Tag Archives: african culture

What you ought to know about the unspoken shame of childbirth

18 Feb

fistula

By the time you go to bed tonight, more than 800 women will have died from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications around the world, the vast majority of these being African women. For every one of these women that dies 20 more will be injured or disabled, with the most common injury being obstetric fistula.

As an African woman I must admit to being a little disturbed at having only become aware of this epidemic in the last couple of years. Why has it been so neglected despite the devastating impact it has on the lives of affected girls and women?

This article is a graphic read but we don’t apologise for it. It’s time we brought the more than 2 million African girls and women living with obstetric fistula out of the shadows.

What exactly is obstetric fistula?

It’s an injury that usually occurs when a woman is in prolonged labour without access to  timely medical intervention. Over the course of three to five days of labor, the unborn baby presses against the mother’s pelvic  bone, cutting off blood flow to the surrounding tissues and  causing the tissues to disintegrate and rot away. A hole  – or fistula – develops either between the vagina and the bladder or the vagina and rectum causing an uncontrollable constant leaking of urine, faeces and blood.

obstetric-fistula

That’s the scientific explanation!

The reality on the ground is that in most cases the baby is stillborn or dies within the first week of birth and the women are left facing lifelong incontinence that will lead to their being shunned by their communities, abandoned by their husbands and families and completely isolated socially and economically. In some communities these girls and women are physically moved to the edges of their villages and towns, often to live in isolation where they  die from starvation or an infection in the birth canal. The unavoidable odor is viewed as offensive, thus their removal from society is seen as essential.

The acid in the urine, faeces, and blood often causes severe burn wounds on the legs from the continuous dripping, resulting  in nerve damage that can cause the women to struggle with walking and eventually lose mobility. In an attempt to avoid the dripping, many women limit their intake of water and liquid which can ultimately lead to dangerous cases of dehydration. Ulceration and infections can persist as well as other medical complications which can lead to death. Because only a quarter of women who suffer a fistula in their first birth are able to have a living baby, affected woman have little chance of conceiving a healthy baby later on.

Who’s likely to get it?

Whilst all women of reproductive age are vulnerable to suffer fistula, it’s more prevalent in communites where child marriages and early childbirth occur since young mothers generally have under-developed pelvises. In fact, obstructed labor is responsible for 76% to 97% of obstetric fistulas.

A woman living in a culture where she has little ownership of her body and her status and self-esteem depend almost entirely on her marriage and ability to bear children is also at higher risk. Other risk factors include lack of access to contraceptives resulting in pregnancies that are too closely spaced and lack of access to quality maternal health care and emergency obstetric care such as caesarean sections.

Can it be treated?

Patients with uncomplicated fistulae can undergo a simple surgery to repair the hole in their bladder or rectum. The treatment cures up to 90% of obstetric fistula patients. However, many women remain unaware of the availability of treatment for their condition or the shame associated with the condition prevents them from seeking help. It’s estimated that 80% of women with fistulas never seek treatment. The medical costs of repair, between $150 and $450 US dollars, as well as significant transportation issues also prevent many women from receiving care. There are very few African hospitals with the resources and trained staff to perform fistula repair, and women frequently must travel far to reach treatment facilities.

9_fistula_surgery

What can I do?

Every one of us is in a position of influence within our communities. Do your research, find out more about obstetric fistula and other conditions affecting African women, and their causes. Share your knowledge. We’re often in a position to influence a decision on early marriage or share knowledge on contraceptives or health care within our extended circle of family and friends.

Remember, even if you impact the life of one woman, you’ve played your part in keeping the chain of change moving. But by the grace of God, these two million African women living with fistula injuries could be you or I!

_______________________________

Photo credits: World Health Organisation

Come on ladies, can we all just get along?

6 Feb

th

By Bekithemba Mhlanga

The patriarchs and the macho men must have been rolling on the floor with laughter watching the dramatic fallout between Dr Mamphela Ramphele of Agang SA and Hellen Zille of the Democratic Alliance (DA) political parties in South Africa.

