JASS Blog Archives for October 2011

by on October 6, 2011 on 12:42 pm

Hope Chigudu said:


I am not sure that I know what this term means but what I know is that there is a way in which we do things as NGOs that makes some of the people we work with believe that is the only way things are done and should be done. Here is an example. We asked the women to work in groups of three to identify a campaign issue (compelling, and close to their hearts) to focus on during the next few months. Many came up with topics such as (a) Women in decision making, b) Girl child network, c) violence against women etc. These are common and broad topics for NGOs but are they the ones that keep the women awake at night? Are these the topics they are worried and passionate about everyday, the ones that follow them like a shadow?

During the hilarious night session, the conversation led to ARVS and how the ones they are using in Malawi distort their bodies by destroying their shapes; some grow humps at the back, horns in the vagina, they become hairy, legs get thinner and the breasts and stomach bigger. The conversation was tough, sad and passionate; ideas, perceptions, feelings, experiences and fears were shared. The images they used to describe how their bodies respond to ARVs were rich and diverse, the metaphors run the full range from precise and illuminating to obscure and confusing. This was true conversation; enlivening and enlightening and it shaped what women are really passionate about, what keeps them awake at night, what they fight and what makes them lose their dignity. They all wished there were better ARVs. At the end of the conversations we were horrified at what ARVs are doing to women’s bodies. The question we were left with as we retired was – this was a remarkable day, there were some remarkable discussions, but why did not the women talk as passionately about ARVs during the groups discussions as they did in the informal meeting in the evening? Why were they trying hard to identify topics that were not closely related to their bodies? What does this mean for our work?

So actually the evening conversation provided a much more reflective space and shared meaning, and we were able to see into the real situation. After listening to the stories regarding the ugly side of ARVs, the conversation continued and we shared crazy mad and interesting stories about sex and sexuality…

Lisa VeneKlasen said:

This is so interesting. Yes, NGO-isation can be pretty confusing because NGOs – as one professionalized form of civil society organizing – aren’t inherently bad. It’s the one-size-fits-all, technical and institutionalized approach to social justice that’s the killer. Having ONLY ONE Linear APPROACH just kills the creative energy that drives human uprising against injustice and sustains mobilization. And in Southern Africa especially because of the extraordinary power of donors and the aid industry relative to other regions, it’s become an ideology that has co-opted language (we can’t use the word empowerment without explaining that we mean something different than what the World Bank means) and mindsets to fit the donor box. That’s why we can’t use words like “issue” or “campaign” until they’re already organized and running.

Maybe the question is: in your life, what problem do you share that, if solved, would make things better? The answer to that is usually poverty but you can slice it down. I suspect that once we move into the strategy on ARV treatment – which is what they want – so many other injustices will emerge and the agenda will grow. It’s like my first organizing experience where a very poor, Latino community wanted a STOP SIGN as their big issue. As a young Marxist revolutionary, I was crushed at how mundane and irrelevant this was. But once we started it got so big they ended up mobilizing to change the city charter.

The story about distorted bodies is surreal as much as tragic. I’m sure you girls picked up a lot of new sex techniques to boot…

Hope Chigudu said:

Thanks, I agree originality and self determination are gone, although I don’t see much different between Africa and my 'clients' in Asia.

Carmen Sahonero said:

Yes, I agree with that. I think as a professional form of civil society organizing, NGOs play a critical role in fighting for social justice. I would say that provides to the movements more credibility and sustainability.

About the ARVs side effects in the body shape, it is just frustrating. Lipodystrophy or fat redistribution in the body (I just learned that term today), it takes time to come, but it comes and could be one of the most powerful causes of depression.

Maggie Mapondera said:

This is really powerful.

