I’ve been thinking about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article for quite a while now. Slaughter makes the excellent point that we as women in America should not forget that we are blessed– we get to make the choice to have a professional life, to have a family life. It is this point that has stuck out to me more than anything these last few days here in Tanzania.
A few days ago I encountered a young Maasai girl—not more than six years old—lying in the grass at her father’s feet, her eyelids shut and flies filling her mouth with blackness that obscured the white. Her father was sitting calmly in front of his hut at the forefront of the boma (village), whittling away at a small piece of wood. We couldn’t take it, and he wouldn’t listen.
“When will you take her to the hospital?”
Clearly time was an illusory concept.
And then, the father’s follow-up.“She is not sick, she is mentally ill.”
The conclusion needn’t have been voiced to hit us full force in the face like the heat of the dry plains near Lake Manyara, Tanzania. It deadened the air around it and sat their lordly and despicable–there she would remain.
Out of place though we might have been and deadly scared though we certainly were, we persisted. But inquiries addressed to the mother led to deference to the father, for whom the life of an unhealthy daughter seemed to be of little consequence.
Now, my purpose here is not to render trivial the hopes that many American women have that they will fulfill their desires for personal and professional success without undue impediment on the basis of their sex—but rather to put it in perspective.
Although the kind of deference I saw a young mother show to the males around her conjures up images of decades long gone and fought over in the United States, the lack of support that I saw among a network of strong, capable Maasai women is part of an ever present reality that persists today. Time after time, we greeted the women of the boma individually, and each one led us to a group of decision-making men. The deference was so ingrained that it had become absolute–the terrible thing was that I knew that I didn’t have to be in a Maasai boma in Tanzania to see it.
So yes, in many ways we are the lucky ones. We won the “birth lottery” as so many before me have concluded. So then, it seems to me that we have an obligation to use what we have been given and support each other–as women who believe in the strength and capability of the women around us. It also means that we have a responsibility to spread that belief to the bomas and the townships and the villages where women were not so blessed in the circumstances of their birth.
We were born with luck in our hands. What will you do with yours?