Walking a Fine Line

An invisible line became visible shortly after I came to Tanzania. That line has been there my entire life, but I’ve always been so detached from it that I haven’t noticed its presence.

Until now.

This line is the reason I haven’t been blogging as much since coming here. The line is the reason my Instagram photos have been primarily taken from rooftops, from private beaches, and from places where I’m surrounded by lots of people I know.

Dar es Salaam from above
Dar es Salaam from above

It’s the line between safety and danger, which, for the purpose of this post, will be classified as anything causing bodily or lasting psychological harm. Lately, I’ve been walking this line like a tightrope, trying to find the balance between protecting myself and my belongings and still living a semblance of the life I’m used to.

Internally, I struggle with my own description of a single line. Because it divides the world in two – into black and white, good and evil, two concrete categories split by an opaque, 20 foot high wall. I know there is a grey area. I know this is a spectrum. That’s acknowledged and let’s move on.

Since coming to Tanzania the issue of personal safety has taken over my thoughts. My Google Docs folder and notebook are full of half-written blog posts on this topic. But I fear they have all sounded too angry, too spiteful, too worried.

I’m going to reference the podcast Serial here (season two is out now and I am so hooked already). In the first episode, host Sarah Koenig references the kid’s book, Zoom. The first page is an image of two red cones, then the scope zooms out to reveal one scene, and then another, and so on and so forth, until you realize those two red cones are part of a much larger scene, a much larger system.

My version of Zoom – or I should call it our version of Zoom since it has affected a number of my coworkers as well as myself – starts with two individual incidents.

The first involved my female co-worker having her bag hooked by a car mirror. She was then dragged behind the car for several metres until she was able to untangle herself. The second incident involved two of my co-workers, male and female, who experienced an aggravated assault while on the beach near their house.

We spent a number of days dwelling on each of these incidents, picking apart the most minute details of what had gone wrong, what they could have done differently. Though it was difficult, we tried to alleviate feelings of blame.

Over the coming weeks my mind attempted to zoom out, and I tried to put these highly personal, individual incidents into context. Into context with the Westerner experience in Tanzania, into context with the experience of women in general, into context with the role internal (police corruption) and external (colonialism) forces may have played. I didn’t realize that by zooming out I was also dwelling, spiralling. I dug a hole where all I could think of was my personal safety and the limitations put on it.

I feel so dirty and guilty and privileged writing this post. This is perhaps the greatest reason I have not said anything about this to-date. I have told myself again and again that I am so fortunate to live the life I live. But this is still my reality and it is still scary based on the circumstances in which I was raised, so I need to get these thoughts out there.

Another reason I have hesitated to write about this publicly is because it reinforces a narrative of Tanzania, of “AFRICA” that I don’t like. It reinforces stereotypes of violence, of anger, of a lack of control. It is fuel for everyone who has ever uttered a racial slur against the diverse group that is “black people.”

I came here wanting to write about the culture of Tanzania, the beautiful moments in everyday life, the people behind and beyond those negative stereotypes. And I still want to do this.

But I realize that my desire to write about those positive stories shrouds the reality of everyday.

Which is this: bad things happen to people all the time. And it’s not just white people – it’s everyone. And this is a lot of people’s reality, day in and day out. It’s fucked up.

***

Feeling unsafe bears a heavy weight. Just as that line of personal safety is an invisible one, so too is this unseen pressure. It’s the unspoken rule that it is not safe for me to go out after dark, that I will be targeted based on my skin colour alone. It’s the assumption that I am wealthy, that I am promiscuous, simply because of what I look like.

One day I was lying in bed watching the Sex in the City movie. I don’t watch a lot of movies or TV, but when I do it is because I need some sort of escape. My latest dystopian novel couldn’t offer a fluffy enough alt-life, so I retreated into the realm of my roommate’s external hard drive and came up with Carrie.

