because I’m exercising? Boys play soccer in Tanzania, girls play netball and awareness of fitness and nutrition is increasing as people’s lifestyles change to become more sedentary and they have access to more food. But exercise is not a super normal thing. People still walk lots of places so walking purely for exercise is a bit weird. One of the reasons I wear my sneakers is to flag ‘I’m exercising’ and that seems to make more sense to people. But still, people mimic how fast I’m walking and that I’m swinging my arms, sometimes good naturedly, but the kind of behaviour at hand feels more malevolent than that.
Is it because of what I’m wearing? I wear a loose T-shirt, 3/4 black leggings and a loose knee length skirt with sports socks, sneakers and sunglasses. It’s more skimpy than a secondary school girl’s uniform but looser than normal Tanzanian fashion, and more covered up than many university students. Girls and women who exercise or play sport generally do so in track pants. So I think what I’m wearing is somewhere on the spectrum of ‘normal’.
I think the reason for what I experience on my walks is probably a combination of all three. Our old post office lady used to jog the same route I walk, in a short dress with leggings and she drew absolutely no attention. But what is fine for her is not fine for me. And so I am subjected to the sexual innuendo and the scrutiny, and that’s hard for me.
It’s particularly difficult for me because in my own country and globally, I am part of a privileged majority. There are various damaging myths about women’s sexuality generally in my culture, but there are extra layers to this for black women, particularly the notion of black women’s sexual appetite and promiscuity. Now, I don’t know whether there are analogous myths operating for these people as they call out to me on my walk. If they had a perception that western women are more immoral than Tanzanian women, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. But fundamentally they’re dehumanising me, and feeling they can do so because of my otherness to them.
I feel like of everything I am learning from this experience of living cross culturally, one of the most personally enriching things for me is learning how to be the lowly and othered person.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.