AFRICAN WOMEN IN SCOTLAND: LIVING AND NOT JUST SURVIVING’
By Mukami McCrum
When Bertha asked me to speak at this conference we agreed that my topic should be about survival strategies for African women in Scotland. This agreement was based on the assumption that having survived in this country for 25 years I could speak through experience about the day to day survival strategies used by a black woman in a white country. This would also include examples of how we, African women, as individuals or as members of an organisation, have contributed to worldwide struggles against supremacist ideology of racism, sexism, class and other forms of oppression. However last week I changed my mind (reasons later). My speech today is on the same lines but with emphasis on the need for us to live rather than just surviving.
I would like to start by explaining two things, terminology and the change of the title of my speech. By African women in Scotland, I mean all women of African origin or heritage, which includes my daughter who has Scottish and British nationality and whose roots are of black African. I include all women who can trace their roots from Africa regardless of the route they took to get here. A number of things made me change my mind about the topic of my speech during my recent visit to Kenya and Uganda. My childhood memories of growing up in Kenya soon after independence came flooding back with such an overwhelming force that I could not dismiss them as nostalgia. The sense of pride, dignity and the resilience of my family and my people, in the face of poverty and oppression under neo-colonialism, made me start thinking about the future of African people.
Africa is a continent of differences and contradictions. We have beautiful cities and hopeless slums, industrious people who never seem to make it to the top, beautiful and fertile rural landscapes and national parks and not enough food for everyone, extremes of poverty and wealth, and different status and power relationships. This is not different from many countries of the world but it, not an excuse for doing nothing. I am concerned that until we create the infrastructure and the social, economic and political structures to check and eliminate the prevailing levels of abject poverty, disease and violence we are going to leave a legacy of just surviving to our children. We deserve to live a life full of hope, and dignity on equal status with other human beings regardless of colour religion or ethnic origin. We owe this to our children!
As time went on, I became more convinced that I do not need to speak to you about how to survive. One sleepless night I watched on the television, a part of the film ‘The Colour Purple’ based on a book by Alice Walker. It is the scene where Mister’s children upset Celie by pulling her clean washing from the line and stamping on it… Letti, her sister asked, “Why do you let them walk all over you, why don’t you fight back?” Celie defeatedly responded by saying, “All I know is how to survive”. In these words, Celie tells the story of African women’s endurance in order to survive in the past and at the present time. I do not need to tell anyone of you here today how to survive. You are here today because you have survived.
Today I want to share with you my thoughts about the strategies we should deploy to ensure a better life for ourselves and our people. I want to share with you the knowledge and experience I have gained over the years through my interaction with other people and from my observation of the strategies they use to claim their place on earth and to ensure that their descendants enjoy equal human rights. I also want to explore strategies which can help us move from mere existence to living our lives the way it should be – with dignity and full of promise for the future.
Internal and External barriers
Critical analysis of the different forms of oppression against women, based on race, class, culture, religion has revealed the different factors which undermine the advancement of women all over the world. Broadly speaking we can summarise the factors which affect African women into two categories.
Internal factors refer to personal attributes which influence individual woman’s capacity to participate in decision-making processes. The level of consciousness, knowledge, education, experience, power, power and economic status; and each woman’s understanding of gender-based oppression. They also include the attitudes toward women within the family. The family is very important to African women as a source of strength and support but we must not lose sight of the different forms of oppression which occur there. For some women and girls, it is the site of violence and abuse depending on the attitude and power relationships within. Violence at home is used to perpetuate male supremacy and is passed on through generations.
External factors include the status of women in relation to social (religious and cultural), economic and political systems. Within Scotland and Europe, racism is one of the major barriers for African women because of the way it impacts on every aspect of our lives. Its insidiousness, pervasiveness and its ability to create a paralysing fear make it the most difficult problem to overcome. Subordination of African women is deeply rooted in their lack of economic and political independence at levels. Cultural conventions are often used as a form of control against women. The culture as a system of beliefs is the only thing as women that we can claim to be uniquely our own which other people cannot touch. Women as custodians of culture and traditions often engage in practices which oppress other women such as female genital mutilation of girls. But how did women become custodians and how did such traditions become so entrenched in the psyche of so many people that it is considered normal and harmless?
