I get called a lot of things here in ville. Some are just a variation of my name; Kate, Katie, Katharine, Kent, and my Bemba name Musonda Mutota. Sometimes I get respect in imwe or someone calling me Ba Musungu (Mr. foreigner). Other times I am called things like fat American, baby, mami, and my wife. I have gotten used to recognizing many names, but some are much easier to accept than others.
This morning a man in the boma (my closest town) shouted “hey baby” as I passed by, and I shot back “I am NOT your baby.” Did he understand what I said? Probably not. Was it productive to fire back like that? Also probably not. But sometimes, it’s hard to control that reflex.
Just a few hours after that, a head teacher at a nearby school repeatedly called me his wife during a meeting. I went to ask about working with their school, and while talking with him and two female teachers he managed to call me his wife a dozen times. Was I comfortable with it? Good lord no. Did he take me seriously when I asked him not to call me his wife? No. Did either woman back me up? No. It astonishes me that I can go into a school where I may potentially be working, have a formal meeting, and still manage to feel belittled and harassed by the names I am called.
Maybe part of this is how I carry myself in ville. I am open with people; I make a fool out of myself often, laugh, make jokes. Maybe it’s impossible to demand respect while also dancing freely with the kids, and racing my friends on our bicycles. Maybe it’s because I’m so young. Maybe it’s because I often wear pants instead of a dress or skirt (as most women do) because I find it difficult to bike in a dress.
It’s really easy to get caught up and upset about the names people call me. It’s easy to see all of those doubts and reasons that people may use to justify their harassment and cat calls. But the next 21 months here wouldn’t be very fun if I was constantly worried about presenting myself in the most conservative, proper manner. I am not just visiting Nsanja, I need real relationships and friendships here that I wouldn’t be able to build if I weren’t myself.
These anecdotes about men catcalling me is just a small view into the patriarchal society here. Talking to my good friends in ville, who are male, we frequently argue about who can be the head of the household and why women don’t have to serve their men. Even my female friends in ville seem to be stuck; they also believe that men are the rightful head of household and the like.
It’s difficult for me, being who I am, to come and accept these things. It’s not that they are wrong or “bad”, it is just a completely different culture. It is not on me to decide that the women’s empowerment movement needs to happen everywhere, it’s just what I’m used to. And don’t get me wrong, the women here are some of the strongest and baddest I’ve ever met. They raise giant families, maintain farms, feed their families mainly just from sustenance farming, and are just downright amazing. In my head they deserve all the appreciation in the world. As I gear up for our International Women’s Day Celebration, it’s interesting to reflect on the difference between what this day means in America versus in Zambia.
Too long, didn’t read: girls rule boys drool.