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Malawian Activists in workshop
Malawian Activists in workshop

The reunion with the women we have been working with in Malawi was emotional. Tiwonge, who has been involved since the beginning in 2007, lifted me up in the air as if I was a piece of paper. She is very strong. There were lots of hugs, tears and kisses. It was a reunion of body and spirit.

We tried to find a strategy to make sense collectively of where we have been and are currently. We chose body mapping because we felt the exercise would enable the women to find their stories, and weave the personal with the political, the individual and the collective. Using body maps as a way of expressing ourselves, we drew our bodies. Each woman detailed the events happening in their lives, identifying them with parts of her body and to the movement we are trying to build. So the process evolved and deepened, as though we were entering a flowing river that reforms its banks even as its banks direct its flow. Each woman’s contribution created the direction of the conversation. The women shared stories related to violence, illness, despair, betrayal and different levels of human degradation. Some of the stories were appalling but I tell you, these are not powerless women. Powerless is driven by an absence, but these women have something in them, something that makes them act, that fills the absence and this is where JASS comes in. JASS’ political awareness process brought a response to the absence. Words used included ‘using the power within’ patriarchy, sisterhood, alliance, collective. What they have learned is already deeply imbedded in their language and thinking.

Hear what Judy said: “I have been talking about human rights to other women and here I am in a violent situation. My husband wanted me to leave the marriage. He wanted me to go…I don’t know where. Supported by Lillian, I took him to court and got a peace order. He is back but I have now taken over as the head of the family.” She was not the only one who took action at the household level. Several women shared stories of being so empowered that they took their men to court.

Tiwonge told her story: “My husband sold my tobacco. I took him to court and he was ordered to return it. But then I looked at myself and said, ‘Tiwonge, this is not the marriage you wanted. Get out.’ By the time I left him, I had already started building my house and it was half finished. I just moved there with nothing till someone donated a mattress…”

Another woman said: “I did a pap smear and had my placenta (meaning uterus) removed.” Several women have done this. It’s a thing that was started by Tiwonge who has educated women about cancer, pap smears and the other basics of reproductive health that have gone missing from the HIV/AIDS agenda.

Shereen and I listened, listened deeply to the women, to the patterns of their lives, to the power dynamics and how they have manipulated those dynamics. In short, body mapping and the conversation that ensued proved to be a valuable method of inquiry and observation, leading us to new understanding of what the women have been doing and to inspiration. We were really amazed at how the women internalized and adapted the “learning” and how they are using it. As we talked, I remarked that “Lisa would be proud to hear the women using the language of movement building.”

What did I, Hope, learn today?

  • What we miss in big movements is the kind of conversation we had with the women and the women with each other. A sense of connection.
  • The women don’t fragment their lives between activism in public places and activism in their person lives. For them things are not split into pieces – their community group, their marriages/partnerships, different aspects of health, what they do with JASS and how they manage their work are all connected. In the discussion, perhaps without intending to, they share a lot about what they are to each other. How they support each other. They have a sense of heart, body and soul connection to each.
  • There are many intangible gains which are difficult to capture on paper.
  • Efforts at building movement are expressed in partial pieces, pieces that might seem to be fragmented but in actual fact, are not at all.

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