The Internal and External factors are interrelated and feed off each other. It is important for us to fully understand the role they play in hindering the advancement of African women in Scotland and in Africa. We must also identify the ways gender-based oppression is perpetuated if we are going to put a stop to it.
ROOTS OF GENDER-BASED OPPRESSION
The position of women as we know it today did not happen as if by magic. The internal and external factors are rooted in the history of the social and economic development of the human race. Studies show how the situation has developed gradually and systematically as different societies have defined and redefined gender roles and status of men and women in the history of their development. We know how the biological differences between men and women (especially their childbearing ability) led to the women taking up the caring and nurturing role of children (and later of the society), a role which has always been undervalued. They were then relegated to the home (the private place) and their contribution to family production went unrecognised. Taboos, cultural norms, and stereotype were gradually used to dictate and reinforce the expectations and the standards of behaviour for women. Women who try to break free and enter the public place are branded as bad women. In addition, they lost the opportunity to access knowledge, experience and skills necessary in overcoming oppression from external systems. We also know how patriarchy has played a major part in the exclusion of women from the public space.
Today we can see how these factors and the socially constructed realities benefit the current global capitalist economic and political systems which exploit African women by treating them as a commodity (remember trafficking of women and girls), and using them as free or cheap labour. We also pay the price of war and conflicts as migrants, refugees and displaced people. The division between private (home or rural) and public (outside world or urban) places is further promoted through images of the tranquil and natural life of rural women. Furthermore, in a world which defines success in terms of economic power, the myths and images about a wonderful rural life hide the harsh reality of poverty, hard work and limited opportunities. Lack of skills necessary for the global market operations reduces many women in rural areas to mere producers of future generations of cheap labour. However, there is also evidence that these roles and status of women are not universal and that they are time-specific. For example during wars and civil conflict, or when it suits the dominant group, the roles are abandoned or suspended as women and girls are turned into soldiers or factory workers. This tells us that the current unequal status of women is not our destiny. We can take steps to ensure that our daughters have a different life – a better life.
SOLUTIONS: WHAT WE NEED TO DO
Organise and Mobilise for Change
Before we consider the solutions let us start by looking at three specific facts which determine the position of the African women in Scotland. They are diverse according to their origin, age, experience, economic status (including employment), education, social class, level of consciousness, immigration status (refugee, resident, migrant or a British national), and length of stay in this country. African women are very few in numbers which adds to their invisibility. It is also a fact that African women have made some advancement in their personal development by overcoming some of the problems and barriers.
Let us also look at how we respond to problems and challenges. There are four basic options: ignore the problem and hope that it goes away; confront it head-on; turn it into an advantage; anticipate and be prepared. Each one of these achieves different results. Ignoring the problem is like burying one’s head in the sand. The problem does not go away and one loses the opportunity to do something about it. Head-on confrontation without preparation is not a good strategy. The chances of winning are limited. The last two options give the best results and most of my speech will concentrate on planning and preparation. However, the choices which African women make are not always straight forward. They are determined by the factors stated above.
Organising: The case for African Women ‘s Groups in Scotland
“Women hold half the sky, but African women hold the heavier half of the sky”
Organising for empowerment and to making links between different forms of oppression is the main key for our liberation. Organisations can create space for us to learn, reflect, organise and mobilise for change.
African women have a long history of coming together in groups to address certain immediate practical needs of the members. The members of the group support each other overcome hardships such as financial crisis, illness and death, and by being there for each other to care for children. However, the groups have failed to challenge institutionalised oppression of African women for two reasons: One; The women are aware of individual gender-based economic and social inequality but they do not link it to racial and ethnic oppression from both the white and other minority communities. Two; Invisibility of African women in Scotland has been due to low numbers and due to discrimination by other communities. African women have played a major part in black struggles but the rewards have gone to other minority communities. Recruitment patterns in broadcasting, racial equality work, and black voluntary sector are good examples of the exclusion of African women. They are only involved in projects which they created themselves. The few who are employed are harassed and bullied until they give up. Others are pushed into low pay and low-status stereotypical jobs.
