‘Demon on Fire and Other Stories,’ outlines a mosaic of characters and plots from Asia, Africa and the Americas. The storytelling is vivid, and the vignettes colourful and multi-dimensional. Self-motivated, independent in spirit and, in many instances, dignified and heroic, the characters lead extraordinary lives in their little universe.
Using triggers from real life, stories in this collection follow the author as she travels from country to country, weaving tales of ‘ordinary’ people and their aspirations, struggles and triumphs.
passion – to excel in the fight against violation of women and girls rights in particular, Gender Based Violence, and women’s right to health
Rebecca Tendai Chirenga
Educationist, high school teacher and college lecturer by profession, mother to 3 girls and 2 boys, grandmother to six adorable children, friend, mentor and Women’s Rights activist – Meet Rebecca Tendai Chirenga
Rebecca’s impressive mental strength and a can-do attitude motivated her to establish Women in Communities (WICO) almost a decade ago in Zimbabwe, to promote women’s issues and rights. Her courage and attitude had early beginnings.
When she was just ten, a young Rebecca got the opportunity to travel far away from home to study at a boarding school. Her father, a policeman, had retired pre-maturely due to an injury while on duty. Her family moved to rural Zimbabwe after this to save costs. The ten-year old girl from a place called Fort Victoria (present day Masvingo) journeyed alone, courageously by train, to an unfamiliar setting many miles away to complete her education.
At 34, facing widowhood and the prospect of bringing up five young children (the youngest was three years old) single-handedly, Rebecca prepared to meet the gauntlet thrown at her. Years later, five grown women and men achieved enough in their own right and stand as a testimonial to her perseverance.
Women in Communities Zimbabwe or WICO as it is known was established in 2009 to advocate for the wellbeing of women and girls and facilitate opportunities for them to acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, and skills needed to improve their livelihoods and capacities to adjust to changing conditions.WICO has grown in stature and reputation today under the leadership of Rebecca, and the support of the six other women that she co-opted into her vision and voyage from the beginning.
Rebecca and I met virtually when I helped ‘Women in Communities’ Zimbabwe (WICO) to prepare a fundraising proposal this year. We were introduced to each other by Chezuba, a website that facilitates volunteers like me and community based NGOs to benefit mutually. Rebecca and I continued to be in touch after the completion of my assignment, due to my interest in WICO’s work and most importantly because I am inspired by Rebecca’s commitment and professionalism.
Here is an excerpt from the interview I did with Rebecca about the journey of WICO –
Madhavi–It has been more than a decade since WICO was set up. What was your first project?
Rebecca – WICO’s initial focus was on Maternal and child health, and Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV (PMTCT), especially due to a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in those days. We wanted to help pregnant mothers and babies, to reduce maternal and new-born deaths, and HIV transmission to babies. Mothers died during child birth in Zimbabwe due to largely preventable causes. Zimbabwe had an unacceptably high level of 725 maternal deaths per 100 000 births (2007 study). Skilled attendance at birth declined from 73% in 1999 to 60% in 2009 and delivery in a health facility went down from 72% to 60% over the same period. Women were caught up in a vicious cycle. Information on health was inadequate, funds allocated for health delivery insufficient and most importantly access to health care especially for vulnerable groups was poor due to high user fees, heavy transport costs and long distance to health facilities. WICO mobilised resources to address these issues.
Madhavi – You seem to be very proud of this first initiative of WICO. Why?
Rebecca – There were many important programmes after this but I still hold this as one of the best. The project model was simple and addressed many of goals in one stroke.
To solve the problem of distance, WICOconstructed a 30-bed dormitory (shelter) near one health facility. Mothers could arrive there and wait for their delivery ahead of time. This reduced the risk of delayed access to health care especially for high risk pregnancies and reduced the possibility of unsafe deliveries at home. Mothers could stay in the shelter as long as they needed to without incurring boarding costs. They had to however provide their own food. WICO helped promote institutional deliveries to save mothers and infants and provided health information and critical knowledge about the PMTCT programme to the women while they were in the shelter.
High emergency transport costs to the health centre were eliminated due to this. We established a similar shelter in another local health centre in one other district. Both facilities were handed over to the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
Madhavi – Your mission clearly focuses on women and their rights. Do you think men have a role to play in promoting women’s rights and wellbeing?
Rebecca – Yes, without doubt. Zimbabwe is a patriarchal society. You need men’s support if programmes for women are to succeed. For example the PMTCT program required that both partners be tested for HIV to help with monitoring pregnancy at an antenatal clinic. The women would voluntarily test and receive counselling but the spouses were reluctant.
