“This man here has said, these are new faces to me, we have never met before, how do I know that I can trust you with the information to these questions you will ask me?”
Each of us stared at our feet, dumbfounded and afraid to look the our interviewees in the eyes . I tried to grasp the meaning of the man’s words and form an answer. Mwamhanga, our Professor, offered to respond. Next to me Christine whispered, “I feel like we should say something…” but before we could he was already answering for us.
It was the last day of data collection. Our Professor set up a focus group discussion with various representatives from the village bordering the Community Forest we were studying. After the embarrassing introduction we awkwardly asked the list of questions we had prepared. The two women in the group stayed quiet and two of the men led the discussion for most of its duration. As time went on the conversation got more comfortable. The group exuded excitement when talking about local medicines, seriousness when discussing climatic changes, and pride while explaining their agricultural practices.
When we approached the last topic, gender, I stole a glance at Christine’s question list and involuntarily inhaled sharply. She glanced up at me and grimaced, “It’s what he wants me to ask.” She straightened her 5′ 2″ body on the bench and bravely began.
Immediately, the men started laughing and shifting uncomfortably in their seats in response to her questions – What roles do women play in the Iraqw community? How are these roles changing? The women listed roles such as cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood and raising children. The men stated that because of development, politics and the spread of urbanism women are demanding more rights, that they are leaving the house more and becoming more vocal.
“Are these changes a good thing?” Christine asked.
Two of the men vigorously shook their heads. The increased freedom of women, they said, threatened marriages. If women are allowed to go out on the town and speak to whomever they like how can they be trusted?
“Let me ask the women the same,” Mwamhanga offered before we could stop him.
In reply the women looked at their feet and shook their heads. “I think you understand them,” Mwamhanga directed towards Christine, “They say it is a bad thing, let me ask them why.”
“You don’t need… ” she began – but it was too late. The room became quiet. The men chuckled to themselves and the women suppressed embarrassed grins. “It’s really okay Mwamhanga… they don’t need to say why.”
After finishing the rest of Christine’s questions we closed up our notebooks and bags to head home while Mwamhanga said a public thank you to the group. Just as we stood to leave, however, one of the men spoke up.
“This man would like to know, what are womens’ roles in America.” Every Tanzanian in the room was listening intently, not a hint of mockery on their faces.
“Well…” Christine began slowly, “There is greater equality in America, women have achieved more rights, but it is still not completely equal.”
Mwamhanga translated and they stared at her, waiting for more.
“It is more likely in America that both parents work and that both parents do house chores,” I offered. During the translation all of the men laughed and shook their heads in disbelief.
“But how strong are marriages in America?” One of them asked.
We all shifted uncomfortably in our seats. Christine sighed, “Well… there is a much higher divorce rate in America than here I suppose…”
“Divorce is extremely difficult in Tanzania,” Mwamhanga explained, “How difficult is it in America?”
“Well, it’s not exactly easy…” Lauren piped up.
Another one of the men cut her off, “What about conservation in America? How is that done?”
“It is regulated more by government bodies, with stricter rules and enforcement,” I explained.
Jill added, “Americans don’t rely on natural resources as much as Tanzanians so it isn’t as necessary.”
“How did America transition to not needing firewood?” He pressed. The students all laughed.
“Well… we use a lot of coal, oil and natural gas for electricity,” Dylan replied.
“Which is one of the reasons the climate here is changing,” I replied instinctively. Then I turned to Christine and said jokingly, “I’m not sure if I would recommend it.”
But I really wasn’t. Yet, who am I to recommend whether someone should or should not have what I have?