Rebecca Lolosoli in A Land of Women

Rebecca Lolosoli. (Pieter Hugo for Newsweek)

Watching the Women in the World Daily Beast/Newsweek Summit on CSPAN this weekend introduced me to Daily Beast, Eliza Griswold and the remarkable Rebecca Lolosoli who founded a village where no men are allowed:

Our village has turned into a shelter,” Lolosoli says. Women and girls fleeing forced marriages, or ostracized for being raped, or trying to save themselves from female genital mutilation, come to Umoja in Kenya for safety. Sons are welcome—as long as they are willing to follow the village’s rules and do not try to dominate the women.

Say again???

In Swahili, Umoja [the name of the town] means unity. Many of the 64 women who live there are rape survivors. The perpetrators were often British soldiers who were stationed and trained nearby for more than 50 years.

“Wearing green uniforms they blended with the trees and when women collected firewood, the soldiers would jump out and rape them, laughing like it was a game,” Lolosoli says. She herself narrowly escaped attack by British soldiers several decades ago. (She doesn’t know her exact age, but guesses she’s around 48.)….

Finally, more than two decades ago, Lolosoli decided it was time to speak up on their behalf, no matter the consequences. She started attending community meetings to address this taboo.

When the response from community leaders was less than enthusiastic, she founded Umoja as a deliberate refuge for women and girls.   As if that wasn’t amazing enough:

Now, in addition to being a safe haven and a matriarchal utopia, Umoja is the center of a thriving artisans’ community, which centers around beadwork. Their wide, bright necklaces and elaborate headpieces are now de rigueur among folk-art fashionistas. Diane Von Furstenberg met Lolosoli in 2009. Last year, Von Furstenberg introduced the Samburu women’s intricate, sophisticated beadwork into her spring collection.

I’ve been knocking the “tribal” spring fashion theme as another Africa-Is-SO-Exotic meme.  But if it emerges from partnerships like this, I may need to be down.

And can you imagine?  A world of women of women and children?  My gut reaction was fear for the vulnerability of a female village–attack, confiscation of land, kidnapping, etc.  But this village has been at work for 21 years!  Which means a generation of sons were raised in a female-friendly, woman-loving and affirming space! Wut!

I’m giddy.  I’m tingly with happiness.  And I’m so down it isn’t even funny.  Can I move there?  Today?

This is just one of the inspiring and humbling stories I saw and read via CSPAN/interwebs.  The summit actually happened two weekends ago, but go to the Daily Beast Women in the World Summit page and read the recaps, biographies, video, and more.  They will put a fire under your ass.  If these women can do big things, you’ve got no excuse.


Cancun is Omelas

Just got back from the American Mexico that is Cancun’s Hotel Zone.

I don’t mean that as a compliment.

I admit it.  I went and immersed myself in the food, sun and playa that is Gulf-side Mexico over spring break.  To do it, I put the critical part of my brain on pause.  Instead of asking some basic questions about why all the men working at the resort felt compelled to flirt shamelessly with me but were very careful to also keep their distance because a touch could have them fired.  Or why dollars were easier to find and use than pesos.  Or why the Cancun party district looked a lot like frat row on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights–blond, buxom and inebriated.  Or why a young, white man decided to yell in verrrrrry slooooow English at one of the servers who pretended not to understand his oh so appropriate question, “HOW much do YOU get PAID to WORK HERE?”  (We later dubbed him, King of the Douchebags)

Instead, I self-policed and silenced myself, because I was busy enjoying the benefits and privileges of empire.

If I’d asked those questions, I would have had to admit that my presence along contributed to the strange hodge-podge of neo-colonial excess.  I’d have to ask about my own position of relative economic comfort compared to my peers stateside.  I’d have to trouble my brain, again, with the parameters of brown male privilege and the hypervisibility (and globalized sexuality) of the black female body (in a fine azzed bikini, I might add).  I’d have to scold myself for not stepping on King of the Douchebags toes, afraid someone, somewhere, would  complain and someone, somewhere, would lose their job.