WICO introduced an approach known as Gender Transformative programming, to get men involved through community workshops and by offering incentives to attract them to the programme. As a result, the PMTCT programme improved by a significant margin. 100% of babies were delivered at the health facility HIV negative, even when parents were HIV positive.
We also involved men to address the issue of Gender Based Violence. We trained men to become “Male Motivators”. They became champions for addressing other men in hot spots such as beer halls and mining sites. WICO’s initiative was awarded the Netherlands embassy award of Gender Champion in 2019.
Madhavi – You also received another award in 2019, this one for a nutrition project. Could you elaborate on what project it was?
Rebecca – Yes that Project too was very timely and important. WICO received the award for the Best Community Project for 2019, from the National Association of NGO in Zimbabwe (NANGO) for our Community Nutrition Gardens’ initiative set up for women in 3 villages. A study done in 2007 showed that the nutritional status of children under-5 was appalling. Stunting levels had increased to an unacceptable level of 46% in children. The programme “Supporting Women Action in Addressing Land Degradation and Income Generation in Mfiri Village”was set up to alleviate issues of malnutrition among pregnant women and children under-5.
The burden of watering the community garden was reduced through sinking a solar powered borehole. The improved water provision also served the community with clean household water, and reduced cases of water borne diarrheal diseases. Women in these communities were able to produce enough to improve their food security and also sold the excess produce and increased their income from $5 a month to $50.
Madhavi – What are your future plans for WICO?
Rebecca – The future for WICO is very bright. With our current track record and experience over the years, there is plenty of room to stretch and excel.
With support from partners and well-wishers, we aim to – end violence against women and girls (VAWG), in particular, GBV /sexual harassment in Tertiary institutions of learning in Zimbabwe. We will support improved reporting and monitoring of sexual violations of women and girls in all communities through digital applications.
Improve the resilience and adaptive capabilities of women to effects of climate change through capacity building, climate smart agriculture and entrepreneurial skills training.
Establish community WASH programmes to provide easy access to tapped water for households through community water source and reticulation projects which will reduce the unpaid labour burdens on women and girls.
Madhavi – What is the one issue that you would want WICO to be known for?
Rebecca –To be known as the leading organisation in Zimbabwe that holistically addresses the rights of women and girls and improve their standard of living and well-being and .
To excel in the fight against violation of women and girls rights in particular, GBV, health rights.
We will not accept anything less.
Madhavi – You are very inspirational. What drives you?
Rebecca – My purpose is to have a positive impact on the lives of people I interact with and leave behind a lasting legacy of care, love and compassion. I wish to leave behind something positive and pleasing to God in my life time. I love helping people, particularly the less privileged.
I am a very positive person and do not give up on my desired goal. I persevere till I accomplish what I aim for. Life has not been easy as a single parent but I never wallowed in self-pity. Instead I strived to reach my potential. I am driven by the desire to stay active and venture into new territories. I am not content with little but aim to stay on top and achieve more. Circumstances sometimes limit me but I will not give up. If I had the means I would travel the world and make as many friends as possible. I like to meet new people and learn from them. I make friends that I keep and treasure the shared experiences.
Madhavi – Indeed, that is sensational.
Thank you, for generously giving your time and inputs for this interview. All the best in WICO’s future projects and plans.
A subdued red glow breaks over the distant horizon on the chilly January winter morning. It is the time when life slows down to a gentle crawl. Men huddle around makeshift bonfires sipping sweetened tea till late in the morning. Women serve hot snacks and make more tea for the men as they mind their chores and the children. This is also the season when pilgrims from far and wide offer prayers with devotion to the river Goddess Ganga (Ganges) in Varanasi city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Our boat winds its way down the Ganges River past the Ghats or bathing places. People stand knee deep in water, the men with a towel around their waist or just a loin cloth, the women weighed down by fully soaked sarees, holding each other’s hands, trying to cover their bodies as they attempt take a dip in the river. Many others gather water in metal vessels, meditate, pray or just simply stare into space as life carries on. Temple bells clang in the distance along with a faint background hum of chants
Young men and boys dive into the swirling waters of a river much gentler than in the summer months when the melted water hurtles down with force from the upper reaches of the foothills of the Himalayas. The swimmers get ready standing a dozen steps up the Ghat, keeping their bodies inert in readiness to hit the biting cold waters. They enter with a loud splash, disappear into the currents and after what seems an eternity, surface near our boat with their heads bobbing, eyes balls widened by adrenaline. Girls are busy helping their mothers, doing household chores, or peddling stuff. They are not to be seen half-clad in public or have fun in front of strangers.
