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Published: September 28th 2018
“It would be better if you had a family here in Tanzania..” the customs officer’s rotten teeth show even through his secondary school English, a source of his pride, I’m sure, considering I’ve been using Swahili for the duration of our unfortunate encounter.
“I have a husband. No, I do not need two families. Maybe I’ll return with my husband to visit, but yes
, I have a husband
In this strange power dynamic that is the life of women, I cannot be rude to this man without risking the cost to send this package home. Inside are the ornaments made by the Mama’s Group, who will receive all the profits—less if this man feels I have not satisfied his need for authority. I was grateful when I arrived to the post office during his lunch break, but my prayers to escape before he returned went unanswered.
I knew from my last encounter at the post office that he, like so many other powerful men, enjoyed abusing his privilege. “Put yourself in my shoes,” he cooed with mocking sympathy that day, “how can I justify reducing the cost for you to take these packages?” When another post worker grew tired of working the opposite counter alone, he suddenly realized he didn’t exist in a vacuum of his own kingdom and cut the oh-so-mandated cost in half. The fair pricing came with a sigh that seeped from satisfaction of knowing I owed him one.
Here we were again, him leaned in close across the counter, practicing his English with loaded words that made me want to break his nose. I’d already completed all the paper work and the boxes were waiting patiently for his mighty stamp. I dotted my I’s, crossed my T’s, just avoiding eye contact and answering his questions with short, but polite disdain.
That’s how this works, isn’t it? If we just make ourselves small enough to not be noticed, maybe we can get by with only
catcalls. Maybe we can live among predators and only
be assaulted once, maybe not violently. Oh, how that would be a win.
Don’t they care that they steal my humanity through their rotten teeth and crush me like the cushions of an old couch?
“How pretty a piece of furniture, meant to be sat on. Look, it’s even more comfortable for me now that it’s all worn in. Doesn’t creak, doesn’t groan at the weight of world. Surely, it enjoys me sitting on it as much as I enjoy the seat.”
Sometimes, it’s like a lion with a mouse. The creature that knows
it’s bigger, knows
it’s physically stronger<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">, knows
it could hurt the mouse at any point, and knows
the mouse knows these things just as well—that big, powerful creature still feels the need to bat the mouse around, call to it, remind it that it could be eaten at any moment, even though the mouse and it’s whole species still wouldn’t satisfy the lion’s hunger.
“I could have you. Don’t you know that?”
Yes. I know. I know it so well that even the good men are predators until they’ve proven themselves protectors, because I cannot afford the risk of being unsure. There is no neutral. You either have my back, or you are on it.
The anger wells up inside of me as I wait for the stamp. What are you doing, Kate?
I remind myself the most valuable tool I’ve learned in psychological dominance: Eye contact. My eyes shoot up, unblinking. I stop fidgeting, continue answering his questions but with an unaltered gaze, staring into his eyes even when he looks away. He finishes one more sentence, jumps across the post office counter, and resigns to reading his newspaper on the couch with a conceited air of nonchalance. For today, I’ve won. But in a game I didn’t want to play.
I used to think I would feel better going home, that my outbursts of rage at men in the bus stand would not carry over to my life outside of Peace Corps. I’ve slowly come to realize that, in going home it will hurt more--That in my own safe place where we should be honoring our privilege by using it well, there is still abuse, insecurity, and fear of a shift in power dynamics. In ways, the resulting cruelty breaks my heart more than the gendered tragedies I witness here because we have heard the news shouted from the streets and still live in ignorance.
This is not to say that numerous citizens of Peace Corps countries are not also speaking up, spreading education, and working toward a better world. They are. I can only reflect on my own home and how it isn’t so different than nations who we have often otherized as “less progressive.” How long ago did our love warriors begin a battle cry for their own humanity?
I cannot change that I am a mouse in a world of lions. I can be grateful for the many lions who are protectors and not predators. I cannot lie and say that I do not often feel the need for protection in this cruel world. So, no, I will not tell you I am not a mouse. What I am is a mouse with a lion’s roar. And I have learned by having to play this disgusting game that, if strategically sounded, my roar will dominate a pride.
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