But now I’m back from Omelas.  And I came home to this.

And I’m more troubled than ever.

Reading Dolen’s Wench, Part Two

*spoilers ahead*

I am watching Lizzie’s two children and hoping they will be beat.  And I am hoping that Fran, the white mistress who has adopted them (as much as a slave can be adopted by it’s owner), will be the one to do it.  It is a raw and reactionary desire.  I want those children to come to their senses that badly.

I am furious with my own helplessness.  It is the kind of storyline that makes you scream at the book or the screen:  Lizzie is your real mother!  You are a slave!  That bitch is playing you!  She will break your heart!  

It is the kind of history that reminds me why white women and women of color find it so difficult to get along.

In Out of the House of Bondage, Thavolia Glymph writes:

“Not only did white women’s violence, and their ownership and management of slaves make it impossible for black people to see them as ideal models of a “kind and gentle womanhood,” but they resulted in specific practices of resistance…Contrary to most interpretations, violence on the part of white women was integral to the making of slavery, crucial to shaping black and white Women’s understanding of what it meant to be female, and no more defensible than master’s violence.”

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Lent, Part Two

Because it is still Friday in Cancun. Toma, with love:

Today is the second Friday of Lent.  And the only reason i remembered is because I knew I needed to write the second part of this post.  

This morning, I scarfed down a small plateful of papas con tosino (hashbrowns with bacon and onions) with no shame.     And I will probably have chicken fajitas for lunch and a cheeseburger for dinner.  But I will be skipping the chocolate cake and opting for coffee instead. My Lent sacrifices are internet TV and dessert.

I didn’t give them up for the sake of Catholic dogma. I gave up two of my favorite addictions because Lent offers a great excuse for me to attempt to free my mind and body from an attachment to the world.  I need to return to that ephemeral hope and strength that lies deep inside myself.  The sacrifice is just a symbol, a metaphor for the discipline I am already (re)enacting on my own life. And I’m only human. So when i feel tempted, I pray to Ogun.  And when I feel lonely, I imagine Oshun at my shoulder and I ask her to return in my dreams.

I approach Lent with the same sense of syncretism and mystery that I approach my own existence.  It is a magical thing, it seems to me, to be African-American and Puerto Rican, both at the same time, neither eclipsing the other, both contributing essential elements to my sense of being.  It is a magical thing to be a Black Girl from the City and still alive and surviving and loving life.  We get a bad rap.  But we are still here.  

And it is an incredible thing to be said black girl determined to remain hopeful, visionary, dreaming and open to the radical potential of love.

Lent is just a ritual, an occasion to revisit my own heart.  And a reminder that I can abstain, that I do not need material things and that they do not form any essential part of me.  That this part, this soul, is my own.  And God’s.  And the Orishas.  And the ancestors.

To all those who celebrate, whether the form or the function, I wish you a happy fast season.   May you return to the world with clarity, peace, and a stronger relationship to your God.  To those who don’t, be patient and tolerant (and helpful!) to those that do. There may be a story there.

Sex-Positive Feminism + Black Male Feminism = ?


Let’s have a toast for the douchebags
Let’s have a toast for the assholes
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags
Every one of them that I know
Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs
That’ll never take work off
Baby, I got a plan
Runaway fast as you can

~Kanye West, “Runaway,” My Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

It is difficult to be a sex-positive (black or brown) feminist.  The rules of black respectability encourage women of color to perform Chaste, Proper and Asexual in their public demeanor and discourse.  Instead, you find yourself wearing stilettos where clogs may have been more appropriate.  Or discussing condoms, orgasms and vibrators at dinner parties where the  guests may have preferred to chat about the last Colson Whitehead novel.  You get into fights about teen pregnancy because you refuse to demonize black girl sexuality; you complain about single motherhood having precious little state support; you are pro-abortion, pro-sex work, and pro-consent because you believe “Yes Means Yes” may be the most powerful phrase in the English language.

