Lessons from Dar

Concluding the second week of life in Dar, the amount I’ve learned is incredible.

On Day 1 Mama, my new landlady, scooped me from the airport and made me feel at home before letting me chat about my research.  (To refresh your memory, the research is the impact of mobile phones on women’s empowerment.)  She wonders aloud why they need foreigners to come and do this work – why not Tanzanians?  I wonder the same.  A thought pricks – aren’t I very glad and lucky to be here?  One could argue that I am here for my own benefit (to learn and live new things), rather than to add value to people’s lives.  I hope this is not true.  Privileged people like to travel to developing countries, ostensibly to help, but bringing neither the dedication nor skills necessary to do so, only to return home with fond memories of the cute children they posed with along the way (see the Onion: 6 Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture).  I wonder if I am part of this dance; cynicism creeps in.  The goal of this research is to produce information that arms development efforts with strategies that work, i.e. that lead to quality of life improvements for the marginalized (in this case, women).  Is it arrogant of me to think that there is a difference between this and the voluntourism that smacks of superficial beneficence?

Regardless of any prospective ability to positively affect people’s lives, there is no doubt that I am also here to learn.  For example, a primary goal of my time here is to learn what life is for Tanzanians.  Empowerment is laden with culture bound gender roles and ideals, so doing so feeds directly into this research.  In pursuit of this, I’ve sought to engage locals (primary sources, as it were) to teach me about Tanzanian culture.  A conversation with one of these new friends proved particularly rewarding.

He works for a volunteer organization.  The volunteers do things like go to orphanages to spend time with neglected children.  I communicate to him my newfound cynicism.  He says yes, they come here to volunteer and travel and enjoy themselves, but he combats my cynicism: there are Tanzanians here who could do what the volunteers are doing, but they don’t.  People don’t go to orphanages to spend time with the children; many accept as a part of life that there are orphanages full of children who are starved for adult attention.  Importing volunteers is importing their ideals, born of a life where this tragedy is not commonplace thus it can shock them into action.  I think of another conversation I had, with a woman from a country where street harassment is rampant.  She said you cannot fight harassment; you cannot change culture.  I disagree.  I think my rejection of this behavior, my passion to fight it tooth and nail, is a product of where I come from.  Sexual harassment was not a daily reality in the countries where I grew up; perhaps this is what prevents me from accepting it and allows me to believe we can fight it.  This is the remedy to my cynicism: there is a niche for outsiders; they (we) can contribute worldviews with different internalized truths, different blind spots.  Locals can also have a vision of things as different and the drive to make it so, but maybe it requires greater inner strength, as they must see beyond what surrounds them.  It is not easy to see Plato’s shadows.  So, perhaps there is a role for me and thinking so is not simply egotism.

After returning me, a bit the wiser, to my idealistic vigor, my friend the volunteer organizer gave me a book: Parched Earth, by Elieshi Lema, a feminist sociologist of Dar es Salaam.  I read it quickly, filtering it through my empowerment framework.  To back up, this framework, which I will employ in a qualitative study that supplements Professor Roessler and Nielson’s Randomized Control Trial (RCT), defines empowerment as acquiring the ability to make choices.  This process involves resources (e.g. economic, social, information and time) which interact to produce agency (an expanding perception of choices and awareness of own interest) that lead to wellbeing outcomes (defined in terms of human rights).  Empowerment is individual and collective.  A takeaway from this book is the importance of collective empowerment.  The main character, despite her impressive agency/awareness of her desires, is slowly suffocated as others define what she must be, what she must want.  The women in her life squeeze her into the mold and sanction her when she deviates.  Thanks to this book, I will ask in qualitative interviews: What advice would you give to a new wife?  What advice would you give to your daughter?  Another takeaway is how deeply men can suffer at the hands of patriarchy.  The main character’s brother is tortured by not fitting the male standard, while her husband is forced to stop spending time at home where he finds happiness, instead going to bars every evening to show he is not “hen pecked.”  I wonder now if women’s empowerment can be assessed by only looking at women.  It is not a “women’s” issue – patriarchy plagues society as a whole.  Still, the study treats women’s empowerment not gender equality, which are subtly different.  Kabeer, whose work is the foundation of my empowerment framework, proposed that giving women resources allows them to negotiate unequal dependency (gender inequality) and, from this new position, address other injustices of their lives.  She is saying that individual empowerment (expansion of choice by means of resources) can lead to collective empowerment (addressing wider, structural injustices).  This would be a more targeted question for my study: Do mobile phones empower women individually?  Does this individual empowerment lead to collective empowerment?

On Tuesday I went to the field for the RCT’s baseline interviews.  Seeing the world about which I’ve developed a theory of change was a grounding experience.   I have pared down my expectations of impact.  Though collective empowerment is an ultimate goal (i.e. the erosion of gender roles and patriarchal structures), it is too far removed from reality to be an endpoint; it distracts from the immediately attainable: an individual’s empowerment.  In Easterly’s terms, I was seduced into thinking like a ‘planner,’ with eyes on grandiose goals when piecemeal ones are what move us forward.  Mobile phones may actually allow a woman to lessen her dependency, increase her negotiating capital, and expand her choices.  If this is the case, I will be curious to see if/when this translates into her expansion beyond the confines of what is socially acceptable for women, and if this translates into impacting those around her (e.g. via advice or role modeling).  This would constitute collective empowerment.  I look forward to the results of Phase I of the RCT and eagerly await the time when I will ask these women what having cell phones is to them, what choices are important, what constitutes a life improvement.


I will report back soon in the next blog post.

Kwa herini!