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A severe water shortage in my area left me unable to do laundry for almost a month, so when the communal tap started flowing again yesterday, I sprang into action like a cheetah from a trampoline. In a matter of hours, I had washed almost every item I own. It was just as I was hanging the last dripping blouse on the line when I recalled, “DANGIT. I was supposed to go to the post office today. What will I wear?” My current outfit – pajamas – wouldn’t do. Scanning my dresser, I realized I had two options: running shorts and a college hoodie, or a cotton dress I usually wore only around the house.

The dress is lovely, and one of my favorite things in my wardrobe: lightweight and insanely soft, with a seafoam green plaid pattern and grey buttons from the neckline to the hem. Around the waist is a simple leather cord belt. The only problem? It’s short. As in, it falls to the tops of my knees. On a particularly blustery day, the mischievous wind would whip the bottom so high as to expose an inch or two of smooth thigh. I tend to dress extra-conservatively as a rule to differentiate myself from the tourists, so this ordinarily wouldn’t do at all. But on that day, necessity was the mother of fashion. I slipped it over my head and trotted out the door.

I realized it was going to be an odd experience when I passed a group of seventh and eighth grade boys from a nearby school seated beneath a tree having lunch. Several of my students were among them. “Ciao baybeeee,” they drawled, “you look sooo nice, come and sit with us.” Their voices dripped with scandalous intent.

“MMESEMA NINI?” I demanded sharply. “What did you say?” In that instant, my students suddenly recognized me and leapt to their feet. “GOOD AFTERNOON MADAM,” they said in loud, nervous voices. “HOW ARE YOU THIS FINE DAY?” Standing straight at attention, their hands folded behind their backs like soldiers, they desperately tried to display the respect they’d disregarded only moments earlier.

“Wewe!” I scolded before walking away, thinking to myself how bizarre that had been. Gender issues, I thought to myself, are definitely a health class topic to take up sooner rather than later.

This set the tone for the rest of my brief adventure. From my house to the post office is a ten-minute walk over rough, unpaved roads. In those ten minutes, I had two men stop to talk to me, one to sell me travel insurance “to preserve my holiday and protect my car” (since when do I have a car?), the other to simply ask me for money (“To help orphans,” he said shiftily, avoiding my gaze.) Motorbike taxi operators, most of whom recognize me and have learned in my seven months here that I’m never going to ride with them, pulled over to the shoulder of the road and inquired, “Hey sexy lady, I love you, I give you ride to your hotel? Where are you staying?” One made kissing noises, and another told me he’d seen me dancing in a bar at a resort (which I’ve never done as long as I’ve been in Kenya.) A hotel security officer I see every time I make that particular stroll (and with whom I usually stop to exchange pleasantries) didn’t respond to my greeting or look me in the face. He was too busy visually appraising my pale calves. On the walk back, neighbors who usually greeted me, didn’t. Strangers who ordinarily wouldn’t have given me a second glance afforded me lingering looks and called “Ciao, sexy, how is you?”

To be certain, this is far more than the standard daily quota of minor harassment I’ve come to expect since becoming “known” to my village. Still, on most days, I’d be mildly irritated and nothing more. However, recent news coverage has strongly sensitized me to the issue. From women in Cairo hoping that their revolution helps to end their continual harassment to a Toronto police officer giving a presentation about community safety wherein he told women to avoid assault by “not dressing like sluts”, our world has a lot of stuff that needs fixing.

To dress sexily, or to feel sexy, or to be treated as a sexual being by someone whose advances are welcome, is itself the right of an empowered women. To be a feminist does not mean being a prude. But to be showered with this kind of UNWELCOME attention is unequivocally wrong, and becomes doubly so when you make your lack of interest crystal clear (are you listening, tuktuk-taxi-driver-who-idled-your-tuktuk-alongside-me-for-over-one-hundred-meters-asking-about-my-love-life?) To subject someone to that kind of harassment isn’t charming or flattering, it’s a sign of fundamental disrespect for the other person’s feelings and even their autonomous personhood. This isn’t a “Muslim” issue, or an “African” issue, or a “third world” issue. What Peace Corps volunteers face daily is no different than a woman in Cairo who has her ass grabbed or a woman in Manhattan who gets catcalled. It’s pandemic, it’s deplorable, and it’s too often been ignored or hushed over by societies and governments the world over.