As the movie ended, I thought of all the freedoms those women in New York had – waltzing around the city at night in their high heels and designer dresses. I thought of all the times in Ottawa I have walked alone at night, with my laptop, iPhone, money in my wallet.

I always felt safe, but I never thought about it until I got here. I realize how much I hate feeling as though I can never leave my Rapunzel’s Tower of an apartment.

I looked out my window at the silent road below, and felt the crushing feeling of being trapped.

I’m not the best travelled person in this world, but I have been put in circumstances that could be perceived as dangerous in several countries. I have never, with the exception of a few minor incidents, felt unsafe. The weight in which I feel that in Tanzania is worth noting.

More Dar city scenes
More Dar city scenes
Posta (city centre) from the hotel where we held a curriculum workshop this month.
Posta (city centre) from the hotel where we held a curriculum workshop this month.

***

The other week my roommate Alex and I were biking along Barack Obama Drive, a lovely bit of oceanside road that follows the city edge to Kivukoni, the local ferry port. It was beautiful, but it was also sad, in a way. I knew I would likely never be able to share this view with those back home. How many places on Earth bear that same burden? Beauty, without the ability to share.

Reflecting on this later, I realized the real tragedy is that this is a mere aesthetic inconvenience for me, but the everyday reality for millions.

Fear is the mightiest of prohibitors and I feel bullied into submission, teetering on the edge of that fine line.

***

I need your help. I usually try to neatly wrap up my blog posts with a “the moral to the story is…” but I’m at a loss. I feel disempowered and small. I feel angry and guilty. I am still eager to explore and to learn but at the same time I feel there is a dent in my armour that needs a little TLC.

Have you ever felt like this when you’ve travelled? What have you done in these situations?

Coco Beach, the main public beach in Dar es Salaam. It hasn't been all beaches and sunshine these past two months, but there have definitely been some beautiful moments like this.
Coco Beach, the main public beach in Dar es Salaam. It hasn’t been all beaches and sunshine these past two months, but there have definitely been some beautiful moments like this.
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How biking is helping me break stereotypes & travel safer in Dar es Salaam

A solo Friday night bike ride at Coco Beach, Dar es Salaam
A solo Friday night bike ride at Coco Beach, Dar es Salaam

Cycling has always made me feel free.

In Ottawa my bike is what gets me from Point A to Point B, from friend to family, grocery store to coffee shop, home to work. In travel, cycling has opened up cities for me, and I have explored Beijing, Lumbini, Copenhagen, Whitehorse, Paris, and beyond from the saddle of my bike.

Since moving to Dar a few weeks ago, the lines between home and travel have started to blend. With it, the role of cycling – which I already knew to be a key element of what makes me happy – has shifted into an even more important role.

Let’s talk about safety. During the orientation for my new job, our Country Manager was upfront with us: the way you look at security here has to be different than the way you consider it at home. Bags can get swiped by passing motorbikes, purses can be snatched off of laps while sitting in cars, pockets can be picked. As a woman, walking by yourself is not recommended, especially after dark.

Anyone who knows me knows I am independent to a fault. It’s an independence mixed with a slight invincibility complex and a desire to explore. It’s a confidence elixir that has helped me travel solo in countries around the world. As a partial introvert who loves the outdoors, I do not take well to being told I should not be outside by myself.

In Ottawa I bike for the practicality of it, for the environmental benefit, and because I just damn well love it. The satisfaction of beating public transit during rush hour can only be described as euphoric. Biking gives me freedom from traffic, freedom from relying on cars and buses, freedom from sitting still.

Here, biking gives me the freedom to.

What I mean is this: biking gives me the freedom to be outside by myself as a woman. It is an unanticipated benefit of cycling, one I could not have predicted before coming to Dar. I’ve always known biking would be an important part of my life, but I never knew it would be so essential in simply allowing me to go about my daily activity as a single 20-something female.