Little girls walk around on the shore shivering in the cold, barefoot, clad in rags, urging pilgrims to buy small containers made from dried leaves and filled with flower petals, and a mud lamp. This offering to the river merely costs Rs.5 (7 US Cents). But almost all pilgrims bargain with the little ones to get a “better” price before making the offering to the river to get rid of their sins.
This is the way Goddess Ganga is to be worshipped declares our boatman. The water from the river is pure and can be given to a dying man in his last moments to ensure he journeys straight to the heavens, he says.
How about a woman I ask? He looks at me strangely. He then urges us to fill up the plastic bottles we have and take the water back home to our families. It is safe. Sprinkle some on yourself. Straight to the heavens you go in your death, released from the shackles of life, he stresses. The river Goddess Ganga is a crucial character in the Indian epic Mahabharata – she is the mother of Bheeshma, a strong and central character in the epic that has shaped the destiny and faith of countless Indians.
We cross Manikarnika Ghat where bodies are being cremated. Many Hindus believe that if they come here in their last years and die or if they are cremated here after their death, they will never be reborn. Manikarnika is where the dead are cremated, and the ashes dispersed in the river. The boatman urges us to have a holy dip in the water near the Manikarnika Ghat. It will make you immortal even if you do not come back in your dying days, he says. We make do with sprinkling some water hesitantly on our heads. A drop of water falls on my lips and I hurriedly wipe it away.
With me in the boat are two local women who work with children in difficult circumstances. They have recently unearthed a case of abuse by a man who molested his two daughters for years. Their mother remained a mute spectator until he started making advances towards the third, the youngest who had just turned four. She reported him to the two women. Together they confronted the man and stood up to face his community’s wrath alongside an unfriendly, hostile law enforcement and judicial system. The man’s family accused the mother of wrongly ‘framing’ charges against him and chased her out. The women received death threats and their houses were vandalized. The mother and the daughters are now in a safe house, away danger and from the hypocrisy of caste, class, and culture. The man still roams free!
This journey on the river is a necessary pause for all of us before we go back into our own lives. They have borne the brunt of the conflict and fury in the community. They were accused of trespassing and imprisoned. Now out on bail, the two women carry on pushing for reform in the way the cases are handled. I offer my salute to their courage and determination.
The gentle rocking of the boat, the slow unveiling of the morning sun, the release of the little flotilla of flowers and lamps, all this contributes to a calm and thoughtful suspension of time around us.
We move on to the end of the Ghats, pay the boatman the price agreed and tip our much obliging guide a sum which must have been fine since he staggers away with a happy grin on his face.
Walking gingerly through the slush, retreating from the river, we meet more children waiting to dive into the eddying current. I spot a single bright eyed, young girl, as half naked as the rest of the boys diving as deftly as the rest. She is like a mermaid rising out of the water, gleaming and shiny against the sun, giggling and encouraging the boys to beat her.
I keep looking back at her as I climb the steps of the ghats. I can see her poised and ready to take another dive like a bird ready for flight, defying traditions that threaten to shackle her.
The little girl leaps high towards the sky. The river patiently receives her. I look on.
Having lived outside India for years, I am used to adjusting my brain and body clock often. Day light savings, summertime, wintertime, I am always adjusting to the time dictated to me However, more recently, I am only tuned into one thing – the India time zone.
Daily, I become wide awake in the middle of night, at two or is it four? In fact, it has been a month since I slept well. I suddenly think of someone out there gasping for air and I shoot out of my bed here, in cold sweat, struggling to breath. Now that I am wake, I follow up on the news – what is happening with oxygen supply in India, whether the 13-year-old who caught the virus from his uncle survived or what happened to the new-born who lost his parents to Covid within days of his birth. About the Uber driver who waited to make sure an old lady in distress was admitted in the hospital and then followed up with her daughter the next day to check that she was alive and comfortable. And then the young woman entrepreneur who motivated so many other youngsters but lost her own good fight. She was just 31 years old!
The other day we farewelled a dear friend.
I had spoken to her the week before about publishing my short stories. They will be out in just two months I told her. She had read all the stories I had written and had kept me going through moments of self-doubt and lethargy.
I know you are writing more. Promise me you will send them when you finish. I would love to be part of your journey she said.
We signed off promising to be in touch.
That weekend she went into intensive care. Two days later she died. I thought of the images of bodies in Delhi, shrouded in white, waiting for their turn to be burnt with no family around, no dignity nor form or prayer, just another discounted statistic.
