One of the striking things about women in Tanzania for us as Aussies has been the number of women who work, and how this is largely uncontroversial. Tanzanian household structures provide for this. So does the cultural concept of the ‘strong woman‘. And the way they access cultural paradigms around motherhood when they exercise leadership. In this season while I am being a SAHM, I find myself without Tanzanian peers; middle class Tanzanian women work. I had a very interesting conversation about this the other day with the guard / parking attendant at a local shop.
As I go about making friends in our neighborhood, I am inundated with offers to come and work for us. When people ask these questions, they are of course looking for employment, and assuming that white people are the source of such, but they are also checking that we are being adequately looked after. What if I am not working because I don’t have help at home, i.e. because they have failed to hook me up with the right person?
This was the line of inquiry with the guard at the shop the other day. Do I have someone to work for us? I explained that I don’t, but I don’t need someone, that I am able to do it.
He double checks: “You don’t have a business?”
“No,” I assure him. “I am just at home with the house and the children.” In Swahili this is called a ‘mama wa nyumbani’.”
He looks surprised: “You care for your own children?”
“Yes,” I say, “Like a good African woman!”
He laughs. Later on he seeks me out again. He wants to tell me that I have good Swahili, and that I understand his culture. Through our conversation I put some more pieces into place as I grapple with gender in Tanzania.
I have made much of the fact that middle class women in Tanzania basically all work. I’ve argued that that is largely uncontroversial, because even poor or rural women are working outside domestic tasks. They work in the family farm, and sometimes have businesses as well. Women have always ‘worked’, so the leap to ‘the working world’ is not a great one. Just as they have always provided for their families in more than merely the domestic sphere, so they continue to.
But this neglects that domesticity is still very much women’s work. Even if you have house help, it’s the woman’s job to supervise that, not the husband’s. Even if she is to have a cook her whole married life, a wife must still know how to cook ugali. Because these are her tasks that she has outsourced. And she’s done that in order to contribute to her family’s wealth acquisition, and to see them move forward – to nurture her family in very real ways. She’s doing what she has to, but it’s another sign of a changing world, of ‘modernity’, and ‘progress’, which are tied up with westernisation.
The idea of house help being western might seem odd, because it’s not that common in Australia, though more people seem to be getting cleaners if not nannies. And when we came to Tanzania it was impressed upon us that even poorer Tanzanians will have a relative work in their home in order to support them. So house help per se is not from the west, or a sign of westernisation.
But everywhere we go in this fast-changing country, and especially here in Dar es Salaam, there is a nostalgia for the simpler life, associated with times gone by, the village, and more defined gender roles. Despite the fact that I stay at home with our boys because of my incredible and outrageous privilege, describing it as being ‘like a good African woman’ recalls this longing, and to some extent validates it.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.