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Guess what I gave up? #FML

I may be Afrolatina, but I am a barely there Catholic.  Every other Christmas Eve, I end up at midnight mass (read: 7pm or 10pm mass) and I haven’t made it to Sunday mass in over a year because I don’t feel very comfy in my local, brimstone-and-anti-gay-marriage-and-reproductive-choice church.  I’m baptized but have neither Communed nor Confirmed nor Confessed.  And I’m not sure I ever plan to.

Like so many people, my relationship to Christianity is strained by its history (of pro-slavery, pro-genocide, anti-woman policies), its phallocentric doctrine, and the hypocrisy of its loudest proponents (remember this?).  I’ve also always had a soft spot in my heart for less Western spiritual paths.  Wicca attracted me as a child and young adult, but the lack of female representatives of color eventually turned me off.  Islam is a beautiful religion but only when it isn’t being misogynist, and hell, what isn’t?  A college friend’s converstion to Candomblé, and a chance acquaintance with another practitioner a couple of years later, led me closer and closer to la Regla Ocha.  But I’m leery about making the jump.

All that said, I’ve gone to Easter mass nearly every year of my life.  Sometimes I dress up and sometimes I don’t.  But I still attend.  Going reminds me of my mother, who woke me and my sister up with baskets of chocolate eggs and candy on Easter morning, dressed us in frothy, pastel colored dresses, and dragged us to church.  Afterwards, we’d head over to Nuñez Tia’s house for arroz con gandules, potato salad, lechón, and whatever else Abuela decided to throw down on that day.  Easter still means family to me.  And it means Latinidad.  So I go.

In college, I discovered black Catholics.  That is to say, I learned that cities like St. Louis, New Orleans, Mobile, and everywhere else along the Gulf Coast had sizeable and established African-American populations.  And unlike most Chicago Ricans I knew, they took their Catholic practice seriously. They went to mass, they owned rosaries.  They celebrated Lent.

Whereas Easter is about joyfully celebrating Jesus’ divinity, Lent is about recognizing his humanity and the struggles Christians share as they mark the 40 days he was tempted by Satan in the desert, church leaders say.

This week through Easter, Christians may “give up” a practice, such as eating sweets or drinking alcohol, or pledge to spend more time in prayer or scripture study.

There are also periods of fast, although practice seems to vary.  Some say no meat at all except fish, and none on Ash Wednesday or any of the Fridays.  Others just fast on Ash Wednesday and Friday.

Well!  I certainly didn’t want to be left out of the fun.  But by the second Thursday, I’d forget my sacrifice, and by the third Friday I was eating pepperoni pizza in the cafeteria with the rest of the heathens.  The next year, I’d half-heartedly try again.

Because of my first encounter with Lent was wrapped up with my infatuation with New Orleans (and Mardi Gras), slavery (and carnivals),  black men (and Mr.), my attempts, even when they failed, became part of my definition of diaspora.  If Easter reminded me of my own Latinidad, then Lent opened the door onto a kind of rich, historic, diasporic blackness.

Fast forward many moons later, and I’m sitting on my computer one Monday in 2011, Tweeting about violence against women, and wondering what I will give up for Lent.  I know it’s coming because I’d just re-tweeted a Melissa Harris-Lacewell shout-out to #NOLA & Mardi Gras.  I also know that I am well past the age where I need any religion to justify my sense of race and ethnic identity.  In fact, I’d recently decided that God was too big and complicated to ever be contained within any one organized religion.  ‘Even Buddhism was beginning to draw my attention, something I swore I would never allow it to do because it’d become the Religion of Lefty Activists and I hated a foregone conclusion.

But I also knew I was still going to try do it, I was going to sacrifice something meaningful and fast on Fridays for Lent.  What the hell–why?

to be continued……