|Excited at the approach of a daladala, at the top of my street (some time in 2012)|
There are many moments in this country when I feel frustrated as a woman. We are constantly being cat-called, the words "hey baby!" slipping out of the mouths of nasty men as they strut past my window on the daladala. When mom was visiting last week, she and I were waiting for the daladala on the side of a dusty road when two large men approached us and immediately got right up in my face. I guess they think the younger one is going to be more vulnerable. They started their usual flirtatious greetings, though these men were a bit more aggressive and standing very close to me. Mom stood a couple feet away, watching these men harangue me. I began my automatic response to these situations which is me saying loudly in Swahili, "ok bye. See ya. Later. Bye. Yep, bye!" until they go away. They didn't seem to move, however, so I took mom's hand and we moved a few feet to the right, so we wouldn't be cornered up against the parked car that had been behind us. Then one of the men told me "I'm a police officer" and I said, "oh really? where's you're badge. Show me your badge." Once his bluff was called, he scoffed and walked off, but his friend stayed behind to bother me for just a few more moments. I chose to totally ignore him, though I was fuming inside. (It's a feeling I'm quite used to. Feeling somewhat helpless, feeling a little scared but more angry than anything—it’s not something I have felt much in my life. I am increasingly thankful every day that I have been raised to feel empowered and capable of doing anything a man can do.) Finally the man moved on with his friend. They stood a couple yards away, looking over at us as I stared them down with pure hatred. If there's one thing I've gotten better at here, it's making very hateful and very sustained eye contact with men. Mom said, "That must have been very intimidating when you first experienced that here." I thought about it, though, I don't remember the first time I had to stand up for myself like that. I'm sure it was here in Tanzania, but I don't remember the first time. It's a way of life now.
So, that being said, I bring us to today's awesome episode. I was on the daladala on my way to work, with my nose in a book. Usually, less conversation on the daladala is better for me. Makes me less of a noticeable target for annoying men or awkward situations. We had just come to a stop to pick up some more people and the big van doors were wide open as a young woman quickly climbed in and sat right next to me. I didn't look up from my book for a minute, but I soon noticed that there was another man leaning into the van toward her. I looked over at him and saw his dirty t-shirt, his dust-covered skin, his tattered ski cap covering layers of filthy dreadlocked hair. He had a cellphone in his hand and was kind of poking this woman in the arm with his phone, smiling obnoxiously at her. She was making gestures shooing him away and doing the tisk sound that people make here when they're annoyed. I listened up and heard him saying, "common, sister, give me your phone number" and other inane flirtatious comments. She was trying to ignore him, but he was, as so many men are here, being disgustingly persistent. I closed my book. Though there was more space on our seat, the woman had pushed her self right up against me, as far away from the man in the door as she could get. As our shoulders touched, I felt a sudden alliance with this woman. She was experiencing what I have experienced, what every woman in this city, black, white, or brown has experienced countless times. So I decided, for some reason, to have a go at him. I asked him in Swahili, “do you need something?” and he made a kissing gesture at the woman. Her face showed the truest meaning of disgust. I asked her, “Do you want him to go?” She said, “Yes! I want him to leave!” At this moment, I had to make a decision. Of course there are many considerations going on in my brain. I may be misunderstanding the situation, he may be more aggressive than he seems, I may say something stupid, I may offend her instead. But, I took my chances.
I told him “Excuse me, but she doesn’t want you.” Everyone on the daladala suddenly looked at me, and then back at him. He kind of laughed this chuckle of disbelief. Before he could say a response, I then said, “Just like me.” His eyes widened. I continued, “We don’t want you.” And every one on the daladala, including the woman sitting beside me, burst out laughing—at him! I smiled, feeling a rush of adrenaline. He said nothing, he was smiling in embarrassment down at his phone and hand which he had now moved away from the woman, and looked down at his feet as he stepped off the daladala in defeat. The conductor got back in the daladala, closed the door and we were off. Thank God! Was really what I was thinking, though I kept a tough face on all the while. The woman was cracking up and thanked me enthusiastically. Oh man, what a rush it was. I was cracking up a bit as well, but inside I was jumping up and down. Just a few words and he totally got the message and backed OFF—exactly what I’ve wanted to say to every gross man so many times.
The woman and I ended up chatting on as the daladala moved down the road. Just another morning commute to Kisongo.