Fighting Patriarchy in Malawi Part I


Hope Chigudu and the JASS Southern Africa team gathered Malawian women's stories to give a glimpse of work on the ground in Malawi, the shifts that the women have made to change their lives and the dilemma of monitoring and evaluating the shifts. This series of stories demonstrates that there are parallels and connections, and points of intersection between the oppression of HIV+ women in Malawi, and social and cultural expectation and poverty.  These elements actually overlap and reinforce each other. The failure of the male to live up to the societal and family expectations and the recognition of his own failure is a potentially powerful basis for violence. Dispelling some of the beliefs in Malawi that those who seem to be powerless in the eyes of society will always be powerless, these stories illustrate that once the ‘sleeping giant’ in them is awakened, they will find ways and means to liberate themselves. The rebellion can be straight forward but if that does not work, the women will employ ‘guerrilla tactics’ using the power within’ to resist extreme exploitation, oppression and abuse. Every human being has the capacity to rebel and transgress, to cross the line of oppression but usually a catalyst is required to invoke and politicize the spirit of rebellion.

JASS might not be the catalyst but it provides the tools that act as a stimulus, an awareness of the need for change. It also provides an ambience within which critical thinking can be brought to bear on the individual  environment.  With political awareness each woman crosses her own line when she is ready to do so (line of oppression and exploitation, of what is acceptable or what is not).  No individual human being can cross the critical line for another.

 Immensely tough, in spite of a system that grinds a woman down at every step:  Ruth’s story

It was in the middle of the night when I suddenly experienced a terrible discomfort as if my   breath would stop. There was an unfamiliar pain in my chest. I turned in bed, felt my body wet with sweat, the pillow under my neck sodden wet and my entire body shivering. I tried to sit up but could not.  I thought it would help to lift my neck and turn the pillow over, but realized I could not.   I was unable to move my arms or legs; they were numb, stone-like and frozen.

A series of questions run through my mind; am I having a stroke? What is this breath-stopping pain in my chest? This sweating, this numbness in my arms and legs--these are all signs of a stroke!

Unbalanced, panicking; I tried to cry out someone’s name but who? My daughter or my partner who deserted me four years ago and whom I had buried in my mind? I had not mentioned his name for many years. I realized if calling a name is not practiced, it won’t come even at the final hour.

My voice failed to reach anyone’s ear:  it writhed and thrashed within; no sound came out of my throat. Surely this was nothing but a heart attack, a sudden one, catching me unawares. Me who was healthy, normal and relaxed, right until the time I lay down in bed, and the moment I fell asleep!

 In my mind I saw pictures of the day’s progression; I tried to see if somewhere there was a sign of any weakness but did not see any.  During the day I had followed my usual daily routine without exception, and my body hadn’t felt different in any way.

I tried to shout again but could not raise any sound from my throat. Whatever demon this was, it had attacked all my body parts including my tongue.

The next thing I knew I was in hospital where I stayed for a month.  I was told that I was HIV positive.  By the time I got out, I had lost almost everything; my weight, my small business, my home and dignity. I was depressed for a year. Then my sister introduced me to an HIV support group in my area, they counselled me, shared information about useful herbs and other survival strategies and eventually helped me to get off my feet.  

It was around this time that I was invited to the Jass workshop. I was excited but apprehensive. How would I be perceived by the others? What if there was a test and I failed? What if I did know all the answers?

The workshop proved to be an important tool helping me to recompose and reclaim myself. The welcome we received, the way we sat in the workshop room, the music, dance and, the sharing of stories with other women, made me feel valued and loved.  For the first time in my life, I stayed in a nice place, with white bed-sheets. I ate regular meals and was not worried about where the next meal came from.  The relaxation created room for me to reflect on my life.

My reflection focused on the power within and here I must confess that although I found all the topics covered during the workshop useful and relevant, I particularly liked the one on ‘power within’. After the workshop, I went back home determined to use the power within my body, I mean the whole body. I spent about three hours alone. I traced my life’s journey; how I came to be HIV positive, the year I spent in depression and how I thought I was going to die but did not.  As I fought with the demons in my body to reclaim my life, I disengaged from all the negative people around me. I just wanted my life back; I wanted my fragmented soul together again.  A week after the workshop, I took the little money I had saved from my transport allowance, bought some potatoes from the main market and  sold them in town. Having the courage to get out of the home, do something useful, meet many people and keep going was a major step for me. I crossed the line of helplessness, self pity and despair.  I am now getting re-established in my business and am much more positive about life. I am teaching other women in my support group to reclaim their lives back.