Small Steps

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Kate Sheppard and her fellows won 125 years ago.

Submitted: September 26, 2018

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Submitted: September 26, 2018

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Studying at The Straven Road Academy for Young Gentlemen, I did alright in my history exams. No, that’s not the real name of the institution, it was just a bit of student humour. In the main, I found history an interesting subject, but I have to admit, I was bored witless by the British Reform Acts. We had to know them because our nation started as a British colony, our roots were British, and so we were taught more of British history than indigenous history. The various Reform Acts were about the progressive changes in legislation regarding British electoral matters. As students we had no understanding of electoral systems, so who had the right to vote didn’t occur to me as important, so I got through by learning it all the Acts by rote without understanding them.

Emancipation is topical this year because it’s one hundred and twenty five years since this little country of ours became the first in the world where women had won the right to vote. Ahem, this compares to the women of Britain who won their right a quarter of a century later in 1918, and with USA trailing along behind by a further two years! Note that I chose the words, ‘Women won the right to vote.’ Rather than, ‘Were granted the right to vote.’ That’s because women did have a real fight on their hands for the privilege and you win or lose fights, don’t you?

Although she was never mentioned in our school lectures, Kate Sheppard was a leader in the New Zealand’s suffrage movement, and these days I wonder how she would feel about the number of women who are too disinterested to exercise their right to vote?  Back then, a key reason Kate and the Suffragettes fought the fight, was to elect respectable men into parliament who would be sympathetic to the temperance cause. Nevertheless for women to wrestle any power away from the circle and arrows was no easy feat! Parliaments along with religions, were the keystones to society and had always wanted power to remain in the circle and arrow’s domain, which kept fifty percent of the population unempowered.

When Germaine Greer burnt her bra agitating for a fairer deal to allow women to determine their own values, I recall many of my peers reacting by saying, ‘Ok, if women want to be our equal, when they get a puncture in their car, they can change the bloody wheel themselves!’ See, the circle and arrows didn’t want to give an inch. In my hopeful world, boys and girls as they grow up they have life experiences that can be vastly different. So in general, girls don’t get to experience nor are they interested in any aspects of changing wheels. That’s not to say there aren’t women who are perfectly comfortable changing a wheel! It would be good to see fairness and respect going both ways.

Anyway, here’s a little story about how, in the smallest of ways, culture presents one of the challenges in unravelling the status quo.

Mbise was a polite and traditional young African man who worked for me as a night guard and nursery worker. Over the years we had many conversations. Deep conversations. I found that he was staunch in his belief that women had their place in life and men had theirs. For instance, he asserted that women always cultivate the fields – he meant hand cultivation. He was right. It was usual, but I saw many men also cultivating the fields. He had a reason for that: the men didn’t have a woman in their life at that time. Another claim was that only men washed vehicles. True enough I never saw women washing or cleaning any vehicle. Next he said that it was a women’s role to milk cows, and while I didn’t see any men milking cows, I’m sure they did, but Mbise would have had his reasons for that too.

We bought a bike for Mbise and during our conversations he was adamant that women didn’t ride bikes - they had no balance, and wore long flappy clothing! Well that’s partly true around our area, I never saw any women or girls riding bikes but in other parts of the country, there were plenty of women riding them. I spent time in Shirati, and women were riding bikes there. Well-balanced while floppily clad.

We had been keeping a weather-eye on a young family, the eldest was sixteen year old Upendo. Young Upendo had it fairly tough after the loss of their mother, she was responsible for her younger siblings as well as trying to keep up with her own studies. A couple of things occurred to me. Mbise kept his bike in our shed for safe keeping during the day while he fulfilled his duties at the secondary school, and we had a spacious yard. The opportunity was there, so why not teach Upendo to ride the bike? I’ve taught many a kid, and it might even give her a smile.

The lessons went well, raising a few laughs along the way, and by the end of the third, she was riding like a semi-expert! But we were clearly visible from the road and passers-by were watching! As in any small village, something new is something to gossip about! Word soon got back to Mbise that the girl was successfully riding his bicycle. He said nothing, showed no sign that he wasn’t happy about it, but the fourth day when Upendo came to practice, the bicycle seat had gone! He never left the bike intact again!

For one girl, the candle of empowerment glowed for a moment but was swiftly snuffed out!  


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