February is the traditional month of “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s awareness-raising effort to stop harassment towards and violence against women worldwide. You may have seen a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues or youtube clips of A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer. I have some philosophical differences both with Ensler and with those shows, but the core message is something we can all get behind: Stop. Enough. Don’t. Never.

First, think.

“My Short Skirt” is the title of a famous poem/monologue about liberation from assault. To read it, please click here.

You’ve heard of bad hair days? Sometimes, you can have a bad language day. You trip over your tongue and fumble for words until you can’t even make a coherent point in *English*, let alone whatever Bantu spinoff you’re trying to learn at the moment. These days tend to make for great stories – such as those recalled on the blog of my friend/language partner/linguistic savant Lorenzo. Since getting to site, I’ve managed to say “I was late today because it took me a long time to circumcise myself” (instead of “get myself ready,” which differs by one letter) and “I did not breastfeed your test result” (instead of “look at,” which differs by two letters.) My coworkers appreciate my attempts to use Kiswahili whenever possible instead of English, but that may be because it’s so freakin’ hilarious when I mess up.

And I’ll agree. It generally is.

Alternatively, sometimes, you have a really, really good language day, where an endless stream of words are just there for the plucking. Rather than thinking of a statement, translating it in your head, then saying it slowly, you think of it in the target language to begin with. Everything’s easy. You even manage wit. Those are the days that make all the flash cards, LPIs, and awkward stuttering worth it.

Today was one of those days. I was scheduled to have my first meeting with a local People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) group at a large health center some miles from my town. My presence there had been arranged by a local VCT counselor, but he was going to be at a seminar today, so after the local public health officer introduced me it was going to be Megan: The Solo Act. I spent half the night staring at the ceiling, wondering what to say, how to ask questions clearly but without being too direct, and ultimately deciding that rehearsing was a useless enterprise. I was at the dispensary all morning, so I didn’t have time to pull out my language notebook from training and study the phrases for “grassroots” or “sustainable income generating activities.” I was just going in cold.

And … it went fine. I introduced myself in Kiswahili, talked a little bit about my organization and its history, a little bit about what other volunteers do, and a little bit about the things I might be doing. I explained that today I was here to learn about the history and projects of their group, and then maybe in the future we could work to do sustainable capacity-building activities together (if you’re playing along with the Peace Corps Buzzword Drinking Game, that’s a double.) I reverted back to English a few times when I was talking about HIV/AIDS in America and when I lost the thread of how to talk about IGAs in Kiswahili, but I was able to understand questions they asked about me and immediately picked back up on the words when someone helped me translate. The woman who runs the group speaks some English, and when I saw her struggling to find the word for something, I was able to say ”What is it in Kiswahili? and almost always figure out exactly what she was getting at.

I’m not sure exactly in what capacity I’ll be working with them in the future, but I think today was a good start.

On the way home, my skills were tested again, but to slightly more comical effect. I boarded a matatu and handed the tout a fifty shilling note – but instead of giving me twenty back, he just pocketed it and moved on to the next person.

”Oi! Give me my change!” I chided.

He turned to me, wide-eyed, and said in Kiswahili, ”Check it out! The mzungu speaks Swahili!”

Every head in the matatu swiveled around and stared at me, in a look-a-talking-farm-animal sort of way.

“I try,” I said with a smile.

”You’re very pretty, lady,” he continued.

”Thanks.”

”Do you have a boyfriend?”

”No. I’m actually married. Sorry, bro.” The other passengers howled with laughter.

”Truth? Show me the ring!”

I held up my hand, revealing a delicate silver band I wear for just such occasions. More laughter, but he continued. Did I have kids? How old was I? How old was my husband? How big is he? How long had I been married? Finally, the mama next to me told him to knock it the heck off, he had disturbed me enough and CLEARLY I wasn’t interested. She then asked me where I had learned such excellent Swahili.

Language WIN.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly