Thursday, March 8, 2018

From the Archives: What about Unsung Heroines?

What about Unsung Heroines?

Chambi Chachage (2007)

Have you ever heard or read something that you are already very familiar with? If yes, did you agree with what was said about it? Did you feel the narrator or writer represented it accurately? Or did you sense that s/he overlooked some of its important aspects?

Now imagine someone who claims to know Tanzania very well and yet talk about its landscape without even mentioning Mount Kilimanjaro or Lake Tanganyika. Imagine someone who is an authority on Tanzanian history and yet write about its heroes and heroines without even noting down the names of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere or Bibi Titi Mohammed. How will these acts of omission make you feel?
Strange as it is, we often talk and write about heroes of our society as if there are no heroines. Even our recent commemoration of the Heroes Day on 25 July 2007 was more of a men’s show. One can even go as far as saying that it was an exhibition of masculinity vis-à-vis femininity. A couple of dignitaries, all of them men one would correctly presume, laid weapons at the foot of the Heroes Tower. It was a wreath, sword, shield, bow and arrow to be precise. If what I was taught in school is true, that it is men who fought in wars while women remained at home, then this homage had little to do with heroines.

The tendency to sing praises to heroes at the expense of heroines may be deeper than we think. It has been part and parcel of our collective imaginaire. The gender consciousness movement sees this tendency as nothing more than a product of patriarchy. In layman/woman terms, patriarchy is a dominant way of thinking and living that systemically privilege boys and men at the expense of girls and women. When our councilors meet and a respected newspaper report that ‘city fathers meet,’ that is patriarchy. And when no one, not even self-proclaimed feminists, questions that newspaper then that is patriarchy working at its best. Patriarchy tends to make us overlook the building blocks of gender oppression.

It is not surprising then that most of us have a gender blindspot. Unfortunately, even our intellectuals, the so-called keepers of our collective memory, have been plagued with blindness. For instance, ten year ago Paul Zeleza’s survey of Gender Biases inAfrican Historiography revealed that most African history textbooks underestimate the role that women have played in all aspect of our history. Out of the seven studies on nationalism and decolonization surveyed, four do not mention women at all. Tanzania is no exception. No wonder no history textbook in our schools taught us about Mwami Theresia Ntare's controversial ascendancy to the throne of the Kingdom of Buha let alone his role in the struggle for independence and national building in the 1960s.
In this context, then, there is a need to rethink our gender dynamics in our ongoing construction of our collective memory i.e. in our celebration of the Heroes Day and in retelling stories of our heroes and so on. This need cannot be overemphasized given that, as a nation, it is this very memory that tells us who we are, where we are and where we ought to be. It also gives us a glimpse of how we can get to where we ought to go. Now imagine how difficult it is to get there if virtually half of our population tends to be written off. Thus, it is a historical necessity to rethink our history. Susan Geiger, Magdalena Ngaiza and Bertha Koda, among few others, have paved the way.

In her book TANU Women, Geiger deconstructs and reconstructs the mainstream or ‘malestream’ history of the nationalistic struggle. She shows how their role in financing and mobilizing the struggle, significant as it was then, was not given its due credit in the annals of our history. On their part, Ngaiza and Koda edited a book, Unsung Heroines, which collated life histories of some ‘forgotten’ Tanzania women. In both cases, one gets to hear the other side of the story (‘herstory’) of our society.

It is encouraging to note that five young researchers are about to enter the field to carry on the torch. As a part of the popular feminist history research project, they will document life histories of women who contributed in the struggle for independence. I can hardly wait to hear their ‘herstories’ presented at the Gender Festival in 11-14 September 2007. The struggles of these heroines can help us rethink the Heroes Day. More significantly, they can inspire us to rethink our collective identity.


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