I’ve always liked boys. That is to say, I’ve always gotten along well with boys, and later men. As a kid, I had a female bully and found myself ostracized from groups of my female peers. So, I took to hanging out with little boys who, as it seemed at the time, couldn’t care less about my clothes or hair and were much more interested in how far I could spit or how fast I could run. Boys just seemed simpler to me; less dramatic bickering and fewer whispers behind turned backs. It was simple to have male friends, and long into high school and college my ratio of friends tended to heavily favor the “less fair” gender.
That was, at least, until I came to Zambia.
During our pre-service training, we are drilled in understanding the gender roles held in Zambian society. As a woman, I knew coming in to my service that I would not be held to the same standards of respect and expectation as a male volunteer might be. It was thoroughly explained to me how Zambian men and women differ in their life paths, and how their cultural and society places expectations upon them in different but equally as burdensome ways.
Men will be providers. Women will be most everything else.
Men will be expected to lead, to govern, to conduct a family and provide for each and every wife and child (remembering that polygamy is common in parts of Zambia). Women will be expected to bear those children, wash and feed and care for them, haul the water and grind the maize, cook the food and wash the dishes, and in between it all work the fields and tend to her husbands needs.
Women will make the village beer. Men will drink it. Women might also drink it, but indoors where no one will see.
There are many things about these gender roles that rubbed me the wrong way, in the same way that sandpaper might chafe against an inner thigh – rough and painful and feeling horribly wrong. After 16 months in Zambia, I have come to cope with most of them, and to even understand why those gender roles exist. I have learned to see the silent pride women take in some of their roles, and how women are even the enforcers of what appears to me as stringent oppression.
But, this post isn’t about other women and their relationships with men. It’s about me, and my relationships with men.
Specifically, it’s about how Zambia has killed my trust in men.
Before we get carried away, it’s not about trusting Rob (my new fiance/Zamhusband!). Our relationship is actually one of the rocks on which I try to retain a grounding to gender-relation-reality. Rather, I want to talk about how I went from trusting men, feeling comfortable around men, and finding friendship in men to the exact and extreme opposite.
You may remember that early on in my service I had a bad experience with a bunch of drunk guys on a transport to my village. It was terrifying, and overnight I began to view men in a completely new way. Rather than looking at a man and just seeing a person, and potential friend, someone who I simply share space with, I now see a potential threat. I see someone who may harass me, who may disrespect me, who may yell at me or grab me or worse. In my regular dealings with men in Zambia, I find myself constantly on guard. Men operate nearly all transport, and the further away from my village I roam the more I must be alert and wary of all of interaction with men. Regularly, men bring out the worst in me, and it’s something I’ve come to hate. Not dislike; hate.
In these many uncomfortable situations, I feel torn with this question: how much control do I have over myself, my emotions, and my actions in this scenario? A few months ago, I was forced to answer it.
It was in the early afternoon that I was walking through Mbala, my BOMA, looking for groceries and hauling a heavy care package home from the post office. Mbala isn’t a particularly large town, and I usually don’t find myself too harassed if I keep to myself and the shops I know. There is one man, however, who regularly gives me grief and the worst of it lies in his own inability to control himself. This man is severely mentally ill or disabled. He is homeless and wanders the streets of Mbala drooling on himself and being teased and harassed by the young men who work the transport hubs. The mentally ill receive almost no services and are poorly understood by the general Zambian population, so this man’s life revolves around those good enough to show him kindness (an infrequent event).
I had seen this man many times before, and he has a particular fondness for mzungus (white people). He will scream at you from across the street,” Mzungu! Mzungu!” and come running over in his oversized and filthy clothing. Normally I can shrug this off, or walk quickly away to avoid confrontation. But, today was not that day.
Mbala had been particularly harass-y that day, and it was hot and I was tired. Men had been hissing at me as I walked by, standing in my path and forcing me to walk around, and pestering me with questions.
“Hey mama – give me your package!”
“Madam! Where are you going?”
“Give me 5 kwacha!”
While they sometimes do this to local women too, I am an obvious target and somehow fall out of the boundaries of what is usually socially acceptable to say to a woman in public. I was ready to get on a bus and get out of town, when the homeless man came out of nowhere and was suddenly in my face, smiling and squealing at me. “Mzungu!”
“Hello,” I said, and tried to walk around him.
“Mzungu!” he squealed. Dribble ran down his chin.
“Not today, Papa,” I said, and tried to walk away quickly. My package was too bulky to allow a quick escape. The man closed in and now as leaning in close to my face. I tried to turn away, but couldn’t get around him. The young men idling on the streets around us began to laugh and point at me as I tried to get away from the homeless man. Guilt and anger rose in my chest. Just leave me alone. I just want to leave. Why are none of these people trying to help?
The homeless man then lunged for me, grabbing my arm. Somewhere in the back of my brain I knew this was harmless, and he couldn’t hurt me. But I was embarrassed and my man-hackles were already up and armed from every guy who had already given me grief that day. I turned on the man.
“LEAVE. ME. ALONE!” I yelled at him in our local language. In the second it took for me to scream at him, his face shifted from happiness to fear. He cried out and shrank away from me, his joy at his new “friend” deflating away. I took hold of myself and realized my hand was raised to strike him, my package was dropped to the dusty ground, and in that moment I realized I was much bigger than this hungry, homeless, child-like man. I saw myself in a moment of clarity as my anger ebbed away and realized I was about to hit a homeless person because I was angry at every man standing around us laughing and pointing and egging the homeless man on.
I flushed red with embarrassment and lowered my hand. The homeless man, seemingly wiped clean of what had happened not a moment before, went to embrace me again as I gathered my package up. Out of nowhere, someone finally stepped out of the crowd and distracted the homeless man with a bun and greetings as I made my exit. I went home that night full of painful mixed feelings. I hated that I couldn’t trust men with my safety, with my friendship, with anything. I hated that my gender really matters here in Zambia, and that it’s something I can do absolutely nothing about. I hated how this piece of my life and friendships felt taken from me, and now the only male I could really trust in Zambia wasn’t even a Zambian. I felt like a failure at integration into the society, and a failure as a human for almost resorting to senseless violence over nothing.
Most of all, I felt full of anger for feeling like I have no choice in this matter. I have no choice but to be a woman here and now, and I feel caught in a web of social expectations and moral values and modeling of a different set of gender roles. I feel that in all the millions of emotional choices I have to make every day here as a woman and as a person, I actually have very little choice in the matter.
Perhaps the hardest thing of all: realizing all the choice I had back home, and how little of it I have here as a temporary member of a patriarchal society. Someday, I get to leave and go back home to all the male friends I left behind, but what will that relationship be like, now? Will I trust them like I used to, or will my experiences here taint my feelings about men worldwide? What is it like for Rob to hear me bitch and yell about how much I resent how men treat me and Zambian women, and be able to separate that from his own masculinity and experience as a male in Zambia? Moreover, how do I balance my desire to be a strong feminist and show Zambians another way of balancing gender relationships without putting myself at risk or burning myself out after being mocked (by men and women) over and over.
These aren’t the things I thought I would struggle with in Peace Corps. I thought being a woman was being a woman, and I never felt so overtly feminine that I worried about how my sex would affect my life. Now, I think of it daily (hourly) and I wonder how men will ever seem simple again.