I think there’s this problem around the world for women everywhere, but maybe particularly in post-colonial (or situations of political oppression that you find in certain countries) contexts where people, and especially women have not always had the opportunity to view themselves as subjects. Their bodies are objects; their experiences are not “worth” much, their lives even. And this mentality seems to bleed into the way that NGO programs are built with all the one-size-fits-all, technical approaches that don’t always allow women and people to be subjects and to have authorship and ownership over the solutions to the very real problems they are facing. It’s striking to see how women’s narratives, the narratives they build of themselves can be so defined (and in some ways confined) by what’s coming from the outside. So their experience of their realities, of sexuality, of their bodies at a biological and physical level isn’t considered “important” or even worth addressing. Because it’s not NGO-“sexy” or whatever. I am so glad that the evening conversation was able to tease some of those truths out, that passion, and that actual lived experience.

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by Hope Chigudu on October 5, 2011 on 3:56 pm

Malawian Activists in workshopThe reunion with the women we have been working with in Malawi was emotional. Tiwonge, who has been involved since the beginning in 2007, lifted me up in the air as if I was a piece of paper. She is very strong. There were lots of hugs, tears and kisses. It was a reunion of body and spirit.

We tried to find a strategy to make sense collectively of where we have been and are currently. We chose body mapping because we felt the exercise would enable the women to find their stories, and weave the personal with the political, the individual and the collective. Using body maps as a way of expressing ourselves, we drew our bodies. Each woman detailed the events happening in their lives, identifying them with parts of her body and to the movement we are trying to build. So the process evolved and deepened, as though we were entering a flowing river that reforms its banks even as its banks direct its flow. Each woman’s contribution created the direction of the conversation. The women shared stories related to violence, illness, despair, betrayal and different levels of human degradation. Some of the stories were appalling but I tell you, these are not powerless women. Powerless is driven by an absence, but these women have something in them, something that makes them act, that fills the absence and this is where JASS comes in. JASS’ political awareness process brought a response to the absence. Words used included ‘using the power within’ patriarchy, sisterhood, alliance, collective. What they have learned is already deeply imbedded in their language and thinking.

Hear what Judy said: “I have been talking about human rights to other women and here I am in a violent situation. My husband wanted me to leave the marriage. He wanted me to go…I don’t know where. Supported by Lillian, I took him to court and got a peace order. He is back but I have now taken over as the head of the family.” She was not the only one who took action at the household level. Several women shared stories of being so empowered that they took their men to court.

Tiwonge told her story: “My husband sold my tobacco. I took him to court and he was ordered to return it. But then I looked at myself and said, ‘Tiwonge, this is not the marriage you wanted. Get out.’ By the time I left him, I had already started building my house and it was half finished. I just moved there with nothing till someone donated a mattress…”

Another woman said: “I did a pap smear and had my placenta (meaning uterus) removed.” Several women have done this. It’s a thing that was started by Tiwonge who has educated women about cancer, pap smears and the other basics of reproductive health that have gone missing from the HIV/AIDS agenda.

Shereen and I listened, listened deeply to the women, to the patterns of their lives, to the power dynamics and how they have manipulated those dynamics. In short, body mapping and the conversation that ensued proved to be a valuable method of inquiry and observation, leading us to new understanding of what the women have been doing and to inspiration. We were really amazed at how the women internalized and adapted the “learning” and how they are using it. As we talked, I remarked that “Lisa would be proud to hear the women using the language of movement building.”

What did I, Hope, learn today?

  • What we miss in big movements is the kind of conversation we had with the women and the women with each other. A sense of connection.
  • The women don’t fragment their lives between activism in public places and activism in their person lives. For them things are not split into pieces - their community group, their marriages/partnerships, different aspects of health, what they do with JASS and how they manage their work are all connected. In the discussion, perhaps without intending to, they share a lot about what they are to each other. How they support each other. They have a sense of heart, body and soul connection to each.
  • There are many intangible gains which are difficult to capture on paper.
  • Efforts at building movement are expressed in partial pieces, pieces that might seem to be fragmented but in actual fact, are not at all.
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