Last week the two sisters, one black one white, agreed to gang up against that cultural polygamist and leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, at the forthcoming general election with the ultimate political ambition of ‘usurping’ power in this hot bed of a democracy bequeathed to them by Nelson Mandela.

The merged party was billed as creating the strongest challenge to the ANC since it came to power in 1994 and aimed to tap into voter dissatisfaction with President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, under fire over corruption scandals and stubbornly high poverty levels. Ms Ramphele, a medical doctor, was the partner of the late Steve Biko, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.

On the day of the announcement of the partnership the two sisters were all over each other, sealing the agreement with a kiss – a smacker almost at par with those exchanged by Madonna and her fellow female stage artists in the past. “We are going to take away the excuse of race and challenge the ANC to be judged on its performance,”  Zille announced confidently.

The ANC quickly dismissed the partnership as a “rent-a-black face” arrangement. The sniggering males on social media were even louder and will ring irritatingly for some time to come. “It won’t last,” they said, “what can two women cobble together that lasts?” Others quipped smugly, “Wait until the hormones take over and that will be the end of this relationship, black girls don’t get on with white girls – this will unravel in no time.”

As fate would have it five days later came the announcement – it was all over! The agreement was buried in a slew of personal recriminations and political point-scoring. “Dr Ramphele has demonstrated – once and for all – that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion,” said Zille furiously. Ramphele retorted, “Some people cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people trapped in old-style race-based politics.”

It’s not hard to imagine the discussions that went on in many pubs, offices, homes and political offices across the continent. “That Dr Ramphele and Zille – they say it’s not working,” says Mathew to Andile. “Women – what can you expect …don’t know how to play nicely with each other,” responds Andile, “pass me the beer, will you?” End of story.

Is this a fair assessment?

Perception and fact can be quite different, so let’s get the facts out of the way in the first instance before we settle into the more fun stuff of perception. Corporate research shows that 40% of all workplace bullies are women and that women bully other women 70% of the time. While male bullies take an egalitarian approach in this respect, mowing down men and women in pretty equal measure, women on the other hand prefer their own kind. In the name of Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf what is going on here?

So what is the perception out there about women’s ability to get along? Not being a fan of laboratory experiments or desk bound research, I did what nature expects one to do when confronted with such nature related questions – I asked others, male and female, why we have this jaundiced view of female relations. There seems to be five major themes to explain this and perhaps not surprisingly in all of them it’s the women’s fault.

  1. Women are under pressure to adopt aggressive behaviour to get ahead and once they’re in a leadership position they still maintain this behaviour. My discussions suggest that this is perceived to be the case in many different contexts and therefore cannot be said to apply to the corporate world only. Whether it’s in a burial society or church group the agro just seems to pop out. It’s just that the intensity rises in direct proportion to the anticipated rewards.
  2. Women see other women as potential threats and competitors. As a man I’ve known lots girls, women, ladies and wives who hate each other for the most smallest of things. The light skinned hate the dark ones, the natural hairs hate the processed, the fat hate the slim, and the intelligent ones hate the not so intelligent ones. So deep seated is the animosity that it can wreck even the most noble business, social and political projects. No need to elaborate on this one then.
  3. The third explanation seems to be of a cultural making – the lack of opportunity for advancement of women thus making women more competitive. This is more so in the African context were women are to be heard not seen and must walk one step behind the men, where their assumed position is to be poor, powerless, pregnant and hungry. As a result every little opportunity to break away from this mould will be pursued with vigour and energy, and woe betide any female who threatens this opportunity. So it’s possible that in their chase for the opportunity to take on Jacob Zuma the two ladies were blinded to some of the basic capacity building steps and consultative exercise, political strategising needed to ensure the success of mergers. Perhaps males would have been more calculating, retreating into some bush and disfiguring locals to build up support before proceeding to engage in any discussions, as was the case with Renamo in Mozambique or the situation in South Sudan.
  4. Another common explanation I was given for the perception that women cannot get along was that women are stereotyped as bullies when that is not necessarily the case. We all know that no one wants to work with bullies so women approach other women with an assumption that they’re bullies and it’s not going to work out which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  5. Finally it’s said that women are insecure in their leadership positions and feel the necessity to sabotage other women in order to maintain their position of power. I once worked with three women who had such a deep rooted hatred for each other it was unbelievable. The trio, of equal rank, would brief on each other sometimes knowing fully well that the message would ultimately get back to the person they were gossiping about. Unbeknown to them the senior boss knew this and took pleasure in assigning them projects where they had to work together on a routine basis. I never found out whether this was to help them get along or just to create more opportunities for them to inflict more pain on each other.

