Starting the conversation
Starting the conversation
Hello. My name is A.J. and I’m a man.
So why do I have a column in a women’s travel magazine/blog? In my own travels, I have encountered women of different cultures who have had a deep impact on my own life. From time to time, I’ll be sharing the stories of some of the diverse and fascinating women that I’ve encountered in my own travels. During my travels and my time living abroad, I became deeply aware of how people of diverse backgrounds can experience travel very differently. Rather than simply self-segregating though, I found it important to build bridges, sharing, understanding and finding ways to support each other. I hope to share some stories from my own experience to start a dialogue. How can men be allies to women in travels through places that sometimes, frankly, are completely repressive and abusive, without being patronizing or repressive themselves? I invite you each month to write to me with ideas, disagreements, or relevant stories that I’ll try to incorporate into this conversation.
Mpho: The Atypical Tswana Woman
When I arrived at my site, where’d I’d be spending the next two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I certainly did not know what I was expecting. I do know that I was definitely not expecting Mpho. There were three women that ran the household that would become my home abroad. Thati was my host mother. She was the deputy principal of one of the schools that I would work at. Her round and smiling face would greet me each morning and her laugh would light up a room. Mma Thati (literally, mother of Thati) was my host grandmother, and the matriarch of our family. While she was around, I knew nothing bad could ever happen to me because she truly took me to be a child of her family. And then there was Mpho, Thati’s cousin. Though younger than Thati, her dark and chiseled face gave her a somewhat intimidating look. And she backed it up with a firecracker personality.
In my first months, we butted heads repeatedly. With Mpho, there was one way of doing things and she was definitely going to teach the American how to do them. Arguments about the proper place to put things, such as the toilet paper in my hut/house would end with us both exclaiming “Oa tsenwa!” which literally translated means “You are possessed” or “You’re crazy.” Though I was fairly proficient in basic seTswana, Mpho spoke a rapid-fire version that often left me feeling like a deer in headlights. Once, when Mma Thati checked in on how I was doing I admitted I was struggling to understand Mpho. She chuckled and said, “That Mpho, she talks too fast. And sometimes she doesn’t really say anything. She just makes noise.”
The first weeks passed and Mpho and I arrived at something of a truce. Early in my service, I had no projects to work on so I’d often spend the afternoons out in the grazing lands, helping herd and water the goats and sheep. The first few times I went, I was of little more use than a stump that could be placed in front of a gate to keep sheep from crossing. As time went on, I learned to herd, to catch a goat that needed to be inspected, and to help sort kids for feeding. Perhaps during this time Mpho began to see me as something more useful than just a lumbering American. I too began to respect her more as I saw how hard she worked, cleaning the house and making meals during the day, while taking care of the livestock in the mornings and evenings.
As summer approached and the Kalahari sun stretched each day longer, it was time to erect a new corral for the goats. Mpho and I jumped into the back of the family’s beat up sky blue pick-up and we headed out towards the open veld to chop down some thorny brambles to make the shelter. As the truck sputtered down the road, it became clear we needed to get some motor oil before heading further so we pulled up at an odd set of buildings on the edge of the village. A school bus yellow building doubled as an auto shop and general supply store, directly abutted by a Coca Cola red tavern. As my host cousin Mofokeng went in to buy the motor oil, Mpho and I waited patiently in the back of the truck. A thin man with a scraggy beard and a bottle in hand stumpled towards us and grabbed Mpho’s arm with the all too predictable line, “Hey baby, let’s talk.” Mpho gave the man one look and without a moments hesitation used her free arm to grab a saw and raised it menacingly in the air. As the startled intruder stumbled backwards, she yelled, “What’s wrong? Come talk to me now!”
Now, Mpho’s reaction may not seem novel to the average indpendent American woman, but I was absolutely blown away. In South Africa, any women traveling around should expect a heavy dose of cat calls, grabs, and gropes. Why do these guys think that grabbing a random girl’s hand and saying he is in love with her will get him anywhere? Unfortunately, because it does. I was always shocked when I saw South African women approached like this and instead of pulling away, they’d flirt back. Now, obviously it’s not the case with all South African women but it was enough that the brazen harassment method of picking up women had not been bred out. Mpho, who had grown up in the village and never completed school, had somehow decided she just was not going to put up with that. From that day onwards, I had a new respect for Mpho and even when we disagreed, I always kept my respect for her.
As time went on, I began to learn more about my host aunt. She lived with my host family along with her two small children. Her own mother was poor and perhaps had some degree of mental illness. When Mpho was a small girl, her mother brought her to Mma Thati to take care of and raise. In return for this, Mpho would do the domestic work and help with the livestock. This kind of arrangement is fairly common in South Africa, with more prosperous families ending up taking in the members of poorer households.
Every time I began to feel that I was in the know and understood Mpho, I was quickly proven wrong. After a year, my seTswana was finally fast enough to successfully banter back and forth at Mpho speed. One night, I walked into the main house to see Mpho at the dining table hunched over a book. As I approached to investigate, I realized the book was written in English.
“Mpho! You know English?”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
With a shrug of her shoulders she went back to reading. She was studying for the South African equivalent of a GED. With her eldest child starting school, she was setting an example.
After two years in the village, I don’t think I even got close to learning the core of what drove Mpho, but I definitely got a good peak. What I do know is that Mpho will always find her own way.