(By the way, anyone who thinks this “freedom from” vs. “freedom to” concept sounds familiar, here is a full disclosure: I just started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She talks about this idea of “freedom from” and “freedom to” in the context of having rights taken away as a perceived means of safety and security.)

As a mzungu (white person) walking around Dar, you already get called at. You become even more of a spectacle when you’re a female mzungu on a bike. Men yell “mambo!” from the side of the road, from the back of boda bodas (motorcycles). A puckering sound is directed at you through pursed lips. Much of this is harmless, but it is still unwanted attention, unwanted attention that may be able to follow me down the road or along the beach while I walk by myself.

Biking with my coworkers and friends, Logan and Alex, in Kariakoo, Dar's bustling main city market.
Biking with my coworkers and friends, Logan and Alex, in Kariakoo, Dar’s bustling main city market.

Biking provides me the ability to out-cycle these fears, and to escape the expectations that men may have because of the brief eye contact I offer, because of the polite smile my Canadian-ness predisposes.

But while part of this post is me discussing the role cycling has already played in equalizing my experience as a woman in a new country, part of it is also to lament and demand a change to the way women are perceived in different parts of the world.

It is not fair that I am somehow less at threat as a woman if I walk down the street with a man, no matter the capacity of that man to defend me. It reinforces the perception that women are weak, insecure, and easy, and that a man is her protector. I understand that gender roles differ by culture, but I don’t have to agree with that difference.

The past few weeks have shed light on the incredible privilege I have as a woman in Canada – a country, mind you, no less scarred by its disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous women, its continued inability for women and men to have the same salary in the workplace. Let me be clear: no country is good, while another is bad, and we have not reached the point where we can say one nation has eradicated gender inequality while others have not. It is a spectrum, and we should all be fighting to make our way to the right end of it.

Which brings me back to biking.

Coco Beach, a stop on the same solo Friday night ride.
Coco Beach, a stop on the same solo Friday night ride.

The other day my coworker Alex and I decided to go for a golden hour cycle in our neighbourhood. We were both wearing dresses with shorts underneath, and we were peddling at a comparable speed to traffic. As expected, we got stared at by women and men, the latter group offering a generous selection of cat calls.

Women, I’ve been told by a former Tanzanian coworker, do not bike. I am not here to say that women need to bike to be liberated, but I do want them to know that it is okay to do so, whether you’re wearing a dress or shorts and a baseball cap. I want to get so many shocked stares that this little tidbit of daily activity becomes a norm for women in Dar, not an exception.

I want women to know that biking is not just an activity for men, and that cycling can be a viable and safe way to travel in this city.

For the first time ever it’s the confidence boost I need, too.

Very excited...
Very excited…

The Familiar Feeling Of Leaving

I’m bad at goodbyes.

I’ve had to say a lot of them this week, and it’s not the first time. It was two years ago to the day that I left for Nepal on a one-way ticket. Two years later, a lot has changed. But one thing remains the same: the presence of fear, anxiousness, and excitement.

I recently re-read the blog post I wrote right before going to Nepal. At that time I was struggling with mental health challenges as a result of being burnt out from working with CBC and because I had associated my entire identity and feeling of self-worth with that job.

At the end of this summer I left another full-time job for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to build my capacity to work in a hybrid international development and journalism field. For me, these are not lessons that can be learned sitting behind a desk at a 9 to 5 job.

So come September I was once again going to be unemployed. But this time around I knew what to expect: uncertainty matched with freedom, anxiety balanced by excitement.

I picked up freelance jobs all over the place – in Ottawa and with new clients across North America. Still, when people asked what I had been up to, I found myself deferring to the usual “traditional” work: filling in at CBC Ottawa, freelancing for a local magazine, etc. I still felt the need to associate myself with jobs linked to a tangible level of success and value.