Belonging to an organisation gives women confidence and strength (safety in numbers) which stops women from becoming bystanders who wait for things to happen to them. Through the organisation, women can create a formidable army of resistance. our capacity to deal with the challenges which we encounter and make appropriate responses.
Self Reliance gives women autonomy and control. It is important that they do things for ourselves to ensure that the solutions to their problems are the right ones for them. It also enhances their skills which can be shared with other women or transferred to other work situations. Effective organising in itself is not enough. The following strategies are crucial.
It is important for women to participate fully in as many spheres of life as possible in order to influence those who make decisions on policies and issues which affect their lives at the local, national and global level. This means being involved in the local political issue (Scottish parliament) and in international development issues such as trade, aid, debt, structural adjustments, investments and other systems which harm our people. However, participation for the sake of it is a waste of time. Effective participation requires a number of key things: a sound knowledge base, experience, skills (in advocacy, planning, preparation), and a good understanding of the forces which work against women.
Understanding gender and feminist issues
Failure to understand the terminology, theories and concepts which are in current use, and lack of consensus about issues has led to confusing and contradicting statements from different women involved in campaign and advocacy work. This divides the women into camps and weakens the struggle, and the system takes advantage of the confusion.
Awareness of issues enables women to different their own perspective, identify inequalities and take the necessary steps to redress the imbalances.
Understanding the social economic and political systems
Understanding the systems enables women to use their experience and their knowledge to challenge the system, to make recommendations through consultations and discussions with policymakers. Thus, African women can be involved in the assessment of how policies impact on women. African women’s perspective on how issues such as poverty, unemployment, violence, family life, affect them is important.
Dealing with conflict
As stated earlier African women have a tradition of working collectively in groups or organisations to address particular needs. Unity and peace are essential factors for this type of operation. For African women in Diaspora conflict between members of the group is the most destructive force. It weakens the group to a breaking point and opens the way for other dangers. Although individual women have made some advancement in their lives, made an impact and influenced some policies, there is evidence that, collectively, with co-operation and support for each other, we could have achieved more.
It is the most vulnerable people who suffer the most as a consequence of conflict. A lot of time and energy is spent trying to resolve the conflict instead of getting rid of oppression. Women become oppressors of other women and destroy their self-esteem. Sometimes the rifts are so wide and the wounds too deep to heal. In a struggle for power, the vulnerable women, who need the group most are trampled underfoot like the proverbial ‘ground which the elephants fight on’. They are the unwitting casualties.
In dealing with conflict, the first step is not to ignore it. It will not go away. It is important to identify the issues which trigger conflict and create an environment which does not encourage them to flourish. Procedures, ground rules, open and transparent operations are good for preventing conflict. Avoid envious and bitter people who always find fault in others and spend most of their time planning strategies to bring other women down.
It is impossible to avoid conflict altogether but swift action can prevent serious damage. When the source of conflict is known, members of a group should deal with it fairly and not take their friends’ side or entertain gossip. However, pointing out faults should be done in a caring manner bearing in mind that we cannot afford to ostracise each other. A single word, misunderstood or mistaken can lead to disastrous results.
It is also important to believe in peace and work for it. Accept diversity of opinions and ideas and turn them into an advantage rather than differences. All those who share the theme can work together but also include those who hold different views. It is not easy but the alternative is worse.
Finally, we have no control in what other people may do or say to offend us, but we have absolute control and autonomy in what we do about it. We have total control in our words, actions and in our attitude. We can choose to respond in a manner which defuses conflict or one which inflames it.
Let us now turn to the strategies we need to achieve our goals. In my introduction, I said that we want to live. However, before we live we need to survive. In any struggle, the duty of every woman is to survive. Survival requires certain qualities and skills to overcome the obstacles. Akina Mama Wa Afrika is an African women’s NGO which grew from a small community-based group to an international organisation over a period of 10 years. Akina Mama’ success came from the commitment of a few women, clarity of aims and objectives and from perseverance. Let’s look at how this came about.