What will happen to her? I shuddered to think.
My friend, will you just fade away into nothingness without giving us an opportunity to even look at you, to acknowledge the amazing role you played in our lives and the paths you showed all of us with your wisdom and wit?
Hunkered in their houses, cowed down by lockdowns, weighed down with grief and responsibilities, friends pulled off something little short of a miracle.
A dignified farewell for my friend.
Covered in gentle mauve, decorated with ribbons, my friend’s coffin was laid out on the bare ground, waiting to be interred in a serene resting place in Delhi – no hugs, no holding hands, no last peek at her face. My friend’s daughter stood tall and brave in her fever ridden state and prayed for her mother from the confines of her bedroom, while a Parsi priest read prayers from his home. Together we watched, emotionally joined through a WhatsApp call, observing our friend being buried with grace and dignity in the allocated space in a peaceful garden with birds whistling and the breeze gently swaying the goldmohur branches, showering fiery orange petals on her coffin.
Two kind young men, strangers to my friend and to all of us until 48 hours ago, held a smartphone for us to view her coffin properly. They then arranged flowers on her grave under careful directions from my friend’s daughter. Keep the flowers just the way Ma used to do for grandma, she said. More at the side of the head and the legs.
One of the young men read a Christian prayer. We too chanted our mantras and poems to help our friend journey along to a calmer, more peaceful realm.
The first wave did not affect us that much. We had felt sorry that our lifestyle had been affected. No more café or pub visits. No more jogging on the beach or movies in the drive in. We got over this forced social ‘distancing and baked and cooked, danced, and socialised, wrote and published just like the rest of the world. Mainly the middle class. We temporarily forgot the misery imposed on us and soaked it all in with a moral turpitude that surprised us.
And then the first wave receded and with it our memories, promises and doubts. We called ourselves ‘resilient’ and patted our backs for our ability to have ‘survived’ against odds. We did not realise then that the odds against us had only now started. The first wave had receded tactically only to return as a tsunami a second time.
It is now right here, mowing through lives and livelihoods not sparing anyone. There is a recurrent theme of loss, of parents, grandparents, children, cousins, aunts, friends, nephews, neighbours, strangers… the list goes on. No one has been spared. Not a single household in India. ‘For most educated middle-class Indians, this kind of hopelessness is a new experience. This is a privileged group where almost everyone ‘knows someone’. Except this time even people with vast networks found themselves unable to manage a cylinder of oxygen.’
A young woman tweeted this.
“I write because I cannot speak. Yesterday, I rubbed sandal paste, honey and ghee on my husband’s handsome face. Then I lit his funeral pyre. He was 40 years old. A gem of a person loved by many. He made a difference through his work. Death is only of the body.”
Like my friend, the woman’s husband too will no longer speak to her nor send forwards and photos in the middle of the night to beat her boredom.
My friend is not there to read my half-baked novella nor my rambling memoir and tell me to complete it and get it published. I have all the time in the world to procrastinate.
Because all I am left with is the deafening sound of silence!
Was it the virus, or the winter or just my self-induced lethargy that pushed me into inaction – not sure. All of us have had our moments this year – of frustration, anger, sadness and confusion. Many of us managed through a process of patience and deduction to reach a spot of acceptance, kindness with the acute feeling that someone somewhere was worse off than us – with no family, friends, money, or a job; someone somewhere was ill, sick or dying. In all this somehow the miracle of life, happiness, birth and laughter has continued with mask or otherwise.
I revisited Prof. Gurcharan Das’s book ‘Difficulty of being good’ which I had come across during another difficult year for me both personally and professionally. This book reminded me that it was not enough to be good during moments in time, but be good more as a conscious way of living, thinking and staying ‘good’ – akin to a state of mind and consciousness of self even if you are led astray by your own motives and values.
The book’s publishing house Oxford University Press elaborated in advertising this book – “Most of us spend our lives wrestling with day-to-day questions of right and wrong and these remain either unanswered or have no easy answer. This book turns to the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, in order to answer the question, ‘why be good?’ and it discovers that the epic’s world of moral haziness and uncertainty is closer to our experience as ordinary human beings rather than the narrow and rigid positions that define most debate and discussion today after 9/11.”
I read each page more than once in an attempt to internalize the messages in the book.
In a deeply flawed world how does one stay authentic and true to ones values? All of us do go through moments of moral haziness and uncertainty as ordinary human beings and are often coerced into or choose to take narrow, rigid positions on what is right and wrong, or good and bad. We see evidence of this in the tweets and posts that abound in social media and how we allow ourselves to be swayed by what we choose to see and hear. The word ‘FAKE’ pops up everywhere but no-one is talking about what is the opposite of that. In an era of instant tweeting and posting, is being ‘AUTHENTIC’ no longer in fashion?