So back to the story at hand, did the good Dr Mamphele and Zille fall out just because they are females? Probably not, but it’s most likely that many males latched onto this reason precisely because they are females and this explanation played into the hands of gender stereotypes.

Would males have fallen out? Most likely and with one of them left for dead in the process!

Mandela’s will leaves money for family and staff but nothing for Winnie

4 Feb

mandela1_2603614b (2) So rang the headlines of various newspapers around the world in response to the public disclosure of Nelson Mandela’s will.

The question is should he have included his ex-wife Winnie at all in his will?

We’ve heard arguments from both sides of the aisle, some readers feel she helped build the Mandela brand and is therefore entitled to something but others point out that ex-wives are rarely ever beneficiaries of ex-husbands’ wills.
We’re holding our thoughts on this one and opening it up for wider discussion. For those needing to get up to speed, here’s a quick summary of Mandela’s will.*

The estate was valued at 46 million Rand (excluding royalties) with Justice Moseneke, Judge President of the Eastern Cape Themba Sangoni and prominent human rights lawyer George Bizos named as executors.

Moseneke, summarising what he said was a 40-page document said the will was put together on 12 October 2004 with final amendments made in 2008.

The will provided bequests to his children and grandchildren from each of his three wives, Ms. Graca Machel and former wives, Mrs. Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Mrs. Evelyn Mandela who passed away in 2004. President Mandela and Ms. Graca Machel were married in community of property and therefore she is entitled to half of his estate. According to Moseneke, although Ms. Graca Machel has 90 days to contest the will, she agreed to waive all claim to Mandela’s estate. The mood of Mandela family when the will was read privately, prior to the press conference, was described by Moseneke as “charged with emotions but it went well and… there were clarifications sought from time to time.”

Bequests of 50,000 Rand were made to various staff members including Zelda Le Grange, Mandela’s long time former private secretary. Mandela bequeathed 1,5 million Rand to the Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Family Trust and left royalties to the trust of which a percentage (10% minimum and 30% maximum) would be given to the African National Congress. Moseneke noted that the 46 million Rand valuation of Mandela’s estate was subject to final verification and excluded royalties.

Mandela donated 100,000 Rand for scholarships to four educational institutions which he attended; Clarke Institution in Transkei, Hilltown Institution, University of Fort Hare and University of the Witwatersrand. He also donated 100,000 Rand to Qunu Secondary School in his childhood hometown and Orlando West High School in Soweto where he once lived.


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*Forbes

Why do I feel I’m nothing without a man?

4 Jan

image

A lot of mail lands on our desk and invariably the most common theme is men and problem relationships.

Whether it’s the young lady asking for tips on how to find a man to marry, the mother praying for her husband to give up his mistress or the newly-wed whose husband’s ordered her to stop seeing her unmarried friends, they all have an underlying angst.

Without trivialising the experiences of our readers it strikes me that African women, by choice or duress, spend a disproportionate amount of time on issues of ‘finding and keeping a man’ to the exclusion of other potentially enriching activities in their lives. I’ve been known to avoid social gatherings where I know the most stimulating conversation will be how to keep a man from straying. I like to think I have more interesting things to do with my time!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love men.

I grew up with four of them, my brothers and father, whom I count amongst the most important people in my life. I voluntarily married a man and pledged to spend the rest of my life with him. I gave birth to a little man and would instinctively fight a lion with my bare hands to protect him. I have some amazing male friends whose intelligence, wit and humour never cease to amaze me.

