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If this is not feminism, then what is?

Movement building in Rumphi, Tiwonge Gondwe’s village (Tiwonge has been part of JASS movement building in Southern Africa from 2007)

As Sindi and I drove to Tiwonge's town in Rumphi, northern Malawi, the light was clear, quiet, translucent, and so brilliant you could see through whatever stood before you. Sindi and I were excited, we were about to see the work of one of the most active, bold and solid members of the community we were visiting. Sindi kept me ‘alive’ by bringing the vitality and courage of the youth to the conversation. “Hope, we must take responsibility for Malawi,” she kept reminding me, without realizing that I am a casual labourer without roots. I move from one building site to the other, depending on availability of jobs.

In the meantime, the vast and silent landscape, with the mountains on both sides of the road, spoke their own language. Witnessing this magnificence is a luxury for someone who usually travels to places like Darfur to see how humanity is incapable of respecting itself, let alone the environment we live in. We have transformed our surroundings, but we are rarely allowed to be transformed by them. One person, though, who has not just transformed her world but also the world of many women is this Tiwonge whose work we were going to see!

In a story about herself, Tiwonge wrote:

“For myself, I try my best to use power within and start bringing change to myself so that I should be in the slogan ‘walk the talk’ and ‘nothing without me is for me’. I went to my grandfather and narrated my problem, how I want to have a garden of my own so that in the near future I do not have problems with my brothers over the issue of land. The reason why I was doing this is because in our culture it is stated that ‘land is for man’. For myself to challenge this mindset I started talking to my grandfather about why it is important to share the land with women and sharing the badness of distributing land to men only. I have kept on having these conversations with my grandfather since I acknowledge that I have power within and surely I will own the land from him because of what I received from JASS about the different powers –visible, invisible and hidden. On top of that I learnt to know who has power to do what things.”

As I recalled this paragraph, I admired her for being an activist who swirled in the middle of the circle and danced the vision of a movement-building chant, taking us further ahead and organising the women of her community. Tiwonge does not have outstanding academic qualifications to write home about. She is a rural woman, who has gone through trying moments including living with HIV and AIDS. Prior going to South Africa for the JASS movement-building training, she had never left Malawi. Yet here is Tiwonge, in her thirties, using power within to ask for a piece of land from her grandfather, in a patriarchal society where women tend to be invisible. If this is not feminism, what is it? Tiwonge has shown us how to ‘walk with the talk’.

As we got closer to Tiwonge’s home, the fields looked empty and desolate. The rains came late this year. Food is scarce. Driving past a local cemetery, the many freshly dug graves were a sad reminder of what is happening in the country. Tiwonge lives with a sick sister-in-law and is taking care of many children, but she shared some food with us. The generosity of the poor never ceases to amaze me.

The women of the community, who work with Tiwonge, were just amazing. They sang, danced and looked happy. It’s difficult to know what makes a woman who is living with HIV and AIDS and has lost a husband and most of her children, dance and tell the most hilarious stories. I was reminded of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist’s words; “It has been a woman's task throughout history to go on believing in life when there was almost no hope.” The women told us about their plans, ambitions, achievements, frustrations but every now and again, a woman would burst into a song and others would join in. Then they would stand up and dance and those who know me know that I don’t have a dancer’s leg, so I just clapped violently as if to make up for my lack of dancing skills.

Seeing the work of these women made me wonder how one could even dream of capturing their connectivity, courage, love, energy and resilience into a "results-based management report” as donors normally demand.

We left the group embarrassed that we could only share some drinks and biscuits, definitely not a politically correct combination of nourishment for HIV positive women or any other human being. One thing though is that we promised to go back and work with them for a much longer period, or Sindi did.

Oh! And we must mention that those women have their own community hall, they are organised in various sectors, some visit schools and help with cooking school food, others are in business, politics, heath, and agriculture ... they are in all the sectors. Is this not what feminist movement-building is supposed to be about? Guess who has contributed to the movement building? ActionAID! JASS is building on the initiatives started by ActionAid., I wonder if there is a country in Africa where rural women are as organised as the ones we met in Northern Malawi. This unique and great work of AA should be recognised.

Beyond Tiwonge’s village, close to the border with Tanzania, is an area called Karonga where the earthquake has caused havoc especially since mining started in the area. Margaret and Caroline, who attended JASS movement-building training in Lilongwe, live and work in Karonga. Whom do they rely on to ensure that when a crisis arises the resources are available to act swiftly and transform a potentially harsh situation into a means to act and be counted? They reported that from December 2009 to now, there have been as many as 60 earthquakes, which have displaced many people including women living with HIV and AIDS.

Given the reality on the ground, what is the work of a feminist movement-building organisation about? I think that we need to pay attention, stay alert, reach out and make sure that we remain in touch with the women activists that work in difficult circumstances. It is one of the most essential types of work a feminist organisation can do. It’s about caring, but not in the gendered meaning of the word; it is about doing things carefully, forgetting no one, making sure we do not allow the activists to stand alone, no matter that some work in isolated places.

As we continue to put more thoughts into Southern region, and as new initiatives in Malawi’s different regions are springing up and growing, JASS has to focus more on new trends, and develop a concerted and clear understanding of its role as a conduit for linking activists to each other and to other movements. We are aware of how JASS changes and transforms itself depending on the nature of the needs and practices within specific realities, so should we not start making an assessment as to what creates linkages between activists in different regions, no matter where we come from and what we deal with? Could we commit to a mechanism for tools sharing? Already we have some tools; should we focus on how to expand their use so as to pursue a dialogue whenever a new situation arises?

Finally, when I am old-er, I want to work for you, comrade Sindi, (Sindi is now 27 years old), and tease the creative juices out of you. I hope you will allow me to work freely, dance when I can, sing loudly without being told about broken teeth, think freely, dream without anyone waking me up, and generally be carefree in all sorts of ways. I believe free thinkers within the women's movement have the delicate responsibility to keep us dreaming. Isn't that what fuels our vision?

The next installment of Hope Chigudu’s movement-building journey through Malawi weaves the women’s stories, the learning that Hope and Sindi Blose share, and Hope’s reflections.