I believe that despite an uncertain and crooked pathway, there is a common thread of decency and altruism among human beings which makes us reach for a better version of ourselves.
As awareness sets in, an individual’s state of mind passes through what the sufis refer to as a maqamat or stages or degrees along the path to illumination.
A maqam is a stage that can be achieved through human effort, as opposed to hal (grace), which is a gift from God.
As we countdown towards 2021 I wonder whether this world and by extension I have attained a better level or maqam from a year ago? One that is much more gentle, genuine and authentic?
My shaky navigational skills and a wind chill factor of 14 degrees Fahrenheit had propelled me out of office well before closing hours that day. I was on my way to watch a play in Castillo Theatre on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. I gave myself plenty of time to arrive at the theatre before the start of ‘Harriet’s Return’ – the story of Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist, humanitarian, an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War. The Treasury Department under the Obama administration had announced plans to replace Andrew Jackson with Tubman in the US 20 dollar bills. Interest in Harriet was gathering momentum in the US.
But, I never got to see the play that night.
Stepping out of the Hudson Yards station on 34th street into the biting cold, my iPhone and google died on me. After a futile wandering with fingers and toes utterly frozen, I stumbled on to Castillo theatre only to find that I was five minutes too late for the show. The box office had closed.
Harriet Tubman was a ‘free spirit’ who had defied all norms and rebelled against her ‘slave owners.’ Brought up by parents who urged her to find ‘purpose’ in her life, she bounced back from repeated injuries, ill-treatment, and hardships. She managed to escape slavery after many attempts. Her ingenuity kept her safe and out of reach from those who had announced bounties for her capture. But she never lost touch with those she left behind.
Harriet returned to the south 19 times after her escape, to guide 300 enslaved persons singlehandedly to the north. She was well known as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and led troops and missions during the Civil War. Harriet helped pioneer the women’s rights movement. She was recognised in her lifetime for her leadership in a male-dominated world.
When there was no social media or public support for what Harriet dared to do, she raised the standards for the values of freedom and dignity on par with her peer and contemporary African American hero, Fredrick Douglas.
A few days before my aborted journey to watch ‘Harriet’s Return,’ I had watched a documentary in a Cinema in Lower West Manhattan, about Zenzile Miriam Makeba, the famous singer called ‘African Nightingale. Miriam had spent several decades in exile outside South Africa, her homeland. Her country was under apartheid rule. She raised her voice against subjugation through her music, joining fellow singer and her husband for a brief while, Hugh Masakela.
Miriam kept up the pressure on the regime in South Africa from New York, where she lived for the first few years of her exile. She continued this work later from Guinea Bissau along with her husband, Stokely Carmichael. Stokely had himself sought refuge outside the US to escape arrest due to his engagement in the Black Panther movement.
Miriam was the first woman to speak on behalf of those oppressed in her country in the United Nations Assembly. She called the International community’s attention to atrocities against the coloured and the blacks in South Africa.
Harriet had yearned to be a wife to Tubman, a slave from another plantation, but she never could fulfill this dream. Tubman felt her desire for freedom was an unwarranted pipe dream and left her for another woman. Ironically years later, he was killed attempting to escape slavery.
Miriam lost her mother while in exile, and she could not say a proper goodbye to her until 1994 when her country gained freedom. She visited her grave only then. Her only daughter died at 29, leaving her children with Miriam to raise. The personal lives of these women remained compromised as a result of their rugged and unpredictable journeys in their quest for freedom and equality for those who came after.
My disappointment with missing ‘Harriet’s Return’ was alleviated somewhat when I watched the show ‘Coloured Museum’ by the Harlem Repertoire Theatre a few days later. It drew me into the history and culture of African-Americans. It threw light on their past through compelling and innovative use of imagery, dialogue, music, and art put together by young artists from the African American community.
A background display of murals and images of slaves shackled to the ship’s hold, accompanied the audience as they were transported across choppy seas to distant lands. The pain and yearning of those packed like sardines, bereft of water, and food, afraid of what awaited them in the end, was very palpable. My heart was heavy, and my mouth dry as I absorbed the pattern of separation, heartache, and loss of identity.