HOWEVER, I know that the men in my life make up only a part of the many diverse interests and activities that occupy my time.

So why do many African women feel they’re nothing without a man? To find out we went straight to the horses’s mouth through a mini survey of our readers.

It’s clear that culture has an overriding influence in how we define ourselves and our role in the world. From birth an African girl’s identity is based on serving men and places her firmly in a less powerful position than her brothers. The division of labour from early on is on this basis, the double standard of how we spend our leisure time is blatant and most importantly society’s sanctions against those who don’t fit its definition of a ‘good girl’ are swift and severe.

“African women’s upbringing is that marriage is a top priority in our lives, by age twenty five I was getting pressure from all around me that I was over the hill”

“Being dependent on a man, that’s a culture thing, that a man is a man and he is allowed to do what he wants”

“Women are conditioned from a young age to find a mate for marriage, endless reminders of how decisions in earlier relationships can jeopardize chances of finding a man willing to marry them. Countless lessons on being the future perfect wife”

“It’s expected that a married woman is just there to keep the house in order, breed and look after the kids. She needs no affection, love and so forth, as long as she is called madam. That’s why society thinks Polygamy is OK because women have no feelings apparently”

What’s their perception of African marriages?

“The typical African marriage is one of suppression where the man is the boss – Yebo Nkosi. African men must quit the abuse (emotional, physical, mental etc) stop being so selfish and learn to communicate better”

“Women are subjects to their husbands, often depend on their husbands for their financial well being, submissive to their husband’s and in-laws’ demands. As an African woman you not only marry him but marry his whole family, leaving little room for independent decision making”

“I consider myself spontaneous, adventurous and carefree but I know I’ll have to change my personality after marriage since for African men ego is their priority not my happiness”

“You end up just putting up with their nonsense because it’s easier to just let him always be right”

“African couples often do not view each other as equal partners giving to power struggles within relationships. Women are expected to be docile. Infidelity on the husband’s part is often the norm and acceptable”

“I’ve had to slow down on travelling as they are so much into budget limiting”

Here’s the irony. For all the pressure African women feel to become ‘a door mat’ after marriage it appears this is not what the contemporary African man is looking for. In a quick sample of our male readers the overwhelming majority said they were attracted to a woman with a good dose of self-confidence and independence, financial and otherwise:

“She must also be ambitions in her own right, for the record I found Margaret Thatcher dead gorgeous in her prime years as PM”

“Nothing is more important to me than wit , intelligence and an insatiable appetite to learn. Sadly it would appear that the majority of African women think when they hit a certain age – all this is not necessary”

“I’m attracted to intelligence and a keen sense of humour”

“I like to know that I’m not her only financial plan”

“I’m not looking for women who see marriage, partnerships as some form of financial solution”

“I find neediness a complete turn off”

So why do African women feel pressure to partner no matter what?

“I’m not proud that I’ve put up with my husband having another woman rather than standing up and taking a lasting solution to just leave him. You know when you are married you are a respected someone in society, young people look up to you, the elders respect you and praise you. There’s also the fear of raising four kids alone, what will people say? It’s a whole lot of emotions…and also cultural pressure etc.”

“As more of your friends couple up they tend to slowly isolate you, make you feel incomplete like you no longer belong to their group. Even when giving advice or in general talk it’s like what would you know?, it’s implied you have no idea about life until you’re married”

“Many times I’ve been placed in a position where I feel guilty even speaking to my friends’ husbands. Because I’m single there’s an asumption that I’m a flirt and a fear that I might snatch their husbands who know no boundaries”

“Some husbands advise their women not to hang out with you just to cover their mischief and you have no opportunity, no voice to express your innocence because you’re being judged on your marital status. Single women are a bad influence seems to be the motto”

“I’m so sick of feeling like I owe everyone an explanation for being single. I get questions like what exactly are you waiting for as beautiful as you are and you’re not getting any younger”

So what’s a girl to do when her whole value is dependent on her relationship status?

There was a certain resignation among the female participants that it was ‘hard’ to change culture and they did not expect much change in their own relationships. However, they all felt change was inevitable for future generations.