Personal Empowerment of one woman leads to empowerment of many. It follows the realisation that women need certain skills to deal with issues which stop them from reaching their goals. It involves the individual desire to gain confidence, self-esteem, and strength to face barriers. While some women can achieve these on their own, others require practical support and guidance in the form of training, information about rights and safe space to practice difficult situation. Women should lift each other up instead of pulling each other down. The Story of the crab is a good reminder: Two women went to the fish market to buy crabs. One woman had never been there before. They selected the best crabs and put them in their baskets. On the way home, the woman who was new to the market noticed that her crabs were moving out too much and trying to get out of the basket. She asked her friend why her crabs were settled at the bottom of the basket while she was having her hard time controlling hers. The friend told her, ‘I always buy female crabs. When one tries to get out the others pull it down’. Sisters, we must never behave like female crabs!
Organisational capacity involves possessing the necessary resources (human and financial), skills and knowledge for the effective management of groups and organisations in order to mobilise other women for a change. Lack of organisational capacity leads to ineffective and dysfunctional groups which fail to articulate the needs of their members effectively.
African women’s groups in Scotland are run by volunteers. This means that tasks take a long time to be completed especially when responsibility rests with only a few women. A system which enables women to share tasks and concentrate on single issues gives women an opportunity to concentrate achieve success without burnouts.
Organising for change is empowering but it is also painful and stressful. Many women have suffered great hardship from both the members and external agencies in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But we must not give up.
Strengthening the movement should not be by numbers only but by its credibility and by its resourcefulness. African women should use their diversity to create a strong movement composed of a network of groups which specific expertise. Each group could address a subject of their choice (education, health, employment, violence etc) and pass their findings or recommendations to the network for dissemination to other women groups. The network can use that information to lobby for change and speak with one voice, in the interest of all African women in Scotland.
Do not wait for critical mass and do not expect everybody to do an equal share of work It is more effective to work with a small group of women who share the same commitment than with a large group in competition with each other.
Collective Resistance strengthens women and protects them from being picked on one by one. It also neutralises the divide and rule tactics which weaken resistance. It gives women an opportunity to become experts on specific issues and avoids repetition.
Transfer of skills and knowledge: This can be done in two ways. Woman to woman through training and sharing of information. African women who were not born in this country often find that they have to learn things the hard way often without any support. It is imperative that their efforts are recognised and opportunities created for them to pass their knowledge to others. It does not make sense for every woman to learn the hard way.
Skills can also be transferred from one generation of women to another through inter-generation dialogue, mentoring and role models. We must make sure that our children carry on the struggle.
CONCLUSION: Future into the Millennium
As we move into the new millennium we must look back at the benefits which we gained from the legacy struggle against the slave trade, struggle against colonialism and imperialism, civil rights movement and struggle against racism in this country. We must also ask ourselves some pertinent questions about the legacy to our children. Is it a legacy of perpetual struggle or one of liberation.
For me, I would like us two establish two things in Scotland before the end of this century. One, An African Women’s Forum which acts as an umbrella for a network of groups which represent the diversity of African women. We can create a Forum for articulating our concerns with one united voice, at the national level, while the groups deal with local practical needs of their members. This conference could be the starting point.
Two, a Forum for Young People is long overdue. Many women bring up their children without support. They also work long hours and rarely get an opportunity to raise the consciousness of their children. A forum like this would ensure that our aspirations for a better future become a reality. We must not let our children inherit survival strategies, they need strategies to live. This the 30 Anniversary of Martin Luther Kings death. Our children will carry the baton and make his dream come true.
I will leave with this thought based on a mixture of African and Chinese philosophy. The water in a river has all the properties the African women in Scotland need.
The water gives life, it is soft, strong, flexible and resilient and it flows around hard and unyielding rocks with such ease and grace and eventually wears the rocks down. At times the water is quiet and silent, other times it roars like a lion. It is made up of millions of drops which can separate and join again. It adjusts to different climates by changing its form but it remains committed to reaching the sea, its ultimate goal.