In my eagerness not to miss “Harriet’s Return,” I had landed at the theatre ten days in advance of the show! I returned to see the play and to witness a deeply personal, high energy journey into the private and public life of Harriet Tubman. The actor Karen Jones Meadows transformed from an 8-year-old to an 80-year-old Harriet over just two and a half hours of unhindered and heart stopping rendering of her life.
The indomitable spirit of Harriet and Miriam had long ago been indelibly cross-stitched into the present-day reality of race and colour. Both the women had paid a heavy, personal price for promoting freedom, dignity, and equality in an era where women were more seen than heard. Their brave and unstoppable efforts made sure that ‘Black Lives Did Matter’ for all generations to come.
We live life seeking the familiar and the comfortable. We want to be at home with known people, food, locations, and opinions. We want to be accepted and validated, and to have routines and habits that are comforting. But we do not recognise and accept that our lives are in constant transition. Distractions and disruptions shape our daily life and our decision-making moment by moment.
How easy is it then, to master how we live, breathe and behave consistently especially in a Pandemic?
Here are the SEVEN things I do to maintain my balance
1) I plan each day in small blocks – I wake up at a certain time, organise my breakfast, exercise/get to work/write/exercise/cook, etc. I do what I can, but I never fail to have a routine and make the effort every day. I can control the day ahead of me and not be aimless letting other people and events dictate my life.
2) When I wake up – I sit still for five minutes, close my eyes and reaffirm to myself that I am beautiful, worth it and am achieving great things that are meaningful to me. This is not being self-centered. I am being mindful of my strengths and reinforcing them.
3) When I feel stressed or tired – I sit someplace quietly and take five deep breaths- inhaling and exhaling. If I am too stressed, I exhale through my mouth. I do this at my desk, or while traveling on train or bus, or just while taking a walk. This is truly reenergising for me.
4) Before going to bed – I sit quietly for five minutes and breathe deeply and calmly. I avoid watching white light (on my laptop, tablet or phone screen). Instead, I read (humour is my favourite) and listen to soft music. This surely calms me.
5) I engage in social causes – by keeping myself informed about what is happenning to those less fortunate than me, by showing kindness and empathy to those around me; and to the less fortunate, by sharing information about issues that matter, by consciously shifting myself from being self-focused to being other-centered.
6) I take care of my physical health – I do yoga everyday. I take walks when I can, watch my diet, my eating habits, and my consumption patterns. I cook regularly. I try out new recipes or cook the familiar ones and get better at it. Cooking relaxes me.
7) I am mindful of my mental health – The past always takes a free ride on my back, if I let it. Issues remain unaddressed in zip lock bags in my brain. I get mentally drained of energy occasionally. I reorganize my brain by acknowledging what is bothering me, finding out why I am letting it bother me and responding differently to the same situation. I am surprised by how empowering this approach is.
Do I follow this regimen every day? No, I slip up often. Am I accepting of constant changes in my life? Not necessarily.
But I still take the steps. Sometimes only two or three. Sometimes all the seven. I try every day knowing I can ask for help when life becomes too overwhelming.
Snow White’s stepmother, the wicked queen, asks the magic mirror, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of all?” The mirror confirms that she is the fairest of all.
One day the answer is different. The mirror replies, “ There is a maiden fairer than you. Her name is Snow White.”
Corona Virus is that Magic Mirror.
Before it entered our lives, we thought we had cracked it all – our lifestyle, our relationships, our politics, and our success. We had almost all of these things under control. We took calculated steps, networked with those who looked and felt like us, agreed with views that did not make us uncomfortable, and wanted to be a winner in the eyes of others. We hogged more resources than we needed, we were unmindful of how we treated truth and rarely checked on how others less fortunate than we were coping. The royal family and their antics got more attention from us than the little girl in Idlib, who had never known anything except war in her short life. Our social media persona was often at cross purposes with who we actually were. We exercised our freedom to be friendly on Facebook, annoyed in twitter, glamorous on Instagram, and professional on Linked In.
I may be stretching reality, I admit. Some amongst us do emote, empathise, and act. And some others are more aligned to their inner selves. But you will agree that in a world where time has been a premium, being self-aware and other-centered has become a rare commodity.
When the C Virus descended upon us, cinemas and pubs closed. Sports events and travel spots shut down. Schools and places of worship were padlocked. The virus reinstated balance into our lives by gently prising the things that we hold precious from our grasp.
Unfortunately, the virus will first claim the health and lives of the ill, the old, and the poor. It will touch people who do not even have passports and resources. A foreign virus will enter their complex, deprived lives even though they can never dream of traveling on a cruise ship or an airplane.