I’m too hard on myself, but consider the social pressures that mount around many of us everyday. Our society values worth in very specific ways: employment, economics, education. I was raised among these traditional concepts of success, and thought for a long time that my life trajectory would be one where I went to university, did well, got a job, and bought a house.

If there is one thing I have been grateful to realize early on, it’s that there is no black and white when it comes to living your life. What’s right and healthy for one person may not jive with another. Or that person may not have the opportunity to do what makes them happy. None of these factors discount the path someone has chosen. They’re just different.

I remind myself of this daily, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of this coming turn in the road. I fear uncertainty, I fear missing out on major events with family and friends, I fear never having a long-term relationship. I’m scared of having no money (and worry about putting too much emphasis on this).

When I feel insecurities creeping in, I reflect on a single metaphor.

I picture my life as a pile of blocks. Each block represents some aspect of my life: my personal and professional experiences, my personality traits, my goals, my values, and my relationships. They’re stacked on one another and form the structure of who I am. By making the choice to disrupt the traditional trajectory – to quit my job and move overseas, I’m knocking over that tower of blocks.

But looking at the pile around me, those blocks are all still there. No matter where I go or how many times that pile of blocks is knocked over, every block can still be accounted for. Taking a chance is not a removal of what makes me who I am. It’s a slight disruption, and an opportunity to reflect on how I want to rebuild my life. That new structure of blocks will likely look a bit different, but what matters in the end is that I recognize I am an ever-shifting person with more to offer than any one thing.

I want my life to be a constant disassembling and reassembling of those blocks. With any luck I’ll be able to add a few new ones with each experience.

**

My parents have long known that I ask for their support and not for their permission.

This fall I was at a fork in the road. Do I return to Nepal as a freelance journalist or do I go to Tanzania and work with a Canadian NGO?

Neither option was particularly appealing for my family. One night when I was home, my mom came into my bedroom. “Where did your interest to go overseas come from?” she asked. “You were never interested in this before. How will you be sure you’re not doing more damage than good?”

I got defensive, as I too often do with my family (#25goingon16). But my mom’s question struck a cord. The same thoughts concerned me.

I’m not one of those kids who grew up wanting to be any one thing, and that’s still what I’m like as an adult. Ask me where I see myself in three years and I have no idea what answer to give. That makes me insecure. Don’t passionate people always know what their passions are?

But then I realized I’m asking myself the wrong question. As a wise friend recently told me, it’s not the what that matters, but the how. It’s a mindset shift that focuses more on your values than the title on your business card.

That mindset shift made my mom’s question and my subsequent concerns null.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t grow up reading National Geographic or having a deep understanding of social justice issues. I am who I am now, and that’s because of the experiences I have opened myself to, and the opportunities I have been privileged to have and worked hard to achieve. I don’t want the person I am to remain static.

For me the “how” is this: I want to approach life with an open-mind and a desire to learn more about the world’s diverse cultures and communities. I want to gain a greater respect for what makes all of us tick, and I hope my work can help other people gain that respect, too, and debunk some of the fears and misconceptions they have about the world. I believe it’s a basic matter of human dignity for all.

And so, just as I finished my 2013 blog post in a darkened airport terminal in Doha, Qatar, I finish this one at the airport in Istanbul. In two hours my flight leaves for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For the next eight months I will be working as the communications advisor with a Canadian NGO called EQWIP HUBs where I’ll be supporting the team to develop locally-relevant communications and recruitment strategies for their entrepreneurship and employment programs.

After that – who knows. East Africa is a diverse place and I’ve always wanted to explore the Great Lakes region. I’ve got my recorder, my camera, and my notebook, and I’ll hopefully get to share some stories.

And when I find myself dwelling on the uncertainty of what comes next, I will remind myself of this: there is no such thing as a right or wrong life path, the important thing is that you make a decision and own it – fear or not. This is who and how – I want to be when I grow up.

Just as at the end of my Nepal blog post from 2013, there are many more photos and words to come. I’m excited to share more with you.