When asked what advice they would give their daughters there was a strong feeling that the key to improving the lot of African women in relationships is education, financial independence and careful choices:

“My sage wisdom would be – understand why you are getting into a relationship and what you want to make of it. Take your time to fully understand what the other party wants and expects of the same. If you are not of the same mind at the beginning it is unlikely you will get round to agreeing in future. I would also advise that every relationship has its own settings that it must live within and it is no different in the African culture – its demands and expectations will weigh heavily on you from the days of youth up to the dying day. Define for yourself and decide whether the expectations are what you want to live with. Some things change but culture does not do so easily as by definition “it is the way we do things around here” – and Africa is a very patriachal society.”

First things first, educate yourself, make sure he finds you independent and self sufficient in order for him to respect you and that way you can have a say in the relationship. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too late to improve yourself, it’s never too late. Study him and be careful in your choices and do not tolerate his miscellaneous activities. Know his worth because you’re the one that will be stuck with him for the rest of your life.”

“Never give up your dreams in order to hold on to a relationship, find someone who will let you be comfortable in your own skin and not expect you to bend over backwards to be a perfect partner. Take your time to find a long term partner and don’t succumb to any pressure that you will be past the prime of your youth”

“I would advise her not to let any man put her down, she must remain independent such that she can continue to pursue her interests despite being married. eg. further her studies, travel and so forth”

As I look through these frank comments again I wonder whether the time spent by African women talking about relationship issues is wasted after all? I’m struck by the words of one reader who said,  “As Africans we prefer to talk to each other about our issues where non Africans might  prefer a more public media”. I’m reminded that culture is not static. I’m convinced that for change to happen there must be enough people disatisfied with a status quo and willing to act to change it.

What if each of these conversations about men and relationships is not a waste of time at all, but in fact many small steps that collectively will one day make that big cultural shift we so desire for our daughters?

His courage will live on

6 Dec

Mandela fist

A Tribute by Sani Dowa

When I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing this morning, I was struck by how personal it felt. I was reminded of a childhood in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia); of being at the receiving end of a racially segregated society; and following Nelson Mandela’s story with hope and fascination.

In African culture death is always accompanied by much sadness and mourning not just by the immediate family but by the wider community. Yet this morning, the tears that filled my eyes were of pride; not sadness. The lump in my throat was not anxiety but rather an overwhelming sense of being in a moment that will define my own life in ways I cannot yet comprehend.

As my Facebook page lit up with tributes from all corners of the world I could sense a collective gratitude to this truly inspirational son of Africa. There was a sense of awe from many of my generation who experienced and benefitted from the shattering of racial oppression. We’re keenly aware that our freedom came at the cost of leaders like Mandela who gave up so much yet never complained or saw it that way themselves.

In this moment I’m reminded of Nelson Mandela’s words: “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who became a leader because of extraordinary circumstances”. I ask myself what I, as an ordinary African, can do to help change the world for future generations of African children. That’s the legacy Nelson Mandela leaves for us…he made us all want to reach within and find our best selves.

Hamba kahle Madiba! Go in peace Madiba!

___________________________

This article first appeared in Plan Australia’s blog http://www.plan.org.au

Quote of the week – Death is something inevitable

6 Dec

NM

‘Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity.’

Nelson Mandela  

‘I have walked that long walk to freedom’ – Rest in peace Nelson Mandela

5 Dec

mandela fist

As the world mourns a truly courageous icon it seems appropriate to draw on some of his wisdom accumulated over an inspirational life. May his courage and conviction live on in every one of us as we play our part in making the world a better place. Rest in peace Madiba!

1.‘I have walked that long walk to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.’

2.‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the heart than its opposite.’

3.‘I dream of an Africa that is in peace with itself. I dream of the realisation of unity in Africa whereby its leaders, some of whom are highly competent and experienced, can unite in their efforts to improve and to solve the problems of Africa.’

4.‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’

5.‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’

6.‘There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.’

7.‘Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.’

8.‘I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being an optimist is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.’

9.‘It is better to lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.’

10.‘I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.’