But you may ask… we, too, have lost control over our time, our space, and our individuality. That we all are caught up searching for toilet rolls and long-life milk. We experience forced shutdowns of our spas, cafes, and other comforts, as we wonder how to distract ourselves.
But let us stop and reflect.
Maybe, when we received a hug in the past, we did not have the time to stop and pay attention. Now we crave for a simple human touch.
When we scrambled and took over space from a weaker, meeker person, we did not seem to care for anything but ourselves.
Now we are stuck within our personal spaces, living with our muddled thoughts, and trying to control the demon that is ready to unleash itself within us.
We wonder when this madness is going to end? We yearn to go back to our Friday happy hours, Saturday barbeques, Sunday congregations, and weekday work and school. The before and after Corona!
We have the opportunity now to unlearn what we know and relearn what is needed. After all, waves of this virus will occupy our psyche and our space for a long while.
We can let go of what we cannot control, share what we can, and be patient with ourselves and others.
Even if socially distant from others, we can still stay emotionally connected
When we self-isolate or quarantine, we can eat healthily, exercise daily and stay positive
We have plenty to choose from – to read, paint, clean, cook, knit, do gardening or simply be thankful
We can look in our own magic mirror and truly understand who we are. When we emerge out of this situation, we will then remember how, when things went low, we elevated ourselves with love, humility, and gratitude!
Technicians tinker with the atomic force microscope, a researcher mills around to get his sample tested, a Ph.D. student adjusts the controls of a spectrophotometer, while another takes copious notes. There is a buzz of activity in the Advanced Materials Laboratory at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) in Chennai, India. Every so often, Aruna quips in with encouraging or helpful suggestions to the team, which they eagerly take in.
Dr. Aruna Dhathathreyan a Professor and Emeritus Scientist in CLRI heads a team that studies protein folding and misfolding under different conditions. “When proteins are inside cells, they cannot behave the same way as they do as free molecules. It is because they are in a small space with many other biomolecules,” she explains. It causes crowding or aggregation, which can affect our health in the form of diseases like osteoarthritis or in the case of tanneries in producing good leather.
Aruna recounts her growing up years when she imagined becoming a scientist after reading books by Jules Verne. “I was then just eight or nine years old. I read Verne’s books multiple times and dreamt of my journey to the centre of the earth and my wish to save humankind from an invading microbial colony from outer space.”
“I was lucky to be born in a family where both my grandfathers were teachers. And my mother wanted to educate her daughters. Thankfully, my rather conservative father did not interfere with his wife’s ambitions. During my early years in school, I had good science teachers who encouraged me to ask questions.”
In the 70s, women took up a job in a bank or became a teacher. This career path was considered to be ‘trouble-free’ and would allow them to lead their married lives without any hitch. But Aruna’s parents supported her decision to take up a career in science.
“They often worried about their decision to let me be a researcher, especially when someone’s niece got engaged to be married. Relatives and friends often criticized them, and told me that whatever a woman did, ultimately, her role was that of a good wife and a mother,” Aruna recalls.
“In college, I discovered that an overload of abstract ideas was not for me. I loved experimental physics. I realized one need not be a genius in theoretical physics, or even be mechanically handy. My constant wish was to find new things and have the strength to work on an experiment where no one had yet found an answer. The greatest joy is when you are the first person to get to the answer,” she says.
The most exciting period of Aruna’s life in science came after she completed her Ph.D. She was accepted by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, marking the beginning of a highly memorable six years. “Theirs was a chemistry lab, but they were looking for a physicist. The institute was funded well and was composed of some of the best physical chemistry teachers of the decade.” Aruna’s boss was the last Ph.D. student of legendary molecular biochemist Linus Pauling.
The value of a lab with a “good tradition” was reemphasised, as Aruna found herself among an intellectually and culturally diverse group in the Max Planck Institute. Her project on hybrid oligonucleotides was just one component of a larger one involving more important metaphysical questions on the origin of life and evolution. Switching from physics to biophysics to physical chemistry or even sensory physiology was made easy and exciting due mainly to her great teachers.
Aruna believes that scientists can’t lead isolated lives. “Our research can’t be only open-ended and individual-driven, but also has to address local issues,” says Aruna. When tasked with finding out why a shipment of sheep leather ordered by Marks and Spencers reached them damaged, her team found out that the damage happened not during processing but while being transported.
Aruna finds human interactions an essential part of a life in research. Research, uncoupled with teaching, ends up individual and selfish, according to her. “Of course, you get papers published, people read them, cite them, but if you are a teacher, you will do all this and also pass on this knowledge to students. My rewards have been my class of enthusiastic graduate students who rushed to attend my course in experimental techniques in biophysics or spectroscopy and voted me an excellent experimental physicist!”
Aruna feels strongly that the first few years in the career of a scientist are critical. Due to the traditional role of child-rearing or care-giving, often, women do get left behind.
“My fellow women scientists would agree that we go on a constant guilt trip because we think we are not doing justice to our roles as mothers or as scientists. Society still stereotypes women in specific functions and does not expect us to break from them easily. To be accepted as a scientist who happens to be a woman is still an uphill task in what is considered a man’s world!”
A woman is expected not to ask too many questions. Even where women have the independence to study and work, some roles are still assigned to women by men. Many young women have aspirations to take up careers in science. But this deters them. Aruna emphasises that, “We need to free ourselves from prejudices and approach science with intellectual objectivity for encouraging excellence in scientific research by women. In the world of science, any discrimination or bias has no role to play, and I hope women, as well as men, will be allowed to live by the same rules.“
“As for me, the freedom to be open, to enquire with curiosity, and to understand the world through science has been an incredible privilege!” Aruna’s enthusiasm for her consciously chosen vocation as a woman scientist is palpable and inspirational.
‘A conversation with a senior biophysicist at a leather institute in Chennai’ – by Nandita Jayaraj
“Does it really matter that one is a woman scientist?” – Book titled ‘Lilavati’s daughters’
I was cut when I was six using the worst form of Female Genital Mutilation .
(If you want to know about the types of FGM, click on the link given below. You will get to know the different types of genital mutilation that happens).
As a Somali girl, I grew up knowing every Muslim girl was cut and that my community did ‘a bad type’ because of our culture.
When I joined University in the 1990s I met other Muslim girls in campus. One day the topic of FGM came up (we referred to it us female circumcision).
My friend, an Indian girl was shocked that I was cut because according to her it was a ‘savage’ practice undertaken by people who did not believe in God. It was my turn to be shocked- that this friend of mine, clad in her Burka was not cut. I thought her prayers would not be accepted if she was not cut. That was the script I had been taught. But she was praying and fasting and dressed in hijab just like I was.
Who was right here?
This question stayed with me for a long time. When in 1995 the Beijing conference happened I came across a document that said ‘many Muslims practice FGM thinking it is religious when it is only sunnah’.
What? You mean the painful thing I went through was only SUNNAH which meant optional?
I wondered why I was forced through something that was not a must in Islam. I recounted the number of optional religious acts that nobody forced me to do. Like fasting on Mondays and Thursdays.
After battling anger and lots of questions, I decided it was time to talk about FGM openly. In my own small way, armed with the narrative that it was only an optional practice, I engaged family members and tried saving my nieces. Too bad, I couldn’t. Only I didn’t know I was even sinking the case further. By affirming that it was an optional Islamic act, we were legitimizing it. FGM was one thing that always stopped me on my tracks whenever it came to mind; and I would immediately begin conversation with Allah to show me what to do.
When in 2006 I got the opportunity to work with Population Council, I knew I had to address FGM from religious perspective. I wanted an interrogation of the support for the so-called ‘sunnah’ because linking such a painful thing to my religion of mercy and prosperity was unsettling (we are not allowed to mutilate even animals; and imagine what happens to human beings through FGM). We crafted an approach that was oriented to religion together with renowned Muslim scholars in Kenya who were consultants in the project. These scholars were non-Somalis, decisively chosen to lead the dialogue because of the fact that they would not be blinded by the cultural ‘baggage’ like other Somali scholars who were brought up thinking FGM to be the norm. This was before social norm change theories on FGM had been thought of. We were the pioneer thinkers!
I did FGM abandonment programming- community dialogues, engaging religious scholars, research, documentation, working on policy and legal frameworks etc. I was part of the team that oversaw the drafting of the Prohibition of FGM Bill which is an Act now. This Bill was being presented to Parliament after FGM was removed from the Sexual Offenses Bill 2006; saying they could not legislate on people’s culture. We embarked on sensitising Parliamentarians on what the practice entailed first before tabling the Bill. As a result, the Bill passed in record time in its first reading.
Today, I can proudly say that I know FGM has no link to Islam. I can also say that there are a number of Somali scholars who delink FGM from Islam now, thanks to the work we did. It is slow but there has been progress. We can easily discuss FGM on TV, radio, in community gatherings etc.
For the Somali community, and any others that link FGM to religion, delink FGM from Islam and use the same Islam to change the scripts and narratives holding it in place. I am now doing lots of advocacy on social media and am part of the End FGM Canada Network.